Gracefully joining a conference call (and our Slack bot to help with that)

“Are you still there…?”

This question carries hints of annoyance or laughter (or both), and when tossed at you in a conference call, it can be a frustrating one.

People tend to place more trust in those we can physically interact with, and technical issues never seem to fully disappear. A conference call simply has more dependencies than gathering in a meeting room, and occasionally it takes our focus away from accomplishing more interesting things!

Below are my tips and tricks to reduce friction throughout the call experience, all under the purview of remote attendees. Later, you’ll meet Meekee, a Slack & Google Calendar bot that I built with Marion to make it all easier.

Simple tricks to ease your way

Before the call:

  • If there’s a chance that the organizer doesn’t know, tell them you’re joining remotely before the meeting.
  • Turn on the video whenever bandwidth permits. People like to see faces.
  • Find the right camera angle. You’d be surprised at how un-reliable you look when only the top half of your head is visible… or your face glows from the monitor backlight.
  • Turn on the lights in front or to the side. Never from behind, otherwise no one will see your face. Bonus: a clean background, a colored (not white) wall.
See how wise and comfortable Chris looks?

Starting the call:

  • Say something in the first 60 seconds. It helps to prop you up as an active participant of the meeting, and doubles as a sound check in an uncritical moment.
  • If you’re late and the meeting has already begun, smile and wave while on mute. No need to interrupt with an apology. Whomever is speaking at the moment will probably give a quick “hey, Bob” and offer a sentence or two to bring you up to speed, if required.

During the call:

  • Know how and when to mute your microphone. It can be tricky to assess how loud/annoying your background noise (or your typing!) is to the other participants. If you’re not talking for an extended period of time, you might as well mute yourself.

Ending the call:

  • Say thank you and good-bye. If you haven’t been talking, turn on the mike to do it.
  • If you need to leave but the meeting is taking a few minutes to wrap up, send a short message to the group, wave, and promptly leave the call.

What works for your team? I’d love to keep expanding this list.

Starting off on the right foot

As you can see, many of the things we can do to gracefully join a call, we need to do at the start. It’s especially important to get right when we have multiple calls throughout the day. Switching contexts between meetings is hard enough without having to deal with the technology.

My typical work day in Paris starts with 2–3 hours of calls with colleagues and clients in the Asian timezones. The calls are scheduled back-to-back. Sometimes, everyone else is in the same room on the other side of the world. It’s stressful to be late and under-prepared — and I really dislike stress that’s small, recurring and unnecessary. 😣

After scrambling one too many times to open the right Hangout link on whatever device I wanted to take the call from, I started looking for a way to get Slack notifications: IFTTT, Zapier, the official Gcal/Slack integration etc.

(I’m a big fan of Slack’s thoughtful cross-device notification system. Have you seen their marvelous decision flowchart?)

They offer varying degrees of customization, including the ability to be pinged 5, 10, 15 minutes before the next event. The problem was that none of these solutions include the Google Hangout link — a tiny but critical piece of the puzzle. I also encountered a signal vs noise problem with getting buzzed about solo work or loose placeholders. Lunch, for example.

Enter Meekee

So, I teamed up with Marion to make a small piece of ‘glue’ between Slack, Google Calendar and Google Hangout — three apps which most of us at AQ keep open throughout the day and access from multiple devices. It’s a just-in-time notification bot that nudges you to start preparing for an upcoming meeting via a Direct Message on Slack.

Example notification

Let me point out the key design decisions:

  • Meekee only sends notifications for GCal events with multiple people, to which you’ve said Yes or Maybe. That’s how we’ve defined ‘meeting’ here.
  • It’s fired three minutes before the meeting is scheduled to start: just enough time to wrap up whatever you’re doing and get ready for the meeting. Zero minutes = your late. One is not enough. Five too easy to ignore.
  • It provides names; soft communication of who initiated the meeting and who else is attending.

Pronounced Meeeee Keeee, short for Meeting Keeper. It includes the Hangout link (all GCal events have one by default) and the name of a physical room if one is reserved. Marion added the randomized emoji on a whim, and it’s turned out to be a small detail that we really enjoy. Along with the Meekee character that our creative director Ryan designed, it brings a bit of quiet fun to what’s inherently a dry message that you’ll receive many, many times 😙

Meekee is quite the opinionated creature. It will be wildly useful or absolutely useless. The criteria for the former is so rigid, it seemed almost absurd to build it: you have to be using these three apps in a pretty specific way… and care enough about being on time for meetings. Which is not a given, tbh.

But amidst all the excitement and confusion over AI-powered chatbots, it tickled us to roll a teeny tiny single-celled bot that’s super helpful for 1 second, a few times a day, every workday.

You can give it a whirl here: Meekee - get just-in-time meeting Slack notifications from Google Calendar

We hope it’s helpful for other geeky teams who centralize meeting invites to GCal, rely on Slack for communication, and…

And watch out for Marion’s upcoming write-up about the technical side of building a Slack bot that connects with Google services. Bonus: the code is open source!

September 16, 2017