Whether it’s a fire alarm, a bomb alert or someone threatening to jump off a cliff next to the training room, over the years I’ve experienced many interruptions to my courses. But last week was something different…

The team that I work for offers a global training service that includes both classroom and virtual (online) courses. Whilst classroom courses are limited to 6 delegates, we can accommodate up to 25 delegates on an online course. Online courses are delivered using Webex but for a number of reasons VOIP is not available, so the audio is delivered via telephone, with the trainer and the delegates (who are usually spread across the globe) dialling in.

When delivering an online course, I have routine that I follow…

Fifteen minutes before the advertised start time I login and “open” the Webex meeting and start the tele-conference. I then open a one-slide PowerPoint presentation which contains my name, job title and a small photo (it’s good for delegates to put a face to the voice and due to bandwidth limitations we can’t use webcams). I then enable screen-sharing so that as the delegates join the Webex, they know that they are in the right place.

I have a zero-tolerance attitude towards late-comers. After all, if I was late, there’d be hell to pay so why should I wait for late delegates? If there’s only a handful of delegates on the course and I notice that one or two are missing, I will wait for a few minutes as often they log into the tele-conference and then have to wait whilst their PC loads and configures the Webex Meeting Manager.

As the clock on my PC changes to the advertised start time I begin…”Good morning / afternoon” (actually I’ve started dispensing with that as an introduction because a global audience means multiple time zones). My zero-tolerance attitude has, once or twice, resulted in me delivering the first couple of minutes of a course to an empty “room”.

I don’t lock the Webex once the course has started because sometimes there are genuine reasons for delegate lateness and sometimes the Webex freezes so delegates have to logout/login. However, I do hide the Webex Participants Panel – for two reasons. First of all, if there are latecomers, it’s distracting as names pop up on screen but also there’s a bug in Webex (or at least there is in our implementation – a bug that I discovered 6 months ago which has still not been fixed).

Under Windows 2000, if the presenter is sharing their screen and displays the Participants Panel and/or the Chat Panel, the other attendees are none-the-wiser, When the presenter is running Vista, the other attendees see a box containing a cross-hatched pattern. The size and position of this box matches the size and position of the Panel(s) on the presenter’s screen. This is obviously distracting for attendees and obscures whatever the presenter is demonstrating.

However, there is another distraction that I can’t control – the telephone system. As people join and leave the tele-conference, the phone system emits a beep for all to hear (I suppose it could worse – at least it’s not like some systems with an automated voice that announces “Mike Thomas has joined/left the conference”. With people joining late, leaving early (for whatever reason – usually it’s lunchtime in their part of the world) or just having a tech-fail and dropping off the call and redialling, this constant beeping can get annoying, although I’ve delivered that many online courses now that I just ignore it. If someone drops off the call, there’s nothing I can do and if someone is rude enough just to put the phone down, well there’s nothing I can do about that either.

But far worse than the beeping is background noise. Sometimes it can be an annoying electrical hum, but when somebody is in an open-plan office you can hear people talking. Not only is it distracting for the trainer but it’s also distracting for the delegates who can also hear the background noise. For this reason, we have a rule that all participants (except the trainer obviously) have to put their phones on mute. You’ll always get the odd person who doesn’t know how, plus the odd person who doesn’t understand what mute means (anyone know the Swedish/Finnish/Hungarian for “mute”?), and then there’s the people who disable mute to ask a question and forget to enable it again.

Sometimes I have to ask 3,4,5 times for people to put their phone on mute. At this point I just go silent and wait..and wait…and wait – “it’s your time that’s being wasted”, as my school teachers used to say. Unfortunately the tele-conferencing system that we use has no facility for the trainer/host to enable/disable mute.

Last week, 15 minutes into the course, I could hear talking in the background, so I very politely asked the delegates to put their phones on mute and the next thing I know, I can hear music. Ok, it was nice, calm music, but nevertheless it was loud and was drowning me out. So I waited and asked (very politely) that whoever was playing music to mute their phone. No response. I then realised that they must have pressed the hold button on their phone rather than mute and this was the hold music (at least it wasn’t Greensleeves).

Of course if they were on hold the probably couldn’t hear me anyway.

So I used the text chat facility in Webex to send a message to all participants – “please log off the teleconference and dial back in”. I heard the beep beep beep as people left and rejoined. I waited a couple of minutes but the music was still blaring through. I guessed that the culprit didn’t see the text message (Webex indicates that you have received a text message via a small and I mean small, speech bubble icon on it’s toolbar).

So my next tactic was to open a new PowerPoint presentation and in large font and bold red, type “PLEASE LOG OUT OF THE TELE-CON AND LOG BACK IN”. Beep beep beep and 5 minutes later the music was gone – whether the guilty person dialled back in or just sloped off for an early lunch, I’ll never know.