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Summary: We all have need to attend mandatory breaks, e.g. bathroom break, choked on a candy, or cat started shredding the couch. How to announce/manifest it professionally while on an audio-only conference call?


In an office situation, one would normally quietly leave the room (with or without an explicit gesture "I'll be right back") and quietly take the seat again. Office situation vary. I imagine a meeting of 3 to 10 people, with or without external participants (e.g. customers, suppliers), where everyone potentially have to speak. Not a public conference situation with one speaker. With or without a presentation.

I have been searching for the correct etiquette, but I only found tips for video conferences, where one would normally turn mic&camera off so that the others would understand one is off for a while. (or leave the room, mic off, to let the others see the empty seat)

But in my environment we normally have audio-only conferences, internally and with the customers.

And with the exception of the situation where the person is the main speaker (the break is either postponed or for all), what should be the appropriate etiquette to leave a meeting for a short interruption while making the other participants aware of own absence?

This assumes the person is not just an attendant, but might receive questions at some point. A situation such as "Alex, do you believe what Bob just said is technically feasible?" and Alex not responding is a bit embarassing.

I have been thinking of:

  • Warning the others

    Unmutin and saying "sorry, I must go and be back in a short while" interrupts the focus to the speaker

  • Silently leave

    As I said, it might create a moment of embarassment when you are required to answer and other are not aware that you are temporarily out

  • Disconnect

    Has a side effect of distraction. I have experienced this multiple times. When one disappears from the meeting, others normally think of a connection problems and start commenting "Alex is offline. They may have network problems", and sometimes pause the meeting. Reappearing in a meeting may cause another distraction by the beep of the medium. Sometimes people stop until the person reappears. Excusing self "sorry I had to go to bathroom" is a bit awful when the others waited for you.

    Sneaking into a conference room, conversely, does not create much distraction as someone will look at you, indeed, but the presentation/speech continues.

  • Bring the device to the bathroom (MUTED!!!!)

    Works best for bathroom breaks and only if device (e.g. laptop) can be carried. One could even decide to shortly unmute when inquired. May not work for breaks such as a postman ringing the bell.

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    What are the capabilities of the audio conferencing software/hardware? Is there a chat you can use to let everyone know you'll be back soon without interrupting the speaker?
    – Egor
    Aug 12, 2021 at 16:37
  • i've added summary and added more examples of "mandatory" breaks. Feel free to edit/roll back Aug 12, 2021 at 16:55
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    If you are the speaker, you plan ahead, you shouldn’t be choking on anything as the speaker. If you are in the audience, keep yourself muted, only the host typically can see you anyways. The host can see if your “available”, it really seems, you are overthinking the situation
    – Donald
    Aug 12, 2021 at 17:09
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    I (and all my coworkers) usually type "brb" or something equivalent.
    – xxbbcc
    Aug 13, 2021 at 14:51
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    Never ever ever take your device into the toilet with you. If you forget or fat-finger the button, you'll never live it down.
    – Richard
    Aug 13, 2021 at 18:13

6 Answers 6

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Mute your microphone and type a comment into the chat instead explaining what you are doing. It is a quiet way of excusing yourself from the meeting without disrupting the speaker.

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    "afk" "re" for the elder Aug 12, 2021 at 17:48
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    Though this does assume whatever they're using has a chat channel. People using good ol' phone to call in don't have that.
    – mxyzplk
    Aug 12, 2021 at 17:54
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    Another option is to privately message someone else on the call who can let everyone know you've gone away for a moment should you happen to be called on. When you get back they should let you know if you were indeed called on, which gives you a chance to announce you're back. Aug 13, 2021 at 0:04
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    @GregoryCurrie Privately messaging someone may work, but it can also be quite unreliable, as not everyone checks/sees their messages all the time, especially not when on a call.
    – NotThatGuy
    Aug 13, 2021 at 4:52
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    @NotThatGuy, I would glance at my messages in an attempt to find out why the missing person is missing (and so I know whether or not to start with the "You're on mute" chant).
    – Pam
    Aug 13, 2021 at 8:19
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You've had a couple of solutions to your direct problem.

How about solving the underlying problem? Why don't these meetings have pre-scheduled bathroom breaks? Five minutes every hour seems like the common, professional thing to arrange for. It sounds like a recurring problem in your organisation too. Encourage others to include this nicety for better meeting flow the other 55 minutes.

The general problem is that if someone feels the need to temporarily slip out of a meeting, they have been bound to the meeting for too long -- either because the meeting is going on for too long without a break, or because they shouldn't even have been in all of that meeting to begin with.

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    This only adresses bathroom breaks and assumes you can go to the bathroom on demand. Plus, I sometimes spend my days jumping from one call to another, frequently with no time in between. And nobody accounts for a break in a 1h meeting...
    – Laurent S.
    Aug 12, 2021 at 19:01
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    Breaks between meetings are nice, however, in many jobs there certainly are routine situations where people may have meetings that not only don't have a break but even overlap (e.g. multiple consecutive meetings where a previous meeting might overrun its planned time a bit). Often, the beginning and the end of such consecutive meetings are key parts which should not be missed and it would be better to make any breaks needed (for whatever reason, presumably valid) at an opportune moment in the middle of a meeting.
    – Peteris
    Aug 13, 2021 at 1:50
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    That still sounds to me like either a broken meeting culture, or a mismanaged personal schedule -- or most likely, both. I would still strongly reflect over how much actual useful, value-added work really gets done in these meetings, and think of ways to improve meeting efficiency to the point where I have five minutes every hour for bathroom breaks, making notes, attending other urgent matters, etc.
    – kqr
    Aug 13, 2021 at 4:16
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    I agree the doorbell is a bit of an odd one out. I would probably not answer it if I was in a meeting -- after all, I wouldn't have had I been in the office anyway. Maybe if I was expecting something important, but then I would announce that early in the meeting. That should also not be a recurring problem...
    – kqr
    Aug 13, 2021 at 11:25
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    This is not really about influence over corporate culture. It's about being nice to the meeting host. "Hey, do you want a quick tip that could improve attendance and meeting flow?" Or, in the case of back-to-back meetings, "I'd love to come but I have another matter to attend to at that hour. It shouldn't take more than 10 minutes. Can we start the meeting 10 past?" If you're truly needed at the meeting they can't do much but oblige. (But the best thing is if you block off time in your calendar after meetings so it's clear to everyone you're not immediately available.)
    – kqr
    Aug 13, 2021 at 11:29
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When I attend a meeting, physically or virtually, I self classify my role as a Presenter, an Active Participant or an Audience. From the role of my participation I implicate my rules of etiquette.

When I am a presenter, I am a focal person in the meeting. With regard to my own need for breaks in this role, it is my responsibility to structure my pre and post meeting time to meeting these needs. Typically an agenda for longer meetings should include plans for everyone to take a periodic break. As a presenter I may take an active role in orchestrating these breaks.

When I am an active participant, I am expecting to be actively listening and responding throughout the meeting. In this role, I make every attempt to be actively available throughout the meeting. If I am unable to* than I will try to find an opportunity where the need for my presence is minimal and discretely announce that I will "be right back."

Finally as an audience, I am attending for my benefit. I will be actively listening, but not likely to be responding or questioned by the active participants for the duration of the meeting. I will still make find an opportunity where my presence feels least valuable before leaving. I will not interrupt the meeting to announce my departure, but leave and return quietly.

Virtually or physically, I feel it is never appropriate to carry on a meeting in a restroom or during other personal needs. Nobody wants to be the person who forgot to mute their device and flushed in front of the entire supreme count.

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  • Yes; You should just treat it basically as a physical meeting.
    – Donald
    Aug 15, 2021 at 4:45
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I like “I have to step away for a minute.” That way “the bathroom” or “the dog” or whatever doesn’t need to be referenced.

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I'll leave this up though much of it isn't applicable any more so I'll change the order/emphasis. When I started answering yesterday the summary included the word "video" (checking the edit history - I didn't misremember). By the time I posted on this morning's commute it had been updated.

It's not clear whether this is audio-only using a computer-based client or a phone system; I effectively assume the former.

In general, I assume you don't want to interrupt the flow of the conference, by analogy with slipping out of a room, but want others to know you're temporarily gone and not just having connection issues.

Here are a few ideas that but be useful on their own or in addition to others:

  • Most VOIP call clients allow you to set a status. That alone may be sufficient, just toggling "away" as you get up and when you come back. Some may act up if you change it while in a call, or refuse to do so, so you might want to test when it doesn't matter too much.

  • Similarly some clients allow you to set a profile picture (to replace your video feed with a static image, for example) - change the image to report your status. You could have a selection ready to use.

  • It may be useful to have a headset that allows you to listen in without being able to speak. I often use my bluetooth headphones (but a wired microphone) even while sat at my desk, because we have feedback issues in one regular meeting and it improves everyone's sound quality. I've been known to cook wile listening in to an overrunning meeting, for example.

  • If you have sufficient influence/authority, calling for a break at a suitable time, such as between agenda items or presenters shouldn't make you unpopular - quite the opposite if done well. "How about we take 5. I don't know about anyone else but I could do with getting some water"

  • Actually "getting some water" above would probably be a euphemism for getting rid of some I'd already drunk. To actually have a drink. keeping a decent sized bottle at the desk is useful if you have lots of calls, to reduce interruptions.


And the video-based answers that aren't applicable any more:

  • This one is brought to you by my 7-year old daughter, so depending on your workplace this may not count as "professional", but I have used it in informal meetings with colleagues, and it was well-received. My desk chair is very high-backed, and she wrote "bye-bye" on a sheet of paper and pinned it to the back. Spin the chair round to set your status assuming your video is on and the meeting client defaults to a suitable view. You may wish to adjust the wording, perhaps "Away but listening, back in a moment".

  • One thing I've seen to good effect (and done), was switching off the video feed when stepping away; that was in a case where the default was muted unless you needed to speak. On some clients this is easily confused with a dropped call, so it doesn't always work.

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  • If you're going to disagree, that's fine, but with several points, what are you disagreeing with?
    – Chris H
    Aug 13, 2021 at 12:51
  • I think the final bullet point is risky--if you mess that up you might wind up on one of those "Zoom horror stories" news articles. Not a risk I'd take...
    – bob
    Aug 13, 2021 at 12:57
  • I was talking about the water bottle. If it's for drinking, I'd definitely do it. If for not having to take bathroom breaks (which is how it read to me), then I would not.
    – bob
    Aug 13, 2021 at 13:18
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    @bob now that's clear I'll tidy my comments
    – Chris H
    Aug 13, 2021 at 14:03
-6

Technological Solution

Go portable. That can be:

  • Wired or wireless headset with a portable (non-cellular) phone
  • Wired or wireless headset with a cellular/smart phone
  • Wireless headset with a computer.

A decent modern Bluetooth wireless headset will generally work up to 30 feet away. I often find myself walking around while using my wireless headset on my smart phone, to the degree that if I am really involved in the conversation and the phone isn't on my belt that I might even forget which room the phone is in! They're really that good.

Ideally, company should pay for headsets for everyone - the sound quality is far superior to a typical computer microphone, no speakers to annoy anyone else in the house, and much better than holding a phone up to your ear. They do not have to cost much. Yes, there are $200 headsets. But there are plenty of $20 - $30 headsets (both wired and wireless) that work just fine - and then you don't feel so bad if they break (dropped, stepped on, etc.).

The main thing is to be portable. That excludes a wired headset with a regular computer (even a laptop) because you're not going to carry a laptop into the bathroom (I hope). But with a wireless headset or a wired headset on a portable phone, you can hit mute and walk into the bathroom, or into the kitchen to get a beverage, or to the front door to receive a package, etc.

If your name comes while you are on mute and prefer to be unavailable, take 10 seconds to unmute and either give a quick answer or a "hang on, I have to take care of something, I'll be right back". That's much less intrusive than preemptively saying "I'll be back in 5 minutes" every time you step away from your desk. And in fact, you are not "away" if you are able to still listen in.

I would actually suggest being muted on an audio conference call most of the time, unless you are the main speaker or moderator, of course. That is normal etiquette on Zoom and really should be for audio conferences as well. That helps cut down on extraneous/unintentional interruptions (coughing, background noise, etc.) and also means that if you get up from your seat to do something else for a minute, you don't have to specifically mute yourself, because you are already muted.

I also highly recommend a "big headset" rather than AirPods or similar. I use something like (I've gone through a few at $20 - $30 each over the years) this one from Amazon:

wireless headset

Note the big boom microphone. If that's in front of your mouth and point to your headset (earpiece or microphone) when you answer the door, you will get the point across clearly and quickly that you are in the middle of a call. Yes, you can listen to music on one of these too, especially if it covers both ears (one reason I always get the single-ear headsets is so that I can legally and safely use them while driving), but the obvious microphone screams "I'm on a call!" in a way that AirPods don't.

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    Just because phones are portable does not mean you must treat them as always with you; you can "leave it at your virtual desk".
    – Ian W
    Aug 13, 2021 at 8:05
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    I have downvoted because bringing the conversation with you is not necessarily the brightest idea when you are interacting in person with someone at your door Aug 13, 2021 at 8:26
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    unlike @usr-local-ΕΨΗΕΛΩΝ I find it quite helpful to take the meeting to the door - it gives a good excuse to get the caller dealt with quickly and on their way. But the headset approach doesn't work well for that; a handheld phone/tablet/laptop makes it much clearer you're not just listening to music and being rude (so no vote either way from me).
    – Chris H
    Aug 13, 2021 at 10:40
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    This is especially not bright if you're going to the restroom. No one, and I mean no one, is interested in sharing your experience in the case that you didn't push the mute button as you thought you did.
    – Xavier J
    Sep 13, 2023 at 15:57

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