Commentary: Let’s hang up on conference calls

Commentary: Let’s hang up on conference calls

We dutifully enter our pin code followed by the hash key but rarely achieve much, says one observer at the Financial Times.

office meeting room empty work life
An empty meeting room. (Photo: Pixabay)

LONDON: Make everyone stand. Work to an agenda. Don’t let people go on endlessly. 

There are plenty of suggestions on how to run meetings so they are not a waste of time.

People pay less attention to a bigger waste of time: The multi-participant conference call.

You know the drill. An invitation arrives in your inbox with a date and time, a list of participants, numbers for dialling in from different countries and a sign-in code (followed by the pound or hash sign).

I have had dozens of these invitations to conference calls, particularly those to discuss forthcoming panels and events. None of the calls has contributed much to the eventual event. I know this because my role is often to chair the eventual event.

READ: Why nobody will thank you for soldiering on at work, a commentary


This is the first difference between a conference call and a face-to-face meeting: It is clear who is chairing the meeting, whereas it is seldom clear who is chairing the call.

On conference calls, there is usually someone listed as the organiser, with their own sign-in code (followed by the pound or hash sign), but they are often not the most senior person on the call. 

Woman answering and talking on a smartphone
A woman talks on a phone. (Photo: Unsplash/rawpixel)

The organiser, I can say from experience, is seldom the person who is going to be chairing the planned event. Usually, they are the person who organised the call. That may be a senior person; it may be their personal assistant.

The call organiser may take the leading role in the call. It is hard to tell because — unless you have met several times before — it is difficult to know who is speaking at any time. Unlike in a face-to-face meeting, you cannot see people’s faces.

READ: Why unlimited vacation means more time in the office, a commentary


As participants “arrive” in the conference call, they usually say, “Hi, this is Diane”, or are announced by a recorded voice like entrants to a 19th century ball — “Simon Oates has joined the call” — but after that you have to listen keenly for any voice marker (an accent, a shouty tone) that will help you identify who is talking.

That is if you can remember who is on the call in the first place. You can keep the list of participants up on your screen, which is easier to do if you are speaking from your desk.

Sitting in front of your screen has other advantages. You can toggle between the participant list and your incoming emails or Twitter, for example.

You may not be at your desk. One of the admitted advantages of a conference call is that no one can tell where you are. 

You may be in bed; you could be doing something more productive at the same time. If that activity is noisy, remember to hit your mute key.

Smartphone user
File photo of a woman using her phone. (Photo: Xabryna Kek)

READ: How to deal with everyday injustices at the office, a commentary


I remember a call where we could all hear a tinkling and rattling from someone’s line. Eventually, one of the more astute participants asked: “Max, are you unloading your dishwasher?”

The mute key is your friend, even if you are not doing anything extracurricular. You can unmute if you need to say something.

You may choose to not unmute at all. This is another feature of the conference call. Some people never speak and, unlike in a face-to-face meeting, the others seldom notice.

Eventually, the call drifts to a close. Someone may try to sum up. Usually everyone is just happy to hang up. Inevitably, very little is achieved during the call.

What are the alternatives to conference calls? Some would say video conference calls. The technology exists, of course, not just on our phones and desktops but also in super-sophisticated video suites where a person on the other side of the world looks as if they are in the same room.

Video conference calls can work when there are just two locations involved. More than that usually defeats everyone present. Usually, the first half hour is spent finding someone from IT who then has to fiddle with keypads and inputting more codes (followed by the pound or hash sign) before everyone’s face appears.

The best way of connecting multiple participants is through an exchange of emails. You may not read them, and these emails invariably copy in more people than they need to, but at least when you come to doing whatever the emails were meant to achieve, you have a record of them.

I defy anyone to remember what was said on a conference call.

© 2018 The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved. Please do not copy and paste FT articles and redistribute by email or post to the web.

Source: CNA/sl