The Conference Call: Scourge of IT

The Conference Call: Scourge of IT

Summary: While telecommuting has made lives more convenient for IT workers, it has also resulted in increasing occurrences of that life-sucking evil succubus: the multi-hour conference call.


Like many people who work in large IT delivery organizations, I've been lucky enough to be designated as a mobile or home-based employee.

Basically that means that the company I work for now allows me to spend an increasingly large amount of time working out of my home office, when I'm not travelling on company business and meeting my colleagues and my customers face-to-face.

There are distinct advantages to being a remote worker, such the ability to be closer to one's family, to have a theoretically more flexible work schedule and spending less time travelling/commuting and more time actually working.

Unfortunately, telecommuting or being a remote worker has its disadvantages. Since you're not expected to commute, you're expected to be extremely productive instead.

That means that while nobody cares if you sit around all day in the same stinky T-shirt or your underwear, or if you neglect your personal hygiene for days on end until your spouse or significant other complains about your ripeness, you're still expected to respond pretty quickly to emails and phone calls and instant messages.

And in lieu of face-to-face contact with your colleagues, you are also expected to attend a lot of conference calls.

Now, I understand why we need periodic conference calls. It allows us to have that form of contact which would otherwise take place of in-person meetings at the workplace, and to voice concerns and set agendas and discuss deliverables and check statuses and to have that "human" element that is otherwise missing from electronic correspondence.

But as I have had more and more of my travel reduced, and more and more of my work occurring at home, I've been finding that I've had to participate in more and more conference calls.

I've been having conference calls that end up resulting in additional conference calls to discuss the findings of the previous conference call, and then having more conference calls that are required with another group of people because some folks got left out of the loop either purposely or accidentally and then we have to entirely or partially re-cap them... with another conference call.

It doesn't matter if 20 email chains go back and forth that summarize the calls, the conferences never seem to end.

Effectively, each successive conference call turns into a partial repeat of the one before it, resulting in a vicious cycle of "Groundhog Day" all week long.

Do you know how I realize that conference calls are becoming a serious problem? I have three VOIP handsets that I have dedicated to my business line. It's not unusual for me to completely chain-smoke the charging on all three handsets for a 10 or 12 hour workday, of which 70 to 80 percent of that day is dedicated to conference calls.

Recently I had two full days of 9 hours of non-stop conference calls. I went through 5 consecutive handsets.

Let's say, for instance that I have three conference calls scheduled for that day. That's pretty much typical for me. They're each supposed to go only one hour.

But now they are all going at least a half hour over, because of either unfinished business from the previous call(s) or because we've invited too many people and then some other item or person ends up monopolizing the call until we actually get down to the business that the call was supposed to be about.

And because they go too long, people inevitably have to drop to go to other calls, which means they get out of the loop again and then the entire horrible process has repeat again, and again, and again.

It's actually gotten to the point that the calls are going so long that they are overlapping into other scheduled calls. And that isn't counting the unscheduled, "ad-hoc" fire-fighting calls that could occur at any time.

So now I'm bouncing between scheduled calls and unscheduled calls pretty much non-stop. And now my co-workers have had to make up code words for when we need to take bathroom breaks during the calls, like "I need to go make some tea".

But we don't even necessarily have the luxury of interrupting a call to express our basic biological needs. I've had to learn how to set the handset on mute as second-nature, so that nobody has to hear my yucky bathroom noises because my Plantronics wireless headset is now permanently attached to my head like it's some kind of cyborg implant.

Tip: Should you do need to "take care of business" unannounced during a conference call, a former executive at a large software company who shall remain nameless has suggested that one should "switch the VOIP output to the speakers on LOUD and mute yourself while you run to the bathroom."

I can't possibly express the horrible, paranoid feeling of having a headset attached to your head while you are sitting in the throne room and realizing you may have not activated the mute.

Like a trigger-happy gun slinger from an old Western movie, I now have my finger automatically poised on the mute button should I need to eat or engage in anything else that is embarrassingly biological, such as when I have to stuff my breakfast or lunch down my pie-hole.

Unfortunately, this gets especially tricky if someone actually wants to ask me a question and I am in mid-mastication or doing some other unmentionable act.

I don't have a solution to this problem other than that I think that conference calls should never, ever exceed an hour in length, and nobody should be forced to sit on them back-to back. Every call should have a set agenda with specific goals in mind, and going off-tangent should not be permitted. And there's definitely a law of diminishing marginal returns when it comes to total number of attendees.

Are you too suffering from chronic conference call syndrome? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topic: CXO


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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  • RE: The Conference Call: Scourge of IT

    AMEN! I too suffer the slings and arrows of endless and endlessly interesting conference calls. I think Project Managers are paid by the phone minute or so it seems. They do love the phone. Personally, I am a productive employee and don't have time for it. Please email or IM me.
    • RE: The Conference Call: Scourge of IT

      @khess like the attitude.. but then you know that it doesn't work like that right?

      <a href=>Custom software development</a>
      • RE: The Conference Call: Scourge of IT

        @christajoe -

        I think it really depends on where you work and what kind of expectations are in place. I work at a consulting firm where the expectation of everyone (including clients) is that, unless there is a real emergency, meetings are generally scheduled and run according to plan, and it is understood that not everyone is available all hours of the day (and rarely after-hours unless there is a special circumstance). In most cases, it really is "send an email or leave a message, indicate the urgency, and we'll prioritize around it."

        Now, we of course have standards on when a message gets answered, how to handle an emergency call or urgent matter, etc, but in most cases, the response is, again, to set up a time when what needs to be accomplished can be accomplished, rather than dealing with everything all at once.

        I've seen other companies (my clients) try to do exactly as Jason describes by pushing telecommuting workers to "be more productive" and "check in more often" and keep hours outside of regular business hours. Those same companies always seem to be the ones that have "problem" projects, because everybody is too busy trying to look productive that they forget to make time to actually be productive.
    • RE: The Conference Call: Scourge of IT


      This article reminds me of the definition of a committee - "A group of people brought together to not make a decision that one person could have not made alone".

  • I like that too many meetings begets more meetings

    to find out why milestones aren't being reached.<br><br><i>"I could get some actual work done if we'd just stop meeting"</i><br><br>True stuff.
    Dietrich T. Schmitz, Your Linux Advocate!
    • RE: The Conference Call: Scourge of IT

      @Dietrich T. Schmitz

      Indeed. Long meetings and long conference calls are just nuts.
      • RE: The Conference Call: Scourge of IT


        The longest meeting in which I have participated was 5 days. We even had lunch and morning tea delivered. However, though long and difficult, we did achieve our objective!
  • RE: The Conference Call: Scourge of IT

    Funny you mention this because just a few months ago I saw a video where a guy was lecturing about just this topic. He was saying that people aren't able to get into a deep level of concentration when working because they are constantly being interrupted by meetings and such. He said that if they just left employees alone more so they could get into the zone and work undistracted for longer periods of time and more often then they would get a lot more done and have more breakthroughs and be more productive.
    • RE: The Conference Call: Scourge of IT

      Well put. If I send you my bosses email, would you explain that to her. In a way, it's just like Seinfeld. It's a meeting about nothing at all.
  • RE: The Conference Call: Scourge of IT

    I think this is less about the form of the meeting (conf call vs. in-person) and more about endless and useless meetings. Running good meetings is a developed skill - obviously one that the people you work with need to develop. You are a victim of meeting abuse! Personally, a useless in-person meeting is worse because you CAN'T mute it or ignore it. At least with a conference call you can do something useful while you mute your mic.
  • RE: The Conference Call: Scourge of IT

    Everyone should look up John Cleese in Meetings, bloody meetings.

    It's not really conference calls that suck, it's what happens in the meeting that matters.

    We use email and IM preferably as it leaves a record
  • RE: The Conference Call: Scourge of IT

    I just paid $22.87 for an iPad2-64GB and my girlfriend loves her Panasonic Lumix GF 1 Camera that we got for $38.76 there arriving tomorrow by UPS. I will never pay such expensive retail prices in stores again. Especially when I also sold a 40 inch LED TV to my boss for $675 which only cost me $62.81 to buy. Here is the website we use to get it all from,
    • RE: The Conference Call: Scourge of IT

      @VillarrealAndy You stupid cow!
  • Agile

    Standups are a cornerstone of modern methodlogy, such as Agile Scrum teams. Designing complex systems require collaborative effort. If your meetings are getting in the way of work, fix your meetings.
    Your Non Advocate
  • Fortunately I'm retired now and conference calls are a distant memory

    Here are my suggestions for improving the process. Limit the calls to four members or less. This suggestion is based upon experiences with a manager who would tie in his whole distributed work force (14 plus persons) for two hour plus conference calls. The hard thing about this was just waiting for your turn. It was not uncommon to wait an hour or so before your business was discussed.
  • RE: The Conference Call: Scourge of IT

    I heard my boss rip a long, sonorous squishy fart on a conference call when there was a period of silence. Pretty embarassing for all attending parties.
  • Conference calls - the endless proliferation of pointless pontification.

    I hate conference calls like death itself, because they are an inexcusable waste of time and talent (sometimes). The amount of witless prattling from the unknowledgeable and the incompetent is irritating and counter-productive on a galactic scale. They generally seem to be forums for clueless pontificators and totally out of the loop non-players, and after a while on these calls, I start waiting for blood to shoot out of my ears. I only have one functioning ear, and to abuse it with these pointless wastes of time is an insult. The number of calls I have been on where there was no previously published agenda is huge, and the vast majority. Consequently, nothing positive ever seems to come from them. I'm shocked! Shocked, I tell you! Death to conference calls!
    • RE: The Conference Call: Scourge of IT


  • Discipline

    The problem is that nobody seems to know how to run a meeting. Any schedule calls need to have a purpose and some structure. Somebody has to be in charge and keep things on track. The off topic discussions and pointless ranting need to be shutdown.

    I admit that it is not always easy to do. Patience and persistence are needed. If a senior manager goes on without end you just have to live with it.

    Occasionally it gets to the point where you need to pass the problem upstairs. I was once on a project team involving many departments. One of the managers would send one of his technically brilliant social idiots. It resulted in such a massive waste of time that my manager told him if it kept up my wasted time would start coming out of his budget. That got his attention.
  • RE: The Conference Call: Scourge of IT

    1. A wireless handset connected to a headset is the answer to going where you need to go (kitchen, bathroom, laying in bed). Make sure it has a mute button.
    2. Someone at your organization needs to learn a few things about meetings. The organizer should keep the call on track and schedule enough time to cover everything and then have some brief discussion.
    3. If your mouth is full at the precise moment that you are supposed to speak, finish up your mouthful and don't say anything. When they ask "Jason, are you still with us", un-mute and say "Oh sorry, I was on mute". That should give you an extra 5 seconds or so to finish up your food.
    4. Be happy that you are doing this in a conference call setting rather than sitting in a meeting in a conference room. During a CC, you can get other work done.