The Conference Call: Scourge of IT

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.

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