Are conference calls a talent drain?


If only we could have the time back from all the “dead air” when someone was talking on mute! Not to mention getting time back from everyone saying, “Frank, Frank, you’re on mute.”

I know the efficiencies offered by the technology and the massive savings on travel expenses compared to face-to-face meetings. But I constantly wonder how much productivity is lost as a result of many of these calls. If most of an organization’s calls are inwardly focused, its best talent is losing invaluable client-facing time to listen to others co-workers say, “We’ll wait 3 more minutes for Suzie in HR to join.”

There is also a sort of neuroscience to conference calls related to FOMO, the fear of missing out. This is similar to that disconnected feeling when checking your emails or texts and finding there are none. Think about the feeling the last time you heard “Oh, why weren’t you invited to the call where we discussed that? Many savvy managers are able to quell their invitation insecurities. History tells me these are the same people able to completely untether from work during vacations with their family. This is not something I can identify with.

The dilemma is that companies need their best talent on many of these calls in order to make informed decisions, give senior management guidance, or to close sales.  While corporate conference call cultures vary dramatically, many managers end up spending the large majority of their business days standing at an elevated ergonomic workstation wearing a headsets.

Having been one of those executives I can make the following observations about conference call culture and behavior:

  • Due to the extraordinary amount time top talents have to spend on conference calls, their attendance on any single call is usually fleeting. This results in the inevitably painful words, “I’m sorry but I have to jump on another call.” This time management driven “talent-interruptus” leads to frustration and the need for yet another conference call. The host typically promises this person that they will be first on the agenda next call.
  • Murphy’s Law of the Conference Call states that you will always need 15 minutes more than the call was scheduled for. It only takes one filibuster to sink the productivity of an entire call. Never schedule a 30-minute call unless you know from previous experience that the participants share in the time sensitivity of the call.
  • Keep in mind that international conference calls take on a totally different and sometimes surrealistic dimension. This is especially the case where indirect communication styles make it very difficult to critique certain people or projects. More important is that extra time must be allocated to give non-English speakers the time to get their point across.
  • Always make it a goal to convert weekly calls that lose energy to bi-weekly calls that have enough critical mass to become meaningful again. There are far too many weekly calls that only occur because they are “stuck” on the calendaring system.
  • If you have more than 10 people presenting on a conference call, don’t force others with unrelated job functions to waste a morning waiting for their turn. I call this the high school swim tournament of conference calls. Those of you with swimmers in your family understand the feeling of waiting 2 hours breathing chlorinated air until it’s your child’s turn to swim an event that lasts 50 seconds.
  • Record all calls regardless of the length, and notify participants of the link for the recording. Many calls are conducive to on-demand listening. International participants also depend on these recordings to synthesize comments they might not grasp during the live recording.
  • Finally, play “Conference Call Bingo” and see how many of the additional points you’d like to add to this blog.

Do you have a conference call frustration you’d like to add ?


  1. Liz Lugnier says:

    Love the swim tournament reference. Brings to mind this classic youtube:

  2. Seconded! One of my favourite frustrations is “Sorry, could you repeat the question, I was on mute!”

  3. Very good points, I would like to add a few of my own, points which are also applicable to real-life meetings:

    – When you get an invitation to a conference call, don’t hesitate to ask for clarifications about the goal of the meeting and what specifically is expected from you in that call. Don’t hesitate to challenge the scattergun organizers. And don’t hesitate to say: “I don’t have anything to contribute to this particular call, just send me the summary and the decisions afterwards”.

    – Likewise, when you are the organizer, make sure that you state clearly in the meeting invite what it is about, what’s on the agenda, what decisions are expected to be made and why is it relevant for the ones whom you have invited. If you’re not sure who do you need in the meeting, don’t hesitate to reach out to people in advance with a brief phone or Skype call, to check if they are indeed the ones with either the information or the decision power that you need.

    – While recording meetings is useful, even more important is to share the meeting minutes afterwards. This is also useful for keeping the number of attendees low, just to the ones who actually need to contribute. Those who only need to be informed will get the summary from the minutes. They’ll be grateful for the time you saved them.

    – Invest in a good wireless headset, so you can have your conference calls standing or walking around the room. Not only it is good for your health, but it will help you to focus on the meeting at hand, away from the distractions. Oh, the call is not that important and you want to divide your attention to answering some emails in the meantime? Then probably you shouldn’t have been in that call in the first place – see the first point above.

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