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Banish the Conference Call, Part 1: Why It's Awful

"Can you hear me now?" (Art by Chris Hale)

“That was a great conference call,” said no one ever. Or, maybe they had, but couldn’t be heard over the traffic zooming by, or another participant’s dog barking or the person who thinks they’re on mute and is chattering away rather than listening.  

The conference call: When will it end? And how can we find a better way to communicate?  

Even with the best of intentions — an agenda, a time limit, a thoughtful organizer who takes long pauses to see if anyone else wants to chime in — conference calls are still messy, sordid affairs far less productive than in-person conversations.  

Hill Navigator is going to explore the conference call in a two-part series, which will be a far better form of communication than calling readers and talking nonstop until you find a way to tune the conversation out. For those looking for a better communication tools, there are several conference call alternatives which exist in the House and Senate already. And for those who carry a burning-bright torch for the conference call (you know who you are) we’ve included a short list of best practices.  

First, a primer on why conference calls are typically a waste of productive energy and rarely achieve their intended goals of engaging all participants:  

— People aren’t paying attention. Let’s be honest here. Hill Navigator approached some of the best political minds and asked for details on some of their more egregious on-a-conference-call activities. (Anonymity was promised — we all have reputations as “serious listeners” to maintain.)  

One former Hill staffer took a conference call while at a Vegas craps table. A digital strategist admitted to listening to two conference calls simultaneously, then giving an answer on one call that was intended for the other. One campaign staffer took her daily conference call in the shower; setting up a caddy, muting the line and turning the water off when she needed to speak. Another admitted to being on a call while “engaging in heavy foreplay.” People took conference calls while waiting in line for the Harry Potter ride at Universal Studios, while sitting in a hot tubs and getting mani-pedis. One person sent his phone through an airport security machine with the call still going, then picked right back up after he went through.  

Personal anecdotes aside, a survey of 500 full-time workers by InterCall found more than a quarter of respondents admitted to falling asleep during a virtual meeting. Other respondents admitted to making other phone calls, snacking, exercising or playing video games during their conference calls. Nearly half of the respondents admitted to using the bathroom during a call.  

— The host who can talk the most wins. Without critical feedback, such as eye contact or gauging a participant’s level of interest, the person who can talk the longest and without interruption has no reason to cease. National Journal surveyed women about working on Capitol Hill, and received a comment about being "repeatedly cut off" on senior-staff conference calls, often by a person who was making an identical point. That’s a conference call for you — alienating the most-soft spoken among us.  

So why are conference calls still part of regular office interactions? Surely an office that values productivity, engagement and dialogue could find a better way to approach one another.  

Hill Navigator talked to several experts about ways to improve conference calls for the second part of this series .  

   

Related: Banish the Conference Call, Part 2: Alternatives The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.