If you’ve worked in pretty much any office setting for more than a few weeks, you quickly came to understand that while conference calls may, at some long-forgotten point in history, have actually been a good idea (hey look, all of us are in different places, but we still talk to one another, all at the same time!), they are almost always, in practice, catastrophically inefficient expenditures of your time. This is because most of the calls to which you find yourself summoned are not the serious, important summits you always imagined, where captains of industry (a woefully underused term these days, by the way) come together to make Important Business Decisions. No, the conference call has devolved into a sort of telephonic emergency parachute, liberally deployed whenever someone just isn’t quite sure what’s going on, and in a fit of frustration after another unsatisfying email exchange decides that, you know what, what we all really need to do here is to just hash this out over the phone, and then we’ll all be on the same page again. As you know, experience indicates that their efforts will almost certainly fail.
And you, grizzled veteran of the Security Blanket Conference Call, have been through enough of these by now to know that, no matter the purported subject, you know exactly how this is going to go. But first:
Robot Lady: Welcome to Reservation Plus Conference Systems! Please enter your access code…
Oh boy. This Outlook invite looks like John Nash’s window in “A Beautiful Mind.” A 12-digit conference number, a 5-digit conference ID, a 10-digit chairperson passkey, an 8-digit committee PIN, an alphanumeric client identifier — ah, yes, there you go. Access code. Alright.
Robot Lady: ….followed by the pound or hash key!
Nah. Come on. In the context of the phone, that can only be the pound key, or perhaps the “number sign,” even though for some reason you can’t say that phrase out loud without sounding like a six-year-old. “Hash key,” by contrast, is either 1) the correct term to use in the UK, which thus makes it an incorrect term to use here in the United States, because USA USA USA 2X WORLD WAR CHAMPS or whatever, or 2) an appeal to the lowest common denominator of the language of public discourse, #twitter. While I concede that the international usage renders this choice of verbiage marginally more acceptable, the fact that call-in systems, at least in part, probably added the “hash” instruction to help a generation raised 140 characters at a time who can only visualize a proffered fist emoji when they hear “pound key” is this week’s reminder that you are old. By the way, kids in high school were in kindergarten when Twitter was invented.
Robot Lady: That entry is not valid.
Dammit. You got distracted by that horrifying #Twitterfact, didn’t you.
Please enter your access code…
Don’t you dare say it agai–
…followed by the pound or hash key!
Robot Lady: Thank you! Please stand by! If you are the chairperson, press the star key now!
Always a lot of enthusiasm coming from Robot Lady related to conference call logistics. Generally, you are not the chairperson, so your star key doesn’t get a lot of play.
Robot Lady: Your conference will begin shortly!
That said, the one time that you got to be the chairperson…it was so, so empowering. You were drunk on power before you even hit the hash key. The best part is that when you’re the chairperson, Robot Lady tells you exactly the words of affirmation you want to hear. “You are the chairperson!” You’re damn right I’m the chairperson.
Robot Lady: Please wait for your conference to begin.
You will now find yourself subjected to a loop of incongruously loud, static-laden music that sounds like it was mixed in GarageBand to back a Skinemax movie. It will eventually fade, you will breathe a sigh of relief, and then the same clip will start again, and if you’re on hold for too long you will start to wonder if your alarmed nearby coworkers might suspect something awful about what you’re up to and report you to HR.
Robot Lady: You will now be placed into conference!
An avalanche of really loud beeps is about to start. Turn the volume down.
The beeps have neither let up in frequency nor in volume. Seriously, do all these people work here?
Can anyone hear me?
A weird rule of conference calls, probably related to the fact that their audio-only characteristic allows participants to maintain anonymity if they so choose, is that no one ever wants to be the first one to identify themselves. People will utter some sound to at least signal their presence, but that’s all; heaven forbid that the words they choose also function to give anyone else any idea who the hell they are.
Finally, the chairperson swoops in to save us:
Good afternoon! Who do we have on the call today?
Hahaha. Nice try, lady. I will not be playing all of my cards that easily. Ten seconds of dead silence will follow as callers will someone else to begin to speak, an outcome that would allow them to win this inane game of blind chicken. Then, inevitably, as discomfort with silence begins to outweigh reluctance to divulge one’s identity:
Ten more seconds of silence while everyone fumes in annoyance, like somehow all the other people on the call are rudely interrupting idiots. Let’s try this again?
And so on. The only way to really mitigate the no-visual-cues problem without enduring this song and dance is for the chairperson to begin by immediately calling the roll, like you’re third graders lining up at the end of recess or something. However, the chairperson will never, ever do this, because it would make far too much sense, and conference calls are generally not expositions of business management best practices.
You go ahead.
No, you go ahead.
Hey, can you guys hear me?
Eventually, someone will manage to rise above the fray, and halting introductions will continue as the pool of unidentified attendees slowly dwindles. You will write the first two names down in the margin, or maybe three, if there are other people in the room with you who can see that you are taking notes, but probably no more than that. Which is a good thing, because:
Ah, sorry, what was that last one?
Jim. Jim Kewaijlfajlsdjfa.
Er, sorry Jim, I missed that. Your last name is…?
No problem. Kewaijlfajlsdjfa.
Nah. Rather than actually clarify the name that sounds like the long-lost sixteenth former Soviet republic, all attendees will simply elect to ignore Jim for the remainder of the call. At this point fully three-quarters of participants are on mute anyway. Their role here was to note their attendance, and they will be answering email or browsing Amazon on their phones for the next 30-45 minutes.
Everyone is frantically smashing the “volume down” key on their speakerphones right now.
Ah, sorry guys, this is Pam, I’m getting on a train, so I’m going on mute.
A remarkably high percentage of those whose presence is ostensibly critical to the call decide to dial in from the loudest public places you can think of: airports, train stations, shopping malls, dog kennels, siren testing factories, etc. Apparently, people love to use the time on conference calls to do things that are not participating in the conference calls, so the mute button becomes their best friend. Except:
Is anyone really surprised Pam didn’t remember the call, AGAIN?
Nah, but she’s still unbelievable.
There’s always one guy who didn’t quiiiiite remember whether he pressed it or not this time. And if you take it for granted, even just once, hilarity is bound to ensure. The one time that I was on a call and this actually happened to someone, I have no idea what followed because I felt so vicariously horrified that I left the room to look for a space small enough for me to crawl into and die. I imagine it’s something sheepish, like
Sorry guys! Hehe, the mute button didn’t work.
The mute button always works, idiot. You just didn’t press it.
Travel safe, Pam! Hey, we should catch up sometime.
Wait, you’re still digging here? Stop. Your grave is plenty deep. Come on, chairperson, steer us back to the right track.
Alright, I guess Pam’s not able to lead today. That’s fine, I suppose. As you all know, we convened this discussion to go over the fourth quarter sales figures. Ted, can you take over for Pam? Would you walk us through Tables 1 and 2 here?
I firmly believe that perpetrators of Conference Call Ambushes should be sentenced to not less than 90 days’ imprisonment.
I’m sorry, I didn’t know we were discussing those figures on this call.
I mean, the call is titled “Discuss Fourth Quarter Sales Figures,” but I get it. Sometimes you just have to bow your head, accept your heaping double helping of piping hot shame, and move on. As uncomfortable as this exchange is, the only thing worse than telling 31 people on the phone that you are unprepared would be to try and fake it; Ted endures 10 seconds of the chairperson’s loathing to spare himself 30 minutes of fumbling awkwardness. Fortunately for Ted, his deficiencies are quickly forgotten as the call’s logistical struggles continue.
Hey, this is Sarah. I unfortunately have another call at 3:40, so I have to drop in a few minutes.
I almost never believe people when they say they have another call. You did not schedule two calls ten minutes apart. This is either an excuse to go do something else or possibly a delayed eject-button deployment for people who retain residual discomfort from the aforementioned Pam and Ted fiascos.
Thanks Sarah. Alright, well, who has an agenda item to cover?
Stop. You don’t know (did you even know that there was an agenda?); don’t be a hero. Ten to fifteen seconds will transpire as everyone wills someone else to posit something brilliant. Finally, our savior.
[impossibly cheerfully] Hey guys! This is Allie. One thing I wanted to bring up is the potential for more efficiently exploiting synergies in a couple of untapped emerging markets. In particular, I think our marketing department has the real opportunity to demonstrate that it’s nice to meet you, where you been, I could show you incredible things, magic, madness, heaven sent, saw you there and I thought, ‘Oh my God, look at that face, you look like my next mistake,’ love’s a game, want to plaaaaaaaaaay?
Allie didn’t actually start singing “Blank Space” on your conference call (if she did, your job is awesome, and please contact me so that I can share with you my resume and cover letter). She might as well have been, though, with how quickly she lost you. However, it’s also the case that Allie did everyone a service here simply because she said something that invites a response; in other words, the threshold for what counts as participation just got much, much lower. It’s a variant of the brilliant Frank-Abagnale-the-Doctor trick: “Dr. Harris, do you concur?” Remember: always concur.
Hey, this is Bill. I agree with Allie on this one and really think we need to think more about this over the next couple of days.
Gary here. I’m with Bill and Allie.
Now everyone wants to score some Important Business Person Points, which they correctly realize can be theirs if they simply voice their agreement. Go ahead, unmute your line and concur. I understand and so does everyb–
Sorry guys, I got kicked off the call. I’m still on the train, so I’m going back on mute.
But what are you going to do first, Pam?
I think Allie raised some great points earlier. Thanks, Allie.
Of course you do. Chairperson!
Phil, let’s move on to the sales figures in Chart 4. Would you please explain for the benefit of everyone on this call what this says about our projected revenues for next year?
Another frequently employed Conference Call Token Participation Strategy is repeatedly rephrasing something that you know in order to avoid discussing the things that you don’t. The more confidently you can manage to do so, and the more accompanying detail you can provide while doing so, uselessness or inanity be damned, the better.
This is Phil — yes, happy to. If you’ll look at Chart 4, you can see that it occurs in sequence at the conclusion of Chart 3 and after Charts 1 and 2 as well. Chart 4 shows sales figures related to our projected revenues for next year.
Shrewd maneuver, Phil. Since there are probably just not that many people on the call who are really listening to what he says, why not keep it simple? He said his name, he agreed to answer a question, and he then made several accurate statements regarding the subject matter about which he was asked! What have you done lately?
All of these charts appear in an Excel 2011 file, which is viewable on any Windows operating system and should be compatible with any Macintosh, Google, or other third-party application that you may be using. This includes devices running iOS or other mobile operating systems. I would be happy to distribute this spreadsheet to anyone on this call that doesn’t have it.
Another popular move: volunteering to do something upon request, when it is certain that no one will actually then make such a request. There are 31 people on this call! No one wants to admit in front of all of everyone to not having the document you’re talking about. Because everyone knows that even if they do need said document, Phil will have to figure out who is asking, painstakingly take down their email address probably while using the phonetic alphabet, send the attachment, and ask for confirmation of receipt, all while everyone is seething on the phone. No one wants to be that guy. So Phil plows ahead.
These charts are particularly useful for visually displaying information that would otherwise be displayed in a table. Microsoft Corporation (MSFT) is a public technology company traded on the NASDAQ exchange.
Sure, why not. And if for some reason someone really presses him on substance here via a series of intricate follow-up questions (note: this terrible person should also be subject to the previously proposed jail term), there’s always that wonderful failsafe.
No problem, Judy. Let me look into that issue and I’ll follow up with you.
Volunteering to “follow up,” of course, is loosely translated to mean “Please let me off the hook for now so I can find out an answer to this question, rehearse it, and share it with the group at a reasonable pace without the deafening silence of three dozen people listening while I try to do all three steps at once and start to sweat.” It’s a perfectly reasonable offer, though, and a completely unassailable white flag to wave; even if someone really wants more information out of the follow-upper, and they want that information now, and it’s frankly unacceptable that they’re unable to answer the question on this call — hey, they already promised you! They’re going to follow up! While Judy might be a little peeved, she has no choice but to accept this as sufficient for the time being.
Thanks, Tom. I look forward to hearing from you in the near future.
The call will go on like this for awhile. Someone will say something bland, others will do their damnedest to reciprocate, and you will start to wonder if there are any good concerts coming to town this summer. And then, if you’re having a bad week, and it’s just not your day today, and, look, some days you’re the dog and some days you’re the hydrant, and you’ve been looking pretty hydrant-y of late — it will happen. And suddenly, horrifyingly, you will see all too clearly that the Pam and Ted incidents were merely the first few stray raindrops that preceded Hurricane Please Please Don’t Fire Me. You will hear your name, followed by an expectant silence.
What do you think?
Hello? Wait, he is on this call, right?
And then, as quickly as it appeared, the eye of the storm disappears before you could even wistfully savor the fresh air and glimpse of sunlight it so cruelly promised, because, hey, you already introduced yourself. You said you were on the call. And while most people admittedly don’t remember that (or anything else that’s happened during the last 38 minutes, other than the fact that Pam is definitely, unquestionably on a train), if someone does remember, you’re in trouble. So, you gulp for air, you start to sweat a little (sweating is apparently a frequent theme for me on conference calls?), and maybe you even contemplate laying down on the floor just to see if perhaps you will sink quietly into it and disappear from this earth entirely. But alas, you only have one option here, and it will all be over soon.
I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that. Could you please repeat the question?
We’ve all been there, friend. Take heart; someone will throw you a bone, you will respond, everyone will move on, and the sun will rise again tomorrow (you still might get fired, but that is not anticipated to have any effect on the sun’s future activities).
Finally, and mercifully:
Well, this has been good. I see we’re at the top of the hour and I realize some people have to jump…
Remember, those people are liars.
…so I was hoping we could set up another call for this week. When are people free?
Hahaha. Come on. Someone always tries this, and it always ends the same way.
I’m free anytime next Tuesday between 1:45 and 3:15, and then Friday morning.
Those times don’t work for me. I can do Wednesday afternoon.
I have some availability Wednesday afternoon, and could also do a Tuesday morning call, as long as it’s over by 10:30.
Is that Eastern or Central?
I could do Tuesday at 2, but I’ll be at a parent-teacher conference, so I’ll have to be on mute.
And there you have it. Conference calls that become conference calls about scheduling further conference calls are the absolute pinnacle of a well-intentioned technology swallowing up the purpose for which it was designed, just barely edging egregious abuses of the cc field in inescapable reply-all email threads. Speaking of which, this inquiry will never, ever actually end in a scheduled conference call; instead, after 3-5 minutes, the chairperson will wave another white flag of surrender:
Alright, it sounds like people are pretty busy this week, so just I’ll send around an email to the group to see when people are free. Have a good afternoon, everyone.
Thank God, because you really have to pee at this point. Alright. End call!
Subject: “Availability for Next Week’s Teleconference?”
You have 31 new messages in your Outlook Inbox.
On second thought, maybe that call wasn’t so bad after all.