The modern day office pain: Teleconferences

In the modern office environment, individuals have many ways of communicating with one another.

  • Face to face, 1-1.
  • Getting together for a meeting in a dedicated room or an informal chat in the canteen, whether it’s 3 of you or 30.
  • Email.
  • Instant messaging.
  • Telephone 1-1.
  • Fax.

Written letters and memos aren’t really used any more, but sometimes you might print some details or notes off and put it on your colleagues desk for them to read.

Or occasionally you may throw a paper plane at a colleague. Air mail!

In the last few years, the practice of teleconferencing (or videoconferencing) has become more and more popular.

The idea is that you dial a teleconferencing facilty number, enter a pin code for that meeting, and then everyone can talk to each other.

Great idea, eh?


It doesn’t work.

There are numerous problems. For a start, if everyone is in the same office, then there’s no point using it – you may as well just all meet up somewhere. So it’s more for cross office use. That’s when things go wrong. It’s usually x amount of people from one office, and maybe one person or a small group from other office or company. The first group will normally sit in a meeting room huddled around a desk with a teleconference device in the middle of the room. The device has multiple microphones to pick up everyones voice.

And sniffles. And coughs. And grunts.

Not to mention the general background interference.

If just an individual is calling in from other office on a single telephone line, then they can be heard reasonably well over the teleconferencing devices speaker.

The caller won’t be able to hear the group of people in the meeting room very well though. Especially if they start debating things between themselves and they forget to lean forward into the device.

If two groups of people are using teleconferencing devices then it’s far worse. The background interference makes it very difficult to hear, even with modern VOIP technology.

Get more than two groups together – and it’s hopeless.

Then there’s the lack of eye contact.

In a normal face to face meeting, you make eye contact, or pick up on other visual clues, that someone is about to finish talking, or someone else is about to respond.

The conversation flows nicely.

Email and IM (instant messaging) have their own rules too; questions are asked and responses recieved, information flows.

Teleconferences, unless well managed by a chairman, are a mess.

Without visual contact, it’s hard to tell when someone is about to finish speaking, or someone is about to respond. People usually end up interupting each other. Often someone will start talking, not realising that the previous speaker hasn’t finished or that someone else has started talking, the poor sound quality often not helping. Then follows a muddle of apologies and ‘oh, sorry, no, you talk‘ and ‘no, you talk‘ – resulting in a stall – without visual contact, the usual conversational cues are gone.

Videoconferencing may solve some of these visual issues but in practice is rarely used; many individuals may be travelling, working from home or in some other way are without video conferencing facilities.

There are further problems.

There’s the speakers that forget to turn off the mute and everyone listens to their silence.

And the ones that speak in a weary monotone and send you to sleep.

There’s the one who shouts down the phone deafeningly, or the quiet mumbling girl you can’t quite hear.

Or the guy calling in from the busy train station, and all you can really hear is that the 3.29 from Colchester has arrived.

And how do you know who’s talking? In larger organisations you often haven’t met the speaker, let alone know what his voice sounds like. In well organised conference calls, the speaker, or chairman, will announce who is who but this only tends to be in the first few minutes; after a while it becomes quite unclear who is speaking, and to whom, especially if individual speakers are from a similar region and don’t have distinguishable accents.

On the subject of accents lies yet another problem. I’ve endured many tiresome conference calls listening to delegates from various parts of the UK struggling to interpret their different accents over the airwaves, mingled with participants from India, Spain, Malaysia and Hungary.
Many of those international individuals speak excellent English.

Many don’t.

And even those that do tend to have strong accents. Face to face, you can often understand.

Over a telephone?

Not so much.

Technical conference calls in particular make no sense. When you’re talking about technical terms, parameter values, table or program names, you need very precise information. Surely a written exchange of information would be more appropriate – anyone heard of email?

Teleconferences also tend to descend into arguments. If the topic is somewhat debated, and there are defensive arguments, things can be misheard, and the regular interruptions due to the lack of usual conversational cues lead to irritation. Most teleconferences I’ve been on with more than five or six people and multiple teams descend into shouting matches.

Then there’s the dozers. Those that only need to be in on the call to comment on one or two things, or if a particular subject arises. They wait patiently in the hour long call, with the droning of others on topics of no relevance or interest to them causing them to enter a sleepy doze. When they are finally called upon they have to snap out of their doze and there’s the inevitable delay whilst they ask for the question to be repeated and then awkwardly ask leading questions to try and obtain the important information they missed over the last 10 minutes.

That’s the other issue with teleconferences – the attendees. Quite often it seems that every man and his dog has been invited.

On a large project, there may be two or three separate companies involved, with several different teams each. Teleconferences often have more than twenty attendees or more, with half of them not really required. I have sat in several two hour long conference calls where 95% of the call has been completely irrelevant and meaningless to me, with me called on to answer only one related technical question.

Which could have been emailed to me after the conference call, or, more often than not, even beforehand.

What a waste of time and resource.

I thought these meetings were supposed to save time?

I can quite understand the benefits of a large group of people from multiple locations meeting over the airwaves rather than in person.

The logistics, travel, fuel and potentially accommodation costs of getting together multinational attendees can be huge.

The question that needs to be asked though, and never seems to be these days is: do we really need to get all these people on one call together for 2 hours?

Could we just get the project manager and the three head technical guys from each team on a call together perhaps for 10 minutes to establish what is really required, and then set up another call instead, or perhaps the technical information can be established via a quick email to the relevant parties?

There seems to be a habit these days of having long teleconference calls with someone from every team involved just for the sake of it.

These often seem to be organised by so called Project Managers and hilariously titled Service Delivery Managers (okay, I won’t pick on every PM and SDM but some of them – really? What do they actually DO?) who often don’t understand a technical project from even a basic technical level – so don’t actually know who to invite. So I can’t blame them, but I think that they should consider contacting just a handful of individuals first to establish what actually is required and who needs to be involved, rather than lazily inviting everyone.

Another even more annoying use of teleconferences is to manage a crisis.

In the wonderful world of IT, things break. Most problems occur because someone changed something, somewhere, without telling someone.

Management’s approach is to get everyone together immediately on a call so that the relevant teams are involved and can engage collaboratively.

It doesn’t work like that.

If there’s an urgent IT problem, the relevant teams need to spend their time looking at the problem urgently. Those teams know if they are the relevant team for that particular problem – it’s their job to do so.

They don’t need to waste their time dialing into a conference call with PMs, SDMs and other random management teams with nothing better to do asking them for updates and the ‘root cause’.

Let the technical teams get on with it. It it’s not clear which team the problem lies with, get the other teams to investigate too. If the issue lies somewhere between the two teams, they can communicate with each other – they don’t need the SDMs “help”, and they certainly don’t need a teleconference call. How can they spend their time technically investigating a problem if they are on a phone call? They need to concentrate on the issue at hand.

So, if you’re about to schedule a teleconference call – please, think about the alternative options first.

The farce of the conference call
The farce of the conference call

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *