The conference call productivity drain…

This content is 11 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

The following script is based on a real conference call. The names and times have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent but, other than that, it’s pretty accurate:

9:45 (15 minutes before the meeting): Reminder pops up, “snooze” it until 5 minutes before.

9:55: I’ll just finish writing this email… I wonder, was there any preparation required for this meeting? I haven’t done any but no-one else will have either…

9:59: Ah yes, that meeting – how long?! An  hour and a half! Dial the conference service. What was the meeting passcode again? Got it, I’m in. Ah, hold music.

10:00 (advertised meeting start time): “The chairperson has not arrived. Please wait…” more hold music.

Just after 10:00: Call is opened, just two people so far. Social chat about what’s going on.

10:01: Someone else joins the call. Say hello, bring them into the chat. More banter.

10:02: Two more attendees join. Roll call. Explain that we’re waiting for a few more.

10:03: More attendees. Almost quorate now. Roll call, just waiting for Michael and Stuart. Michael did say he would join but, in the interests of time, start the meeting.

10:05: Michael joins the call. Apologies for lateness. Quick roll call and bring up to speed on introduction. Start meeting properly.

10:07: Stuart joins the call. He’s in the same building as the meeting organiser and wants to join in person. He’s told the room number and drops off the call.

(call continues for another hour or so…)

This is “normal”?! Several middle-managers, not exactly inexpensive resources, waste time waiting for others to get themselves organised. A few minutes, multiplied by several attendees soon becomes an hour of lost productivity for the company.  I’ve even seen this on calls with hundreds of people (literally) waiting.

I admit, sometimes meetings over-run for good reasons. Only last week I had to delay a meeting and missed another two calls completely because an important issue arose which needed immediate resolution (a personnel issue – and people trump process in my mental rule-book) so I allowed a meeting to over-run. I tried to keep others informed though, rather than leaving them hanging on a conference call waiting for me to arrive.

But, in our organisation, people accept the sort of practice I’ve laid out above as normal (or at least, they tolerate it) and I’ve coined a term to describe the company timezone (which is 3 minutes after the real time).

The thing is, we’re not alone. That’s why I feel comfortable talking about this issue on a public forum – it happens in organisations all over the country – indeed, all over the world, all of the time.

Yesterday, Matt Ballantine published a blog post entitled “clock watching”, in which he suggests it’s not collaboration tools we need, it’s somebody asking “why are we meeting?”. Quoting from Matt’s post:

“Imagine if the workflow for setting up a meeting, rather than being ‘find a slot available for the attendees, book the meeting’, was more like:

– state the objectives and outcomes required for the meeting
– understand who might be active participants
– describe who should be informed, yet not necessarily attend
– validate that this will require a meeting to achieve the necessary outcomes
– plan out the activities for the session
– validate again that a meeting is the best route for the outcomes to be achieved
– work out the correct time for the meeting
– find an appropriate time slot for the meeting
– send out participant briefing notes to everyone concerned”

For a while now, I’ve been asking “Do you need me on this call? I’m not sure what value I’ll be adding”. In future I’ll be more strict. And I’ll be starting the meetings that I control right on time, rather than when we have most people on the call. If people realise that they miss things by turning up late, maybe they will be more punctual? Or maybe I just need to chill out?

7 thoughts on “The conference call productivity drain…

  1. Nice article, Mark. Three things spring to mind:

    1) Back-to-back madness. Simple physics tells us that we cannot be in two different places at the same time. Diary systems allow you to book meetings back-to-back in two locations. Go figure…

    2) The 10 minute remote meeting buggering-around shuffle: (15 minutes if it’s using video). The technology is so complex, and relies on so many disparate systems (networks, telephony, specialist hardware, software etc, etc) that the delay in starting a meeting to get the tech working seems to be remaining a constant 10-15 minutes, especially if you are involving people who don’t always use the same conferencing systems as your organisation. And because they’ve booked themselves back-to-back, they don’t have time to set up in advance.

    3) The turn up late power play. Something I’ve come across before, and recently re-read in Hoffman & Casnocha’s The Startup of You – people in positions of power explicitly or implicitly use turning up late as a way to reinforce their power and status.

    For the first two, we’ve started to schedule meetings for 50 minutes, but booking the slot for the hour. Hence 5 minutes grace either side… and a £1 fine per minute for late attendance in our leadership team sessions. Seems to be working…

  2. Whatever you do Mark don’t come to live or work in France; punctuality is an unknown concept and most people (social and business) are 20 minutes late for everything.

  3. From a previous job I was in you’d think the managers got a bonus each time they scheduled a meeting!
    I think meetings are largely irrelevant, and mass attendance even more so. Unless I’m a stakeholder I can learn just as much reading the minutes as I could being there. If I have any questions I can just contact the organiser in various ways.

    I think people also need to understand the difference between a meeting, a demonstration, a broadcast and a team collaboration session

  4. Mark, I’m with you on getting strict, and I’m sure I may have been on that call or at least one like it today!
    I don’t think this is a unique problem, nor restricted to conference calls. I did see a customer requirement last year that wanted to modify the default meeting times in Outlook to start at 5 past the hour and last for 45 minutes.

    I can think of only one reason for that requirement!

  5. Matt, Fines sound interesting… how does that work in practice? Beers at the next social?

    I’ve started booking 45 minute slots. Maybe I should also start them at 5-past the hour ;-) I might have to get someone to write some code to alter the way that Outlook works though…

  6. Alan, I should have read your comment before my reply a few moments ago! I’m certainly using 45 min slots now, but haven’t got as far as starting at 5-past the hour just yet!

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