What people really do when they're on conference calls

"Multi-tasking" on conference calls is more common than you think.

Whether it’s playing video games or shopping, many are dialling in to tune out.

I think I might as well have been talking to the door!”

If you ever thought that way after a teleconference, you’re not alone.

According to a new study by the world’s largest conference call company, InterCall, while you might be 100 per cent focused on what you’re saying, 82 per cent of those who are supposed to be listening are doing anything but.

InterCall analysed its mobile traffic data (in excess of 20 billion conference call minutes) and canvassed the habits of more than 500 full-time employees during conference calls.

It discovered that:
  • 65 per cent work on another aspect of their job
  • 63 per cent manage email
  • 55 per cent either make or eat food
  • 47 per cent visit the restroom
  • 44 per cent send texts
  • 43 per cent check social media
  • 25 per cent play video games
  • 21 per cent shop online
  • 6 per cent take other calls.
As if this were not enough, almost 40 per cent of virtual conference attendees admitted to dropping off a call without announcing it so they could pretend to have participated the whole time.
Another 27 per cent reported falling asleep and 13 per cent said they’d been “outed” for taking a call in a location other than where they claimed.

Amazingly, a brazen five per cent even owned up to having a friend take a work conference call in their place.


Going mobile

Mobile phones are a key reason why teleconferences are turning into an opportunity to do just about anything you want, anywhere you choose.

According to InterCall, the percentage of people using their handsets to dial into a conference increased from 19.4 per cent of all calls in 2011 to 21.2 per cent in 2013.

Although the rise is steady rather than spectacular, an overwhelming 64 per cent of respondents said they much prefer using a cell phone to a desk-bound ringer – the reasons for which are apparent in some of the unusual places they admitted to being while also on the line to co-workers or – worse still – clients or prospects. Among them:
  • “The racetrack”
  • “Fitting room while trying on clothes”
  • “The closet of a friend’s house during a party”
  • “Behind a church during a wedding rehearsal”
  • “Disney World”
  • “The beach … it was a video call so I kept my tablet up so that my bikini didn’t show”
Aside from the mobility aspect and associated ability to “multitask”, a key enabler for all this is the magical mute function, with 80 per cent of workers more likely to mute themselves while using a mobile device than a landline.

Interestingly, gender also influences behaviour. Women are three times more likely than men to mute a call to shop online and more likely to mute in order to eat or make food. Women also prefer morning conference calls, whereas men are more likely to take calls in the afternoon or evening.

Men are also more likely to multitask during a dial-in and, alas, use the restroom.

All of which, of course, arguably undermines the very reasons for holding conference calls.

They may historically have been the key method for keeping large teams informed and communicative, but if because of changing technology we’re all starting to zone out, just how productive and necessary are they today?

According to InterCall, the trend is a result of bad management, not bad technology.

Executive vice president of conferencing and collaboration, Rob Bellmar, says that at least part of the problem is too many meetings which, in turn, lead people to confuse activity with productivity – regardless of whether what they do has anything to do with the meeting.

One solution is to use video instead of audio, which in addition to engendering more engagement and interaction, will obviously make it harder for anyone to just walk out and heat up their lunch.

December 2021
December 2021

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