The B.S. of Conference Calls

By Sarah Watters
Senior Consultant, Levvel.io

November 27, 2018

Editor's Note: I work remotely and have a lot of conference calls. I would never – no, never – do it on *this* job, but I have used conference calls as an excuse to work out, eat lunch, drive through a car wash and cut my nails. I’ve never been explicitly told that’s why I was fired, but I have my suspicions.

I have also had calls during which I pay a lot of attention, make thoughtful contributions and grow as a teammate and person. And cut my nails.

Watch this video to immerse yourself in the glory of conference calls, then read this article to find out what’s happening and why.



With teams spread out across the country and remote work becoming more popular, our calendars seem to be filled with more conference calls than in-person meetings. While conference calls let us connect with colleagues and clients regardless of location, their efficacy, and our behavior on these calls, can sometimes be less-than-ideal. What are some of the common impediments to efficient conference calls and what are the behavioral biases at play?  Good questions. Let’s discuss. 

Who just joined?

Introductions. Say your name, your role. You got this. It’s not unusual to stew on what exactly you’re going to say. But have you ever noticed that you don’t remember what the people before you have said? Malcolm Bresner called this the next-in-line effect. You were too busy anticipating your own turn. If you fumbled a bit, the good news is that it’s unlikely others noticed since they’re not really paying close enough attention. This is because an additional behavioral phenomenon is also at work here. According to what social psychologists Thomas Gilovich, Victoria Medvec and Kenneth Savitsky termed the spotlight effect, we tend to overestimate the degree to which other people notice our behavior or appearance. In some ways, we would really benefit from getting over ourselves.

We tend to overestimate the degree to which other people notice our behavior or appearance.

Avoid wrinkles in time

When it comes to meetings, conference calls included, timing is everything. Did you have the first 2-3 minutes set aside for introductions? Good luck. By the time we get to the actual meat of the call, you’ve burned through a good chunk of the scheduled time. I call this “the first 8” (don’t Google, it’s an original). It has to do with the first 8 minutes of a call being eaten alive waiting for everyone to join and then completing the standard round of introductions. Why does this happen?  

We tend to be optimists when it comes to projecting how much time we think a task will take. The planning fallacy refers to the fact that we tend to underestimate how long it will take to do something. (Editor’s note: We talked about this some over here.) This proverbial time warp finds its way into our work in a number of ways, from setting our own daily activities to the duration of an engagement set out in an SOW. Researchers have suggested that this may be the result of wishful thinking or possibly a self serving bias (i.e. we tend to overestimate our ability to complete the task at hand, possibly as a means of conveying competency).  

One way to avoid the planning fallacy is to reference comparable tasks or projects. See how long these engagements took and then calibrate your own timeline. It can also be useful to have someone else assist or do it for you, since studies have shown that people underestimate their own but not others' completion times.  

Getting (not) so much done

Dropped calls, missing dial-in... Finally, time for the main event. Unfortunately, it’s not just during introductions that we struggle to pay attention. A survey by InterCall showed that more than half of survey respondents admitted to doing other work (65%), emailing (63%) or eating food (55%) during a conference call. Slightly less than half reported using the restroom (47%), texting (44%) or checking social media (43%).  

Twenty-one percent said they online shop during conference calls. Hi, that’s me. My behavioral excuse: It turns out the pain of paying decreases when you’re trying to multitask (and when your credit card autofills on the payments page).  

More than half of survey respondents admitted to doing other work (65%), emailing (63%) or eating food (55%) during a conference call. Slightly less than half reported using the restroom (47%), texting (44%) or checking social media (43%).  

Monkey see iPhone, Monkey do iPhone

As is often the case when taking conference calls in your office, there can be several people sitting around the same table. This means that not only do we need to harness our self restraint when it comes to our own distractions, we are also vulnerable to the behaviors of the people were sitting with, too. If your colleague checks their phone, it’s likely you’re not far behind. Am I missing something? An email, a meme!? Herding behavior makes us want to mimic the actions of those around us.  (Editor’s note: We’ve got more about the distracting power of cell phones here.) 

Visual Accountability

Conference calls can be a hailstorm when it comes to temptations to engage in behaviors that jeopardize our engagement and, really, the overall utility of the calls. The good (or bad) news is that there are alternatives that can help drive accountability. Video conferencing (sorry, pajama workers) is one such way. If you can see who you are speaking with, you’re less likely to be eating, texting or using social media (and certainly less likely to be using the restroom).  

The good (or bad) news is that there are alternatives that can help drive accountability.

Video conferencing also helps to restore what’s lost when we’re only connected through audio: visual cues. Does the other party understand what we’re saying? Are they in agreement? Are they excited or irritated? These are all more difficult to gauge when we’re relying solely on someone’s voice.  

Importantly, visual cues can also be leveraged to foster closeness and build trust. Research has shown that mirroring gestures, expressions and posture, known as the “chameleon effect,” can positively affect perceived engagement and likeability. In a retail context, for example, mimicking verbal and nonverbal customer behaviors has shown to yield increased customer satisfaction and sales. Similarly, mirroring speech and posture has been documented to improve negotiation outcomes.     

Note, however, the jury is still out on whether we’re actually leveraging such visual cues on videoconferences. Daniel Miller and Jolynna Sinanan found that Skype callers spend more time looking at the video reflection of themselves than at the person with whom they’re speaking.  

(We won’t) be taking this offline

Conference calls aren’t going anywhere. Unless someone comes up with a conferencing solution that mutes all other applications on our laptops and phones and prevents the sarcastic eye roll, we’re going to have to deal with innumerable distractions competing for our attention.  

In the meantime, maybe we’d all be better off pretending we aren’t on mute and the next time we hop on a call, be mindful of the degree to which we’re just “phoning it in.”

 

 

By Sarah Watters
Senior Consultant, Levvel.io

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