55 percent of employees are eating during conference calls (and more fun stats)

One of my least-favorite expressions in the cubicle world is “hop on a call.” Anyone that’s been on a series of conference calls knows that they’re pretty off-task affairs, in general: it’s highly probable that over 60 percent of the people on the call aren’t totally focused on the call at all. If over half the people doing something aren’t really there, does the thing even matter, from a philosophical sense?

Harvard Business Review has a post based on data from InterCall about what people really do during conference calls. Here’s the breakdown:

Employees During Conference Calls

On the HBR post, there’s a couple of different scenarios people admitted to doing a conference call during — the funniest is probably “chasing my dog down the street because she got out of the house.” I’ll fully admit that I’ve done 2-3 in my life in bars. I took one on a Friday two summers ago while walking to a bar, had a drink, ordered an app, and the app came (ordered second drink), and then the call ended. Funniest thing about that one? I was leading the call.

The data here probably isn’t surprising to anyone who’s had an office call in a conference call-laden environment, but the underlying aspects of this research speak to something bigger. Predominantly, conference calls are done to link up with clients/customers in another place, or co-workers in another place. I am all for people working where they want to work — i.e. not necessarily relocating to the HQ of a company they work for — but these numbers speak to the challenge inherent in a remote workforce. People aren’t really paying attention — and they’ve convinced themselves they’re tremendously busy with their own stuff — so they look at conference calls as a kind of down-time. It’s almost like a break in the day.

Remember in HS where you did homework in some class and then periodically looked up and made eye contact with that teacher and nodded, hoping to never get called on? Conference calls are like the professional equivalent of that.

That makes it harder for a “remote workforce” to be a thing, at least in a standard, top-down company: there’s always going to be the assumption that someone not sitting around the other people (i.e. the remote worker) is slacking off in some way (the irony is that out of the people sitting together, there’s a good chance many of them are slacking off too), and there’s no real way to connect with someone not in the same office / physical space as you effectively. E-mail isn’t necessarily great, clearly conference calls are a way to focus on other things, and “virtual meetings” — heck, any type of meeting — isn’t really that effective either.

In fact, in that last vein, here’s a great quote about the central problem this study from InterCall gets at:

For Rob Bellmar, InterCall’s Executive Vice President of Conferencing and Collaboration, the problem is largely about how technology has changed the way we communicate, and thus, the values we attach to it. “Part of the problem comes from too many meetings,” he says. “This leads people to confuse activity with productivity.”

Agree with that about 150 percent. Activity and productivity are different. If you’re walking around living and breathing, you’re active. That isn’t the same thing as being productive for an organization. This confusion point causes a ton of people to deify being busy — i.e. essentially turning it into a cultural currency for our era. It’s sad.

Ted Bauer