Friday, July 10, 2009

Communicating across nations – the joy of teleconferences

As a part of a multi-national company with central functions spread out across several countries, teleconferences are one of the joys of work. Especially now in the current financial downturn, international travel is kept at a minimum so the use of telecons is at an increase. Of course, the alternative is videoconferences, but those generally require a technical competency not readily available (hey, I'm no better here, I can never get the stupid system to work...), but when they work, they usually are reasonably effective.

Teleconferences on the other hand can be a complete clownshow of inefficiency... Especially if it involves a larger number of parties calling in. A not too unusual pattern is as follows:

1. A large number of people call in and “hello?”, “who just called in?”, “Hello, can you hear me?” is repeated by different parties for a good 10 minutes before the meeting can get going
2. When the organizer has finally managed to do the roll call and the meeting is about to get underway there is always someone saying “hello? Can you hear me? I haven’t received the meeting material?” after which another 5 minutes is taken up by identifying that person and then mailing him/her the material
3. Meeting is just ready to get started for real, 15 minutes past the scheduled time, a few late stragglers are calling in during this with a few repeat “hello?”, “who just called in?”, “Hello, can you hear me?” during the process
4. Presenter is starting the presentation but a few minutes in there's annoying noise due to someone calling in while hanging out next to what sounds like a major highway, the meeting gets held up by the organizer trying to find out who the culprit is “who doesn’t have their phone on mute? Hello? Can everyone mute their phones please?”, finally usually the culprit mutes the phone without identifying themselves
5. After that 5-10min hold up the meeting continues
6. Someone calling in puts the conference “on hold” and pause music drowns out any attempts to have a constructive meeting
7. Organizer calls out “who has put their line on hold? Could you please stop?” then someone points out that that person won't hear it anyway because he/she has the call on hold, some minor hilarity ensues. In a lucky situation the person resumes the call and the music stops within a few minutes
8. The meeting can finally continue with the 20-30min delay

I really wish I was exaggerating here, but I'm sure that other people working in international companies trying to cut travel and meeting expenses (which is most companies as it look now) recognize the situation...


iago said...

Oh, yes. That's a perfect description of the non-travelling efficiency of teleconferencing.

Additionally, as I work for a technology driven company I guess, we employ a teleconferencing service that also injects large amounts of static into our meetings at random intervals in order to protect our intellectual property.

We blame the IT guys. They deserve it.

Nick Emby said...

Great Article,

I have used many conference call companies in the past and know of the problem in your article. One company I have stuck with is Powwownow they have some cool features which help in preventing some of those unfortunate conference calling mishaps.

When someone new joins the conference they record their name and the recording is played to everyone on the conference, I normally wait until everyone has arrived.

The conference call can also be locked which stops late comers from interrupting the meeting.

Another cool feature is you can do a role call which replays the names of all in the conference call.

There are still some problems with noise and when a caller accidentally hits the wrong button but all in all it’s pretty good.

Mr. Salaryman said...

iago - Yeah, and I wonder what the IT guys will do when the company goes under because no new IP could be developed and the old ones got mismanaged because no one could communicate properly due to the noise and static. I wonder, will they ask for forgiveness then perhaps?

Nick - Wow, are you actually trying to sell me a telecon system? Can I negotiate myself a blog discount?

Me said...

I went straight to the call site
You should gefinately get a cut of the action for allowing the link

ThePenguin said...

Yes, fantastic post!

I too have used many conference call companies and experienced many of the same problems. One method I have stuck with is avian VOIP they also have some cool features like dropping bird poop (the avian equivalent of blog comment spam) on the conference room carpet.

(As an "IT guy", I'd just like to point out that traditionally we blame marketing for anything that goes wrong, including bird poop ;) )

aimlesswanderer said...

Phone calls, even mass ones, are not always a substitute for face to face contact, but with the economy so crap I guess you'd better get used to them.

jlpt-2kyu said...

Sounds like you have too many people in your meetings. More people = Less chance of decent conclusion, more chance of wasted time.

I hate video-conferences, there is usually a 3 sec delay on the sound, which means you often get people talking over each other.

It is also a pain to reserve the room, get connected etc as you say. Skype is much more sensible.

stepherie said...

we have so many teleconference meetings and totally understand what you're talking about! i've never become best friends with the mute button as i have during this job

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