Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Conference call madness

Sorry for the long layoff. I'm consistently inconsistent, particularly when it comes to blog posts. Besides, it's been snowing like never before in the Western US, so in my spare time I've been skiing instead of blogging. If you've never been in the white room before, please don't take up skiing. I don't like sharing my powder. If you have, you know why I have not been blogging.

Anyway, today's suggestion comes to us from someone who is doubtless an engineer. And doubtless NOT a human factors engineer.

I spend quite a lot of time on conference calls, which also means a fair amount of time listening to hold music waiting for the conference call to begin. Why not add a call-back feature that saves us from being on hold waiting for the chairperson to arrive? And in case we arrived late and the meeting has already ended, why not add a "call ended" feature, so that I don't sit on hold wondering whether the call is delayed when in fact it's over? While we're at it, we could also add an overlap feature that would prevent the next meeting's attendees from listening in to the end of the previous call if it happens to go over. This anti-overlap feature could work in conjunction with the callback feature to help make things more efficient and reduce telecom costs for the company.

[Editor's note: this is the abridged edition of the suggestion. The real suggestion was so long, if it were printed, it would provide enough paper to clean up after an Iowa hog with giardia. Had it not been so rich with insight that only a technojunkie would find useful, I doubt I could have made it through the entire thing. I once spent nearly an entire summer reading the unabridged edition of Les Miserables, and the 100+ pages about the Battle of Waterloo whose only purpose were to introduce Msr. Thenardier and let us know what a singular low-life he was were in fact a far more concise bit of prose than the seven paragraphs rendered by our faithful employee towards the critical end of improving conference call technology.]

So let's start by summarizing here. You want to add the following features to the conference call:

1. A call ended indicator that will let people who dial in late know that the call is already over.

2. A callback feature that, should you dial in before the chairperson initiates the call, will call you back and allow you to rejoin.

3. An overlap feature that will prevent people who dial in on-time for the next call on the same line from participating in the previous call if it runs over.

4. Enabling feature "2" to work in conjunction with feature "3."

There is actually existing technology that has been around for quite some time that renders all four of these suggestions moot. It's called a clock. Perhaps you have heard of it. It tells you what time it is, so that you know whether or not to begin your meeting. It also works at the end of the meeting to make sure that you conclude on-time. Really quite a remarkable bit of innovation, and from what I understand, quite the little cottage industry in Switzerland. Moreover, with the advent of the Internet, it's now possible for all of the clocks on all of the computers within a company or even throughout the world to be synchronized, thereby eliminating the chance that some participant or another has not set his clock correctly.

However, even if you and all of the participants in your meeting are in possession of working clocks, that does not necessarily eliminate the possibility of tardiness. Your first suggestion, a "call ended" indicator would help those who suffer from chronic tardiness to know when said tardiness has forced them to miss the meeting in its entirety. Here's a clue, though, since you obviously seem to be missing your allotment: if you are late for a call, you dial in, and nobody is there, the call is over. It is never yet to start. So instead of hoping for something to tell you outright what is obvious to the rest of us, hang up and call one of your colleagues if you still insist on verifying that the call already ended without you. If you really insist on having this feature, though, I guess it would be alright if the indicator were a recorded message that said "late again, idiot, you missed the meeting."

Feature "2" is an interesting suggestion. But here's a better one: sit there and enjoy the hold music and work on something else. If the chairperson is in possession of a working clock and does not suffer from chronic tardiness, you'll lose more productivity entering the information for the callback, waiting for the callback, and then rejoining the call than you will just sitting tight for a few minutes. Deal with it.

And I reject your assertion that feature "3," an anti-overlap feature, would be a good thing. Most of the time when a call runs over, it's not because I or anyone who actually does work wanted it to. So when other people start dialing into the line intent on discussing something else, this forced terminus of the topic at hand can be the only thing that saves me from completely losing patience. If you took this feature away, the term "going postal" would probably be replaced by "going huge company."

"Feature 4," however, is a good idea. Seriously, it is. In fact, why don't you start working on a way to integrate feature 4 without feature 1, 2, or 3. Spend as much time on it as you can, even if your manager asks you to do something else and warns you that you're off task. I promise, it will pay off eventually. Not necessarily for you, but it will pay off. Thanks for the suggestion!