Phoning it in on a conference call

In research, budgets are being squeezed everywhere. We are all suffering cutbacks in vital areas such as capital equipment spending, salaries and the quality of office biscuits. Often the target of the cutback is determined by the age old management technique of cutting the thing that management is most confused by. But some things are nearly universal targets for cuts and one of the first things within an organisation to get squeezed until it’s essentially non-existent is travel.

Travel in research has many purposes, from meetings with collaborators to travelling very very quickly away from a place that you fear may be quickly about to stop being where you left it and might be spread very thinly over a wide area of places around it. And it’s very easy to cut these travel expenses and see immediate savings both in staff travel time and in some cases the number of surviving staff.

Of course these meeting often still need to happen. Science is very very hard to conduct without talking to peers or suppliers. In most cases, the simple solution to this is to move meetings from the real to the virtual with the use of conference calls. And, like it or not, conference calling is rapidly growing as a way of running projects, meeting potential collaborators and informing local authorities of possible tentacle + waste water incidents.

But as horrible as this trend is, I think it’s important to take the time to focus on some of the positives of conference calls so that we can all embrace this rising trend in ‘communication’.

First off, we have the technology. Right now on my computer I have 4 separate conference call software packages installed while I sit here with a mobile phone in my pocket and a lab phone next to me. They all have their issues, software systems have more compatibility issues than the time I tried to install iOS on my multimeter, mobile phones have reception based on wind direction and landline phones suffer from squirrels. But starting a conference call by spending 10 minutes waiting for everyone to coax their squirrel of the wiring and 10 minutes trying to get one person’s microphone to work is an important ice breaking part of the experience.

Secondly, all this technology allows new and exciting possibilities during a conference call. Mid-meeting you can hit the mute button and happily munch on some cake. Or, if you’re with a colleague, you can use the mute button to add mad-libs to some of the things other people are saying. As they talk hit the mute button and add you own sarky remark much to the amusement of your colleague. A variant of this is where you only pretend to hit the mute button and let your colleague say something sarky to the entire call. It’s not very enjoyable for them but everyone else will love it.

Thirdly, I think it’s important to remember that face to face meetings have a hidden cost – clothing. In real life meetings you have to look presentable and after some awkward meetings I’ve discovered that charity shop Hawaiian shirts don’t fulfil that. Conference calls (which are often audio only) allow you more freedom to dress how you want, free of the anxiety of having to ‘dress up’. Embrace this and attend your next conference call dressed up as a Disney princess and you’ll be amazed how relaxed about it you’ll feel.

Finally, I think one big advantage with conference calls is that you can always sound much more knowledgeable than at regular meetings. Being able to say “sorry didn’t catch that” three times is perfect for buying enough time to google the answer and then read out the wikipedia page, which is to be honest exactly what I’d do after the meeting anyway.

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