Work-from-Home Diaries: The Anatomy of Every Office Conference Call


Work-from-Home Diaries: The Anatomy of Every Office Conference Call

Illustration: Arati Gujar

Before we had office WhatsApp groups, there used to be the meeting. Everything from the quality of the toilet paper in the women’s restroom, to the process of booking conference room for meetings, required a meeting.  Meetings and trainings are the PT period of the corporate world – they give you a break from the routine and help you kill some time.

Thankfully, we’ve now progressed to a point where only if the matter to be discussed is important, urgent, and confidential – for instance, who raided the office liquor cabinet? –  it warrants a physical meeting. If it involves a discussion on whether liquor should be served at the next off-site or in times of a pandemic how many more days should we extend the work-from-home diktat, with a largely young group who can figure out how to turn on the webcam, then a Skype call is enough to get the job done. But if a few of those involved in the discussion, are above 35 and the subject to be discussed does not involve the excitement of alcohol or the mystery of theft, then it is time for what that most office-goers dread today… a conference call.

The journey of every conference call begins with planning a conference call. It is a burden that eventually falls into the lap of the office intern, aka office ka kaccha nimboo. He maybe an MBA or a Ph.D, but there are some things that degrees can’t buy. The intern has no choice but to take up the task and coordinate the timings with his colleagues, reminding him of the time he mocked his call-centre friends. Then comes the real part, setting  up the call after going through two-digit approvals from HR, sending invite mails while keeping hierarchy in mind as responses come in.

Every con call involves three sets of people: Those who will accept the invite promptly and attend the call (these are the really unimportant folks, who have all the time in the world), there are those who will decline the invites with brilliant excuses (the middle-rung guys), and those who accept the invite, but never dial in (the top rung). If the last lot gives the call a miss (of course they have no time to inform you plebs that they won’t make it), the discussion is redundant, and the process must start all over again, even if it drains the all the enthusiasm out of you. If you are an intern, you can only hope that another apprentice who is junior to you has joined a day later so that the con call becomes his responsibility. But you are no Domino from Deadpool now, are you?

Your level of seniority in the office determines how late you can join the call.

Once the con call is finally set up, other dreaded rituals kick in. For instance, if you’ve made the mistake of joining the call early, you have to engage in pointless small talk with whoever else is present on the other line. It’s usually someone from a different team, in a different city, whom you’ve never met or have nothing to do with. As you discuss mundane things like weather and IPL, your misery is interrupted by new members who keep joining in. Eventually, you have a dilemma of when it is socially acceptable to cut the small talk and focus on the subject of discussion? After some ten minutes, the conversation veers toward work, but you settle for some good old bitching. And the minute you say, “Do know what Mr Sharma did at the last party,” Mr Sharma, a senior manager or a partner in the firm joins the call, as if on cue. This is followed by a deafening, awkward silence.

Your level of seniority in the office determines how late you can join the call. If a partner joins the call last, he’s just a busy person who made time for this, but if you’re a junior who joins last, you’re lazy, irresponsible, or maybe plain stupid. In such a case, always pass the buck. Blame Vodafone, say you had “connection issues”.

Worry not, because worse that you is that one over-enthusiastic guy who is travelling and has joined the call from a cab or bus. Along with phony dedication, he also brings in a lot of background noise that ruins the call, with everyone struggling to hear what is being said. Someone finally breaks the ice and commands him to put his speaker on mute.

The call gets underway with a roll call that reminds you of school, with the senior-most person playing teacher. This same person also lays down the purpose of the call. These are the only 10 seconds when everyone is attentive; it’s all you can ask for in the era of short attention spans and listicles. Then the con call turns into an Indian wedding  party – where everyone is just blending in with the crowd and not contributing in any way. For most people, the con call is a merely formality, like tax returns, MBA, and an arranged marriage.

At this stage, you can put the call on speaker, mute yourself, and settle in for a long chat about something more inconsequential like the latest Snapchat filter with other colleagues who are logged in from your location.

While you are cracking jokes, the conversation on the other end of the line turns into a debate and two people begin to dominate the call. You tune in again and just to make sure that folks like you haven’t zoned out, someone senior will throw in a “What do you’ll think (insert names of other attendees)?” every few minutes. Nobody cares about your input, so throw in some generic sentences like “I agree” and “That’s great” to validate the ideas that are being discussed.

The length of a con call is a good indicator of how productive the discussion was. The longer a con call lasts, the less productive it is. The result of every office conference call is like a TV channel debate. After spending hours of time and energy on it , you reach a fractured verdict.

The end of the call is when the enthusiasm level peaks again. It’s time for the goodbyes and everyone starts speaking together. No one can hear anyone, but it is important that you speak. It is the equivalent of getting a picture clicked with the bride and groom at a wedding. It’s a stamp that says, “I was present”.

After all, con calls are like your distant cousin’s wedding. If you show up and do nothing, that’s fine, but if you skip it for no good reason, you will be taunted about it for the next 200 years.