In praise of the conference call

Last updated July 9, 2021, 3:51 a.m. UTC

I never thought I would say this, but boy, do I miss conference calls. Remember those?

“Who just joined?” ...... "Sorry, you broke up there." ...... "[Howling wind static]"

Since I started working from home, almost every single meeting I’ve been invited to has been on video. Even when someone just has a quick question or wants to catch up, they’ll send me a Zoom or Google Meet link.

Maybe this should seem normal–after all, when I was in the office, meeting face-to-face was the default.

Except, back then, when I had to speak with someone from a different office, I never once thought to have a video conference. I’d just call them. In fact, I used to spend quite a lot of meetings sitting around a conference table with some coworkers, the Polycom on the desk dialed in to a call, and a document presented up on a screen. We never needed to see the people who were on the line.

If you bear with me, David Foster Wallace presciently highlights the appeal of conference calls in a passage from Infinite Jest [1]:

Good old traditional audio-only phone conversations allowed you to presume that the person on the other end was paying complete attention to you while also permitting you not to have to pay anything even close to complete attention to her. A traditional aural-only conversation [...] let you enter a kind of highway-hypnotic semi-attentive fugue: while conversing, you could look around the room, doodle, fine-groom, peel tiny bits of dead skin away from your cuticles, compose phone-pad haiku, stir things on the stove; you could even carry on a whole separate additional sign-language-and-exaggerated-facial-expression type of conversation with people right there in the room with you, all while seeming to be right there attending closely to the voice on the phone.
And yet — and this was the retrospectively marvelous part — even as you were dividing your attention between the phone call and all sorts of other idle little fuguelike activities, you were somehow never haunted by the suspicion that the person on the other end's attention might be similarly divided.

In my opinion, DFW nails the main downside of the video call takeover: on a conference call, you don't have to pretend to pay attention for others to think you are.

An audio-only call puts everyone on the same playing field, with no way to signal how involved you are. That effectively allows individuals to be in two places at once–getting all the credit for being in the meeting, while also finishing another project, or doing laundry, or playing video games (gasp!).

On video calls, however, turning off your camera to try and do other stuff comes with the cost that others might see you as lazy or disengaged. I know I sometimes assume those not on video in a meeting are working on something else, or just plain not paying attention. (And the truth is that when I turn my own webcam off, it's often because I want to do something else, so this seems like at least a somewhat reliable signal.) 

In fact, most of my coworkers, when they do turn their video off, go out of their way to let everyone know they aren't slacking off: they clarify that they're eating lunch, or their internet isn't working well, etc. As a result, I almost never turn my camera off if others have theirs on, so I don't look like a slacker. Of course, the truth is that in many meetings, not everyone's attention is required all the time. But where conference calls make it easy for individuals to repurpose that dead time to do other things, video calls make it harder.

So how can we get back what we've lost? I'm hoping to convince my company to stop including Google Meet links automatically on every calendar invite, which means even 1:1 chats often turn into video calls. Instead, I'd prefer the default to be a dial-in, and adding video for certain meetings could be only a click away. Until then, I suppose I'll have to keep making a brave face for the camera. ■

[1]: Yeah, yeah, I know. But if you’re willing to invest the time and energy required (and if you're reading this footnote, I'd guess that you are) it's an unbelievably great read.