Washington - Everything you have always suspected about conference calls at work is true. The Harvard Business Review is on it.
Dave was silently going to the bathroom. Marlene was definitely hiding in a closet. And those are just the ones who were willing to talk.
The good news is that you are not alone. The bad news is that they are on to us.
This was a prisoner's dilemma, but we failed to recognise it as such. If only we'd all said we were Working Twice As Hard. Then nothing would change.
If you look at the survey answers reported by the HBR, you can see the struggle. Let's break them down, ordered by the percentage of workers who reported them.
1. Other work
This is the No. 1 thing that people said they were doing during conference calls. These people were trying to keep the illusion of the conference call alive. “Sure, maybe I wasn't paying attention during the call,” these people said. “But that was not because I was not dedicated. On the contrary, I was MULTITASKING.” These are the people, in job interviews, who say that their greatest weakness is that they are “too dedicated” and that “all my friends describe me as a detail-oriented workaholic whose two favourite hobbies are grammar and reflecting well on the team.”
2. Sending email
These people are also keeping up the illusion that the reason they are not paying attention during the conference call is because they are doing Other, Related Work. Good for them!
3. Eating or making food
This could be productive - who begrudges a remote worker a little snack? - but it is starting to get into dangerous territory.
4. Going to the restroom
Oh, come on! How is this so high on the list?
The only thing certain to ruin any conversation is the suspicion that the other person on the phone with you might secretly be using the facilities. Before the mute button, you could be relatively confident that, if you did not hear the sounds of muffled flushing, all was well. Now you can never be sure. But we could at least pretend. These answers have stripped our armour from us. You can't just admit it like this.
I'm surprised that people felt the need to mention this. Texting is like breathing, at this point - something that is always going on in the background of everything, regardless of the situation.
6. Checking social media
7. Playing videogames
How are more people willing to admit to “going to the restroom” than “playing videogames”? I guess videogames are a little more taxing on your attention, since there might be orcs, but you haven't seen some of the restrooms I've been to.
8. Online shopping
This is just a contemporary form of doodling.
There is a reason this is so low on the list. This is less an admission than a humblebrag. (Oh, hush, thin, disapproving red line! That's in the OED now.) “Yeah, sorry,” this says. “If I was a tad distracted, it was by my massive glutes and quads.” Exercising during a conference call actually makes you look better than before. You are that guy who is always yelling from the treadmill in movies. You are one of those High-Powered Businesswomen of the 1980s with Determination and Shoulder Pads. You are, largely, fictional.
10. Taking another phone call
Again, how are more people willing to admit to using the restroom than to doing this? I guess this is the cardinal sin: cheating on the first call with a second, more pressing call.
I understand that, by and large, restrooms are places where we go to check our phones. This is just a truth of modern life. If you are in the middle of a date and the conversation is less riveting than you hoped, it sounds wrong to say, “Well, I'd like to go stand in a tiled room and check Twitter,” so instead you pretend you're having an emergency.
But I guess a larger question is: What else did they imagine was happening?
People are now suggesting that the way around this is to do video calls all the time. Great.
This is why you should never tell the truth to people surveying your habits. If only we could go back to the way things were before, when we assumed that we were the only wrongdoers and that everyone else was conducting calls the way they were supposed to. Now we are all going to have to stare into each other's just-a-beat-behind faces and pretend we are riveted. And I'm sure people will still figure out innovative ways to use the restroom at the same time.