The rise and fall of the conference call

We’re all well-accustomed to the era of the Zoom call to bring together distributed teams. But whatever happened to the good old-fashioned conference call? 

For that matter, what was the conference call originally designed for? Don’t worry, it’s not as boring as the last conference call you were forced to sit through at work. Turns out that conference calls aren’t fun because we’ve been trying all these years to make conference calls wear too many hats.

The origin story: Conference calls are born

The very first conference call was made by none other than Alexander Graham Bell, the first owner of a patent for the telephone in the United States. His assistant, Watson, as well as the mayors of New York City and San Francisco, joined Bell on the first conference call in 1915. Even President Woodrow Wilson later joined the call as a part of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. 

Over 100 years ago this was big news, and the event was attended by many people. Prior to this exchange, phone calls could only be made between two locations, connected by a single copper wire. The dedicated line for conference calls took nearly 10 minutes to set up with switchboard operators on either end, and it cost today’s equivalent of nearly $500 USD

The rise of the conference call: In vogue in the 1970s and 80s

The very first conference calls were made as an innovation to connect dignitaries across countries and continents in real-time. When people couldn’t be in the same room or needed to discuss an urgent matter, the conference call line was the answer. It facilitated a basic human need: bring people together to converse.

The 1970s brought with it the wonders of digital technology. Prior to this breakthrough, conference calls were hosted using analog bridges, meaning all call participants were connected via a centralized hub. But with analog technology, there were limits on how many people could attend and how great the audio quality was. 

Digital audio bridges made it possible to transmit higher quality audio and to have many more participants on each conference call. As the technology was developed and more widely adopted, it also came at a lower cost. Now we can see why corporate America jumped on the bandwagon and went hog-wild with the conference call. Cheaper communication? In real-time? Without needing to send company-wide memos or call large in-person meetings? Heck, yes!

Where we asked too much of the good old conference call

The original conference call with the analog audio bridge could only support a few call participants at one time. We now know that was actually perfect for work conversations. Just five to eight people is the ideal size for a productive meeting, according to HBR. Beyond that, the setting is less intimate and people feel that they don’t need to be as prepared or contribute quite as much.

The other tricky thing about conference calls is how politically charged the email invite list can be. How many times have you accidentally forgotten to add a manager to your meeting, only to find out they took offence to not being included? The default tends to be over-inviting attendees, which again leads to less engagement and people feeling they can (or should) be multi-tasking during the meeting.

In 2014, InterCall conducted a fascinating study on what people are really doing during a conference call. Here were the top answers as reported by HBR:

  1. Other work
  2. Emails
  3. Making/eating lunch
  4. Going to the washroom 
  5. Texting buddies
  6. Scrolling through the ‘Gram

And while a conference call could be an efficient way to distribute news or discuss a project, it’s not the ideal medium all the time. There are instances when a conference call could have been an email, an interdepartmental memo, or simply a quick chat in a colleague’s office (maybe even a quick one-on-one chat in today’s WFH world). But the overloaded conference call became confused with productivity. 

In addition, with the increased participant capacity due to digital audio advances, more and more people get added to call agendas who likely could be doing something better with their time. And, as it turns out, they did. They knew that the conference call structure was being abused and more often than not they could disengage, and so even when the meeting was important, they weren’t present. People got conference call fatigue and the calls started to fall out of fashion. 

Conference calls deathblow: Video confering software

In the early 2000s, conference calls up levelled their audio quality in another great leap with the assistance of the internet. Just as the transition from analog to digital changed the game, and saw swarms of professionals hopping on conference calls 20 years prior, now they were all hopping off the phone and onto their laptops. 

As internet service speed and bandwidth improved, so too did our favourite video conferencing software solutions. The likes of Skype, Zoom, and now Google Hangouts are common vernacular in the boardroom and in remote workers’ living rooms. 

On top of better audio quality, video call participants can now see each other, share screens and give presentations to a group of people all over the world. The ability to see another person’s facial expressions and to feel more connected or engaged, even when miles apart, fills that deep-seated human need for communication and collaboration. So, it’s no wonder companies and families alike have adopted the technology willingly and left the poor old conference call in the dust. 

But have video calls solved the problem with meetings?

In short, no. Now, meetings where we’re all multi-tasking and drifting in-and-out of focus are simply on a new platform. We haven’t learned to lessen the number of participants to make things more productive, and we certainly haven’t seen a decrease in the number of calls we’re all attending during the workday. If anything, we now have more meetings, because we can’t just stop by our colleague’s office to ask a question. 

Even with high-tech video conferencing tools, we struggle to focus. There may be distractions at home for some people who are balancing childcare and work, as well as roommates and their own working schedules.

On top of that, many of us simply turn off our cameras, so we don’t have to be so “on” all the time. It’s easy to check your email or work on another project when you’re on mute and your camera is off. 

So, how do we solve the problem going forward? Well, for starters, a lot of the platforms on hand have a break-out room function that would allow for meetings of only five to eight people.

Employees could actually take part in the conversation and have their voices heard in the smaller group, which would force more preparation and participation. As an added bonus, this is a better setting for introverts who prefer the quieter environment (even virtually). 

As businesses transition back to having some employees in the office, it’s not going to look the same as before with physical distancing measures in place. In-person meetings won’t be a practical option. In other words, the video conference call isn’t going anywhere. But the solution is a much bigger conversation for managers and C-suite executives alike. 

While conference calls are perfect to facilitate collaboration in remote working scenarios, they need to be used more sparingly and more strategically. Cultures need to shift so that people aren’t offended if they aren’t on the invite list. Finally, any meetings that don’t require actual input or participation from people could also shift to on-demand distribution, like an internal podcast or an update on the company news page.

We’re all well-accustomed to the era of the Zoom call to bring together distributed teams. But whatever happened to the good old-fashioned conference call? 

For that matter, what was the conference call originally designed for? Don’t worry, it’s not as boring as the last conference call you were forced to sit through at work. Turns out that conference calls aren’t fun because we’ve been trying all these years to make conference calls wear too many hats.