What can you do while waiting for a call to start?

The upside of smart phones is that much work can be done anywhere these days. The downside is that such work tends to involve a lot of conference calls. Which, as anyone who’s watched this video knows, can feature all manner of bad behavior.

I recently heard from a reader who had a more specific problem with conference calls. Her colleagues were all over the place, and often traveling, and conference calls had a tendency to start late, or get canceled at the last minute (e.g. because someone’s plane was delayed). She estimated she spent 45 minutes of her days waiting for conference calls to start.

I suspect that’s actually underestimating the real time cost, because if you have a call starting at 2 p.m., you often stop doing any deep work by a few minutes before. Or, if your 12:30 p.m. call starts at 12:45 p.m. and runs until 1:15 p.m., you might think there’s not enough time to start deep work before your 2 p.m. call. This is then doubly frustrating when the 2 p.m. call is canceled (after you’ve been waiting on the line for 10 minutes…) You could have done 100-plus minutes of deep work, but instead you didn’t. Meaning you’ll have to do that project at some other point.

So, the question: what can you do with this time? How can you minimize it, or use it well?

I think the first step is to be pro-active about minimizing the time cost by gauging the potential for canceled calls. Either you, or your assistant, can reach out the day before to confirm all calls. Yes, this takes time, and yes it means more email (which is why it is a good task to outsource if you do have administrative help). But buying yourself an extra hour in the day is a big win. It’s also a good chance to ask about the agenda of any calls. If there is no well-thought-through agenda…then maybe it’s best to cancel or postpone.

As part of that confirmation process, you can get intel on how likely the call is to happen. So, if one of the other parties notes that she is taking the call during a layover in O’Hare, or right after a call with someone else who you know is notorious for running long, you can draw your own conclusions on the probability of a timely start.

For all two-person calls, just call the other person directly. And be the one doing the dialing. That way, it will generally start on time (or at least the person will note that you’re calling during another call he/she is on and will be nudged to end the other one).

I’m also a big fan of just starting the call when a few other people are on. Don’t wait for everyone. Yes, you might have to repeat things, but this can take less time than waiting. If the late party is a really senior person whose input or blessing you need, these first few minutes can be spent getting everyone else on the same page. Sometimes a united front makes the interaction with the senior person a lot quicker and easier.

Alternately, you can protect your time by…choosing to be late. As an “upholder” I truly hate this idea, but if your workplace culture is such that all calls start 10 minutes late, then don’t dial in to internal calls on time. (External calls are a different matter, so you’ll need to be careful on this). You can also sort your calls into the categories of “people who are late” and “people who are on time” (and yes, you know who these people are). Call into the late calls late, and call into the on-time calls on time.

Since one of the most frustrating aspects of late calls and canceled calls is that these chop up time, you might do your best to protect deep work time at other points on your calendar. Refuse to take calls before 9:30 a.m. on Monday, for instance. You could get 2 hours between 7:30 a.m. — 9:30 a.m. for deep work. Or maybe you can study your calendar for the next day or two and see an open spot. Note that it is there, and then commit to doing your deep work during this time (rather than cleaning out your inbox).

So that’s the pro-active stuff. But once you’re already on a call waiting for people, I do think there are a few things you can do. One is to view this as “found” time. Put ebooks on your phone and read during these 5-10 minute chunks. (Though it might not be a great idea to mention this to your colleague, as in “hey, I read War and Peace while waiting for you on conference calls this year.”) You can save longer articles in a file and read them while waiting.

You can also keep a list of 2-minute tasks — personal or work-related — to do during these uncertain, small quantities of time. You could text a babysitter and make a dinner reservation and get a date night set up. You could check the weather forecast and text a friend about running together over the weekend. Add to your list of 100 dreams! Planning fun things during this found time also has the benefit of improving your mood, which might be soured by your tardy colleagues.

If you are not the only on-time person on the call, you can use these minutes to really get to know your other punctual colleagues. Don’t just chat about the weather while you’re waiting for others to join (must all conference calls featuring people in different locations start with a discussion of the weather?) Ask about your colleagues’ other projects, their lives, what they’re excited about… It’s like found networking time, without having to get a coffee date on the calendar.

What do you do while waiting for calls to start?

9 thoughts on “What can you do while waiting for a call to start?

  1. This happens to me all the time! (Except when I’m the person who’s late, but I’m trying to make that less common.) The most useful thing I’ve found is actually using the time I’m waiting to check for agendas and likely cancelations for other upcoming meetings. My brain is already in ‘scheduling’ mode, so it feels like a natural fit, and it’s more useful than email.

  2. I have recently been doing a lot of thinking in this area. I don’t have conference calls, but I am an outpatient physician so I am always either waiting for someone to be roomed or they are waiting for me. Certain days I can predict this will be more of a problem (bad weather always results in lots of weird blocks of time). I keep a list of things that have to be done daily that can be done in short snippets (email, approving prescription refills, responding to staff requests), but I still feel like this is time I fritter away. I know there are certain things I cannot do with this time (patient phone calls–they always take much longer than I think they will), but I need more ideas of things I can do in 5-10 minute chunks.

    1. I’m a nurse who works for an outpatient physician so I feel your pain. So much of my work is fragmented. And the time I spend on hold with insurance companies- oh my!!

      1. @Linda M – ugh, being on hold with insurance companies must be the worst. Such a waste of your (and the patients you could be seeing) time!

    2. @Gillian – definitely this issue comes up in different forms in other fields, and waiting for patients (just as they’re waiting for you!) is certainly one of them. I suppose reading things for work, or some of the practice tasks (marketing etc.) might fit in that time.

  3. I declutter my office. You have the call on speaker and muted.then you attack those pesky piles of paper. Sift through newspapers or whatever. Plus you can often continue the declutterkng while your taking the call. I basically only clean my office while on conference calls. It’s a ( great) habit now.

    1. @Vcm – definitely a good idea for tackling those piles without giving it time you could be doing other things.

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