how long should you wait on a conference call when no one else has joined?

A reader writes:

As I sit here on hold for a conference call that was scheduled to begin 10 minutes ago, I wonder if there is a generally accepted practice around how long to wait in these situations. 10 minutes? 15? Does it depend on the people involved? The scheduled length of the meeting?

I think I tend to wait around 15 minutes, having sent a “Hey, are we meeting?” email or text after 5 minutes or so. Sound right?

I’d say it depends on the people involved.

If it’s people who you manage, I’d wait five minutes at most (and if I were really busy or couldn’t do other work while I was on hold, it might be less) and then hang up. Depending on the circumstances, I’d then either call them directly or email then and tell them to reschedule. If it happened more than once, I’d have a talk with them about keeping commitments and make it clear that it couldn’t happen again, and I’d be on the lookout for other signs of disorganization.

If it’s a vendor, I’d wait five minutes and then hang up and email them asking them to contact me to reschedule. If it happened more than once, I’d tell them that my schedule is tight and I need to start scheduled calls at the agreed-upon time. If it continued after that, I’d complain more directly.

If it’s peers or a client, I’d wait 10 minutes (or five if I couldn’t do other work while I was waiting) and then hang up and send a follow-up email letting them know to tell me when they want to reschedule.

If it’s your manager and the call can’t proceed without her, I’d wait 10 minutes and then hang up and send her an email telling her to call you when she’s free. (An exception to this, of course, would be if your boss has told you she might be late and asked you to wait, or if you know she’d be annoyed if you didn’t sit there waiting. A reasonable manager, by the way, would not have a problem with you handling it this way, unless she’d requested otherwise.)

{ 43 comments… read them below }

  1. Mike B.

    I’d also double-check to make sure you called the attendee number and not the chairperson one.

    Not that I know that from experience or anything.

    1. AdAgencyChick

      Ha! This!

      It 100% depends on who’s involved. I’ve had clients for whom the team has had to wait up to half an hour, sending them anxious text messages all the while. A vendor? Fifteen minutes at the most. But that’s what happens when one client’s ad budget supports the salaries of an entire team.

      1. Chinook

        Or call the person who set it up if they aren’t on the call (ie the admin assistant). After having a couple of complaints about issues with teleconferences I set up for my boss, I now include my cellphone number and a request to call me ASAP if there are issues. Surprisingly, this never dawned on anyone, including my boss, when they were having issues.

        1. Cath@VWXYNot?

          Yup – I’m in on the West coast of Canada and regularly have conferences that include people on the East coast as well as in Germany, Spain, Japan, and Korea. It’s always at 6am my time – the only possible time that even approaches sanity – and someone always gets the time zone wrong and calls in just as we’re finishing. (I always get the time right, but am not always coherent. Not a morning person).

  2. COT

    This isn’t really an answer to the question, but I do find it helpful to have some other tasks to do (filing, organizing my office, wiping down my desk, etc.) while waiting for calls to start or when I’m just listening and not participating. It makes it easier to be patient with late or lengthy calls.

            1. A Bug!

              Early on I made the mistake of not knowing which button was “mute.” When someone asked “Who is that typing?” and I realized it was me I felt mortified – here I was, 22 years old, feeling like I was sitting in shoes far too big for me on a conference call full of men twice my age and five times my income, and the first thing I got to say to them was an apology for being super-rude.

              Fortunately, the response was “Holy crap you’re a fast typer, what’s your WPM?”

              1. Anonymous

                Haha! I’ve had this exact same experience.

                The mute button is tricky business. Sometimes you forget to put it on when you need it, others you start talking and someone else starts talking about something else before you realize you never took it off mute. ;)

            2. FreeThinkerTX

              I remember the time it became clear that the conference call wasn’t going to start for another 5-10 minutes (because of a delay on the presenter’s part), but we all had to stay on the phone because our supervisor could see who was on the call and she would go ballistic if we dropped off. Soooo…. thinking I had successfully isolated the phone call input/output from my computer’s input/output (into the same headset), I cranked up some rock-n-roll to help pass the time.

              Oops.

              Nothing like 40+ people asking – via phone, email, and IM – who the f-ing idiot blasting Jimi Hendrix was.

              [Note to Self: Phone headset in left ear; Bluetooth jamz in right ear]

              1. Chinook

                My DH learned in the military that, when your phone goes off in a crowded room, look like you don’t know where it is coming from either. Hopefully you didn’t admit it either.

              2. Sascha

                Bummer! If it were me, I would have loved some Hendrix to pass the time. Better than barking dogs/crying babies/creeper breathing.

  3. sandra

    …and how long do you wait for a phone interview with a conference dial in number before you hang up? I wait 15 loooong minutes!

  4. The IT Manager

    Depends on the call and situation is true, but in my everyday conference calling I’d never wait 15 minutes. We have meetings with lots of people and if I am the only one on then somehow I missed the message about a time or conf ID# change. Today I waited no more than 6 or 8 minutes for two people, but I know they’re punctual so I know something was off after about 3 minutes over.

  5. Judy

    At about 5 minutes, I check to see if the meeting chair is on IM chat. I’ll ping them if they are. “Hey, are we still meeting?”

    Depending on my perception of how important the call is, I might start pinging other attendees to see what is going on.

    But I’m remote from my entire team, so 90% of my meetings are on conference calls, and sometimes with a few people in a meeting room, they seem to forget to call in for the other 2-3 of us. (And don’t get me started on “So, are you sharing your screen?” “Oh, I guess I’m not yet.”)

    It’s getting better as more people are being “virtually colocated” at my company, and they seem to be picking project teams based on skills rather than location.

  6. SarasWhimsy

    You may want to dial back in. A lot of conference call lines (ADP, AT&T, etc) won’t put you through after waiting for THREE minutes!
    So there you are waiting and fuming because you think you’re the only one who showed…….

  7. ChristineH

    My husband is on conference calls all the time because everyone is so spread out (he works in IT), which are usually hosted by a project manager. From what I’ve gathered (he works from home a lot, thus I often know when he’s on a call), the hosts are usually prompt. In the rare instance they are late, I think I’ve seen him wait maybe 5-7 minutes, then hang up (after checking that the day/time and meeting ID# are correct). That to me seems very reasonable. He has a lot more patience than I do, lol.

    1. BW

      Yes, if the host hasn’t come on in that amount of time, I tend to hang up and then either call or email whoever that person is, because the calls will not connect the rest of the group without the leader dialing in. No point in sitting around listening to hold music.

  8. Stacie

    My first thought is re-dial in. We use various free conference call services, and sometimes 1 person ends up waiting in space and everyone else is on the call – and when they re-dial in they get to the correct conference line.

    I think I’d wait 15 minutes before hanging up, but at 5 minutes email the other attendees to see what’s going on. But if it’s a big on-site meeting and I’m dialing in to it, I’ll be more lenient because I know those are often getting set up and usually someone forgets to dial in until the last minute.

  9. Victoria Nonprofit

    Heh – this was my question. Apparently my 15 minute wait is on the long end (although I should say that I was happily emailing away in the meantime – I’ll take any chance to catch up on some of my quick e-responses).

    Thanks for all your thoughts!

    1. moe

      I think it can be a culture thing too. At my old company, being late to most internal things was just no big deal–people would rather wrap up their previous meetings at their own pace than be smack on time for the next one. Waiting 10 to 15 minutes for a conference call was typical there.

  10. S

    I facilitate a lot of these (multiple a day), and I would never wait alone for more than 2-3 minutes past the start time without reaching out over IM to ask whether people were coming. With some people who are chronically late to call (or sit in the room and forget to dial in), I have started reaching out ten minutes ahead of time to confirm the meeting is still going to work for them. This is also partly because I work on a project where things change rapidly and it’s not unusual for something to be cancelled or rescheduled at the last minute and people forget to spread the word. I’ve accepted it is part of my job and I’ve found it’s not too annoying/disruptive if I plan for it and not just sit around assume other people will show up eventually.

  11. Girasol

    Yes, please, on the IM. My conference today got started with everyone in the room talking and I clean forgot to dial in with the the polycom. A kind and patient listener pinged me. I’m embarrassed and grateful.

  12. Cassie

    I once waited for about 45 minutes. We had an evening telecon scheduled and the host of the call had gone to into labor in the afternoon, but none of the rest of us knew. So I think all of us were waiting for the host to call in to start the call – I’m not sure how long everyone else waited before hanging up but I literally waited for 45 minutes.

    Luckily, I was at home and spent the time swiffering my floors :)

  13. Elizabeth West

    Ergh, I’ll probably have to learn all this. My boss is remote, a second team I’ll be supporting is remote, and the only experience I have with conference calling is transferring calls in to the little spaceship desk phone in the conference room at OldJob. I was told they use IM a lot, but I know they also do calls. There are so many things I DON’T know. Makes me feel like I’m not as cool as I thought I was.

  14. Fishie

    I think it’s OK to send an email to everyone confirming the call is still happening, although I would check first to make sure that a) I called the right number; b) I had the right date/time; c) that I didn’t miss an email changing or cancelling the meeting.

    Also, I would never “tell” my boss to call when she is free. In fact I wouldn’t “tell” my boss to do anything. I’d say, “Hi Boss, looks like that conference call got away from us today. Is there another time that you’d like to meet?” Or I would ask her assitant to help me reschedule. Or I would email her while I was waiting (after taking steps a) b) and c) above) and say, “Just wanted to make sure the conference call was still on!”

    If I forgot about a conference call or got held up and one of my staff emailed me and said, “you were not on the conference call. Please call me when you are available,” I would be annoyed by their directive tone. Maybe I’m just sensistive, but I would. I’d much prefer the inquiry above to a demand that I call them when I am free. People make mistakes, forget things, and get held up. I think you have to give them the benefit of the doubt unless this is a regular occurrence. Then I would just hang up and let whoever scheduled it reschedule. If you scheduled it, I think Allison’s advice for a manager is appropriate.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Eh, I assume we’re all professional adults and can talk to each other as such. I’d absolutely say, “Give me a call when you’re free” to a boss and wouldn’t have any issue with an employee saying it to me. People don’t need to be overly deferential, as long as they’re not being insubordinate.

  15. books

    One of my employees chronically starts meetings just a few minutes late where because they are set up such that you have to be connected through the web portion to use the phone line. Occasionally, we’ll have moved a meeting and then everyone starts emailing saying they can’t connect. Oh, so dreadful.

  16. Anonymous

    We have a 10 minute rule, although with some teams, I know it can take longer. Super annoying when people don’t show up on time and can’t let you know they’re running late.

  17. books

    “If it’s people who you manage, I’d wait five minutes at most (and if I were really busy or couldn’t do other work while I was on hold, it might be less) and then hang up. Depending on the circumstances, I’d then either call them directly or email then and tell them to reschedule. If it happened more than once, I’d have a talk with them about keeping commitments and make it clear that it couldn’t happen again, and I’d be on the lookout for other signs of disorganization.”

    Also, I disagree with this! Where I’ve worked, so many opportunities for this to be because someone else held them in a meeting longer than it was scheduled and they are running late. Yes, it’s annoying, but usually I shoot an email and just go about other stuff while I wait for someone to join if I had time blocked for it anyway.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      If someone I manage is supposed to be meeting with me, I expect them to be there at the time we agreed on. If another meeting is running over, I expect them to excuse themselves from that meeting with an explanation that they have another meeting to be in (which is what I do personally) or to email/IM me to let me know what’s happening. It’s not okay to just not show up on time without alerting the person who’s waiting on them.

      (But then I’ve always built a culture of punctuality and meetings that start and end on time.)

      1. Jamie

        (But then I’ve always built a culture of punctuality and meetings that start and end on time.)

        One of the million reasons I’d work for you in a second.

        I hate the time creep of meetings. I have had people tell me they love when I call a meeting because they know it will start on time, end on time, and there is an agenda. This shouldn’t be remarkable – but it is.

      2. books

        I guess it’s more of an expectation – if it’s people I manage and they’re late because they were chatty and went to get a coffee that’s one thing, but it’s usually because I know they’re stuck in another meeting/call with people who don’t have respect for the hour long meeting.

  18. Amy D

    I had turned off all notification that callers were joining or leaving a call because it’s disruptive, but it’s creepy because I didn’t know who was on. I am going to turn the beeping back on. Does anyone have any funny lines that can be used toward the end of a session, when you’re in Q&A, and you get that beep-beep-beep from people hanging up? It’s awkward.

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