I got together recently with my friend Kristine, eager to draw upon her expertise as a working mother.
Since I'm a midlevel corporate employee who has just recently returned to the workforce and Kristine is a longtime executive, I was hungry for any tips she could give me on time management and how to run a household and a full-time career without the option of cloning myself.
"Online grocery shopping is a lifesaver," Kristine declared.
"You just fill out an order form and hit send, and the groceries show up on your kitchen counter."
"But isn't it kind of time consuming just to fill out the order form?" I prodded. "When do you find time to sit down and go over all the choices and figure out everything you'll need for the upcoming week?"
Although Kristine is the key accounts director for a major pharmaceutical company, there wasn't a tinge of irony or humor in her response.
"Oh, that's what conference calls are for," she said.
Ah, right. Conference calls.
Those magical little interludes throughout the day when everyone sits in the privacy of their own offices, earning their keep simply by listening to a phone call.
Of course, on any given call there are a certain number of people who are expected to be discussion leaders, and they have no doubt spent plenty of time preparing the information and thinking how to best present it.
But there is inevitably also a cast of supporting actors, those of us who have been included in the meeting invitation just to bear witness, record information, or double-check facts.
We're the ones sitting silently on the calls, only the occasional cough or interjected comment to remind the group of our presence.
Meanwhile, we sit at our desks, receiver balanced on our shoulder and eyes on our computer.
We look industrious and we feel justified, for we are exactly where we are supposed to be at that particular moment in the workday.
And as we sit there, precious minutes spool out in front of us for taking care of all kinds of personal tasks.
With one ear devoted to the marketing director's analysis, we still have eyes, fingers and a brain to take care of everything else that conference calls lend themselves to. In Kristine's case, this means filling out her weekly grocery order.
Other people are perusing discount travel sites to plan their next family vacation, checking out the company cafeteria's daily menu, e-mailing their college friends to make plans for where to stay during the next reunion, or updating their virtual community on how they did in the weekend's half-marathon.
You could certainly argue that these are all things people can do at their desks without a conference call going on, but the allure of a conference call is that it gives everyone a sense of legitimacy.
They are not stealing the time from another task they could be doing; they are spending the half hour exactly as they are supposed to, by listening and occasionally participating in a call.
Finding something else to do with the other 90 percent of one's attention during that time isn't being slothful; it's creative multitasking.
I'm convinced that there's a market for a full suite of updated parlor games to be played by silent co-workers during conference calls.
This idea arose when a colleague on a call started e-mailing me the first two lines of every cheer she could remember from her high school cheerleading days to see if I could fill in the following couplet.
Another good conference call game is "Count the buzz phrase."
Each contestant chooses a phrase such as "Take it offline," "Low-hanging fruit" or "Leverage our synergy" and gets a point any time another member of the call uses the phrase.
Or challenge a friend to a match of conference call haiku, with entries such as "Man I wish this call/Would end before the sun sets/I'd fit in a run."
For my friend Hilary, a conference call was the equivalent of catching a stranger's eye across a crowded room: 15 minutes into the call, she got an e-mail saying "That was a very insightful comment about customer allegiance. Want to discuss it over dinner?"
What wonderful technology. We can conduct a group discussion with distant colleagues and avoid time-consuming business trips; moreover, we can check movie listings and get our grocery shopping done to boot.
I'm just crossing my fingers that someone in my work group comes up with several very important topics to discuss via conference call in the next few days, because I have a lot of online clothes shopping to do before spring arrives.
Let the rest of the team come up with a marketing strategy; I could have a whole new wardrobe by the time they wrap up the call.