It is easy to imagine an office of people chatting and laughing during their lunch break in any company. However in Shanghai multinationals, this wave of commotion happens again later in the evening. What for? Telephone conferences (TC).  Colleagues at nearly all levels are participants in TCs. Up the ladder to the VPs who make go/no-go decisions of global projects, down to the supply chain specialists who discuss the quality and price of raw materials. You may wonder why I am even talking about TCs; they are part of business as usual in most places, used to engage people into discussion. What is unique about the TCs in Shanghai multinational corporations is that they are not usually during normal work hours. These calls often take place late in the evenings in order to adjust for time differences because many of the corporate headquarters are located on the other side of the world. These late night TCs have become a central piece of Shanghai multinationals’ work culture and so I thought I would tell you more about them.


Understandably, people complained about the odd hours of TCs. My colleagues sometimes joke about how “international” our company is as we head to the elevator after yet another late evening TC.  Some of my colleagues tell me that they try to avoid any TC held after 10pm no matter how important it is.  Yes, I could not agree more – no one actually likes late night TCs!


Obviously, the difference between a late night TCs and normal TCs is when it is held.  Recently, I have been working on a global project that involves four different sites located in Cambridge UK, San Diego US, Boston US and Shanghai China, respectively. On projects like these, it is impossible to find a perfect time to hold regular TCs for all four sites. In this case our teleconference was finally scheduled for 3pm in UK, which is 7am in San Diego, 10am in Boston and 11pm in Shanghai. It is slightly painful, although not impossible to adjust for the awkward time - by turning your alarm clock 2 hours ahead if you are in San Diego or staying up 2 more hours if you are in Shanghai like me, you can make it work.


When planning these types of TCs it is even more important to carefully select the participants that you need to include on the call. The odd hours make it even more of an inconvenience for those colleagues who are asked to attend but are not critical to the issue being discussed.  Onetime we had a TC discussing a primarily chemistry related project. At the end of the TC, it was almost 12pm for the biologist who had been asked to attend.  He did not have much input for this particular meeting and finally exclaimed, “You chemists could have had this meeting without me.”


Despite the potential pitfalls, as a scientist who works on these types projects, I think it is extremely important to use TCs for frequent communication. Discovery projects need a variety of expertise and have many possible solutions. It is difficult for anyone to get the whole picture alone. Also, the pharmaceutical industry has been around for a while; there is a treasure trove of developed tools and advice about what has or has not worked in the past, people in the field just need to ask each other. By enhancing communication across different sites and with outside talents, we can develop better strategies to move forward and avoid reinventing the wheel.


Of course, it is impractical for everyone, scattered around the world, to meet face to face every other week so that is where teleconferences come in. TCs become a necessity for many projects and that means that someone will always have to take the late night time slot. With TCs, we also encounter additional problems, like lack of non-verbal communication and inefficiency to build trust. It isn’t a perfect answer, but I think the only thing worse than having late night TCs is not to have any TCs at all! Then when you really need to, you can go visit the other offices. Look, I have already booked my flight tickets to the US. I am going to have a “real” talk to my dear TC colleagues.


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Quan Zhou has studied and worked in the pharmaceutical center of Boston and biotech center of San Diego for eight years. He moved back to China in 2014 and started his career as a drug discovery scientist.