The telephone, a staple of business communication for more than a century, is becoming increasingly redundant as office workers shun voice calls in favour of text messaging, video link-ups and collaboration apps.
Some consider these alternatives more efficient, while a significant number of people actively dislike using their smartphone as an actual phone.
A survey of UK office workers in 2019 found that 76 per cent of millennials and 40 per cent of baby boomers feel anxious when their phone rings. Almost two-thirds of millennials – many of whom grew up in a home without a landline - simply avoid answering their phone, while a growing number of people won’t pick up a call from an unknown number in case it is a telemarketer or fraudster.
When legal firm Sprintlaw officially abandoned the company phone in 2020, its use had already diminished.
“We have a lot of young people in the company and we probably use text-based communications more frequently than other organisations,” says Minna Boyle, Sprintlaw's Head of People and Culture.
“We were already used to not communicating on the phone, which may have made the transition easier.”
Texting has gained in popularity as a user-friendly channel that allows time for a person to consider their reply and not feel self-conscious about the sound of their voice.
In contrast, younger employees in particular worry about being confronted by an angry customer over the phone, according to the findings of a 2022 study. They are also wary of being overheard and judged by a manager on the way they handled the call. Some also cited a fear that their accent would not be understood, or that they would not understand someone else’s accent.
For Sprintlaw, dropping the phone suited its workforce, which is entirely remote, spread across different geographies, and works flexible hours.
“Calling someone wasn't always appropriate because our staff aren’t working at the same time,” explains Boyle.
“We wanted our interactions to be more intentional, which meant having properly planned meetings and using asynchronous communication tools. We also wanted to remove the administrative hassle and cost of setting up company phones. And because we barely see each other in person, seeing the other person via video makes it a bit more personal.”
The overhaul is limited to internal communications: Sprintlaw set up a cloud call system for clients who phone up to speak to their legal advisor.
Pre-recorded videos using the free tool Loom have been unexpectedly popular, as it allows someone to show a team member the issue they are having (such as an IT glitch) and for the recipient to view and respond at a time that suits them. Quick and urgent messages can be sent via the internal chat system.
Still, not everyone is ready to give up the phone just yet. Mature age workers in particular often prefer to pick up the handset and talk to a person directly, while communication some experts like Matthew Levinson argue there is still a place for a voice call in the modern workplace.
“Email is essential, as are a range of other channels – but when things are going awry or when you’re dealing with busy people who have crazy inboxes, there’s nothing like picking up the phone to sort things out and get things moving,” says Matthew Levinson, Director of Corporate Affairs at the Committee for Sydney.
Still, methods of communication have always evolved alongside technology, and companies increasingly favour the functionality and flexibility offered by newer channels.
International advertising agency JMarketing Agency stopped using phone calls seven years ago. Even back then, it felt like a natural transition because phone calls were scarcely being made.
“To be clear, we still have mobile phones, but we don't use the call function basically ever, and clients aren't given anyone's phone number; nor is it listed on our website,” says Josh Strawczynski, managing director via email from Mexico. “But if anything, we are more contactable now than ever.”
His team are more focused without the distraction of their phones suddenly ringing and clients can choose their preferred communication tool to reach a member of the team. They can book a time using online calendars.
“[Not using the telephone] is scarcely a sacrifice when you can receive an instant reply from Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Zoom, email, Skype and so forth. The technology is so easy to use that it's actually harder to use a telephone,” he says. “When calling overseas it can be difficult to know how to use country codes, whereas Zoom just takes care of it.”
Another benefit is that all the conversations are recorded on these platforms, which has been useful for double checking a client’s instructions. Strawczynski says that clients have been impressed by the efficiencies gained.
“We still have clients that can only be contacted by mobile phone, and that's fine – we call them through Skype. But it is super rare. We make maybe a handful of these calls a year.”