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By: Rupak Bhattacharya
If only someone had just picked up the phone. Advita Patel, founder of CommsRebel—an internal communication and employee experience consultancy—recalls thinking that when she was called in to mediate between two managers. How it unfolded showed her how easily wires can get crossed in the world of high-tech communication.
In this case, two managers shared the same employee as a direct report, and each agreed that the employee was underperforming. But when one manager had a conversation with the worker before the other manager could, a series of texts followed that grew increasingly tense. As it continued, nerves were frayed and Patel had to step in. “If only they had picked up the phone and had a minute-long conversation,” she sighs. “It could have all been avoided.”
For almost as long as telephones have been around, companies have relied on them as the lifeblood of their communication. In the early days, phone calls were quicker and easier than sending a telegram and offered colleagues the chance to communicate in real time—literally at the speed of sound. The advent of cell phones was another quantum leap in convenience, untethering the workforce from their desks. Deals could suddenly be made from the car, the plane, or even the toilet if the need was urgent enough.
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But somewhere along the way, people started to phone it in. Literally. Recent surveys show that fewer people are using the once hallowed device, beginning with millennials—a reported four out of five get anxiety just thinking about making a call, with 21 percent likely to avoid calls from work. Experts say millennials, comprising the largest slice of the workforce, have influenced workers from other generations to pull back on their phone use as well. As if to pound an emphatic nail in the phone coffin, Kim Sklinar, a Group Internal Engagement Manager at insurer AutoProtect, says she has only one use for the century-old device. “The phone is a paper weight,” she says.
The reasons for phone phobia are obvious. The speed and expedience of tools like email, Slack, and text have made phone users look like luddites. Yet many experts assert that without continued use of phones, vital connections could be lost and organizations risk stagnating growth. In the world of supply chain, strategic sourcing and procurement are technical business transactions that require dialogue and seller to buyer interaction. That is how trust is formed, says Seth Steinberg, a Korn Ferry senior client partner in the firm’s Supply Chain Center of Expertise. “You simply can’t negotiate without a phone,” Steinberg says.
“You simply can’t negotiate without a phone.”
On an existential level, in today’s hybrid workplace, phone calls could be the essential thread that weaves a workforce together. The office worker of yesteryear could stroll down the hall and check in with a colleague, but with teams now working hundreds or even thousands of miles apart, experts say the feeling of connection that drives company loyalty hangs in the balance. Indeed, a reported 93 percent of companies are concerned about employee retention, and Korn Ferry research finds a primary cause of workers leaving their jobs is a lack of attention from managers and coworkers. Experts say the current over-reliance on text-based platforms is an X factor worth considering—before it’s too late. “There’s something that just feels more personal and intimate about a phone call,” says Sarah Jensen Clayton, senior client partner with Korn Ferry’s Culture and Change practice in North America.
Ironically, when the phone first arrived on the scene, most people thought it was a nifty toy of little practical value. The device even sparked fear in some who believed it would ruin society as people would eventually never leave their homes or speak to one another in person. For the few private citizens who could afford its hefty price tag, the phone was a source of mild embarrassment to be covered from the view of polite company. “You didn’t want guests looking at your pots and pans—or the phone,” chuckles Jody Georgeson, an archivist at the Telecommunications History Group.
Businesses, however, saw the utility in phones right away and later drove adoption to the wider populace. Georgeson relates that Leadville, Colorado mine owner Horace Tabor strung a wire between his home and his silver mines so he could talk to his foreman on the phone rather than walk over. Tabor later granted the townspeople access to his phone and eventually founded the Leadville Telephone Company. Similarly, the general store in smaller towns would sometimes have the only phone for miles in every direction. “If you were in Denver and had to call back home in Philadelphia because somebody died or had a baby,” says Georgeson, “you would go down to the store and use that phone.”
The advent of more affordable phone plans and toll-free numbers in the late 1960s gave businesses an even greater edge. Call centers began sprouting up around the globe as firms raced to embrace customers with a new level of personalized service at massive scale. The phone call’s dominance further accelerated in the era of cell phones with a reported 1.4 trillion minutes of US mobile phone calls placed in 2005.
The decline was comparatively quicker. Between 2005 and 2010, the average call length reportedly dropped from five minutes to less than half that. Experts say the sea change began with Blackberry—the smartphone platform fondly nicknamed “crackberry” by the business community for its addictive messaging interface. 2010 was the year it reached the height of its smartphone market share—43 percent according to Comscore—before being eclipsed by the iPhone and other smartphones which offered a host of sophisticated, worker-friendly apps that enabled people to connect without uttering a single word. Between the beginning of 2014 and 2015 alone, data traffic from cell phones reportedly rose by a staggering 55 percent, while voice usage remained flat. “The iPhone changed how you live, not just how you work,” says Brian Solis, Head of Global Innovation at ServiceNow, longtime pioneer in digital innovation, futurist, and author. In this new world of status update supremacy, “it actually moved us permanently as a society, in work and life, to shift to data usage over voice usage,” he says.
Patel from CommsRebel recalls when a phone call could’ve saved a company she worked for—big time. The firm’s reputation was under fire as she urgently dialed the CEO’s landline and cell phone multiple times to get his sign-off on a press release that could clear the record—but the boss never answered. Patel later found out that the CEO had been golfing with his phone on silent and was not used to people calling him without a prior appointment. The lack of timely press comment from the firm only fanned the flames of rumor, and “it took a long time to bring the organization back to where we needed it to be,” says Patel.
Conveying tone of voice is another facet of communication that text-based platforms simply can’t get around. Time and again coworkers engage in email exchanges that result in hurt feelings when a particular sender’s humor—or lack thereof—is ripe for misunderstanding. Indeed, spending more time on email in general is correlated with more stress, according to one study out of the University of California, Irvine. “The phone is a two-way communication where we can really hear each other and clarify what we mean,” says Peter Simoons, an alliances and partnerships specialist.
Videoconferencing might seem like an ideal—if not superior—solution, but experts say the medium indirectly forces employees to fixate on presenting a certain self-image that can be mentally draining over time. Even the inability to see peripherally beyond colleagues’ video frames decreases psychological safety, according to Andy Holmes, a Korn Ferry leadership and performance expert. The phone, he argues, offers a unique advantage by removing those constraints. “We’ve done stress recovery diagnostics, where you can see a clinically significant drop in stress and active recovery when people do a 20-minute walk and talk on the phone using an earpiece.”
Experts further warn that losing the phone’s functionality as a relationship-building tool could have dire outcomes for business. Survey data shows that people who claim to have a best friend in the firm are more likely to recommend their organization as a great place to work and less likely to leave. But only a reported two in ten employees claim to have that special connection with a coworker. The US Surgeon General’s recent diagnosis of America’s loneliness epidemic may be an inadvertent clarion call for professionals to get back to picking up the horn. Steinberg remembers a phone call where he connected with a senior executive over their shared connection to a particular part of the world. Now, he says, he probably has both a business partner and friend in his life. “That wouldn’t have come up in an email,” he says.
“You can see a clinically significant drop in stress when people do a 20-minute walk and talk on the phone.”
The answer isn’t to return wholesale to phones, say experts, but rather to be clear and intentional about how they’re used. Leaders should be upfront with their teams if they plan to use phone calls as an additional tool, while also being mindful of particular employee proclivities. Jensen Clayton advises messaging people prior to a call to avoid catching them off guard. “We like to anticipate when we’re going to be interacting with people from work,” she says. Given 75 percent of millennials reportedly feel phone calls are too time-consuming, leaders should also be sure to stay on point during conversations, says Zach Peikon, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Marketing Officers practice. “Make the call—but don’t be on the phone forever,” he says.
The phone may never achieve its former glory, but the legacy of phone culture has much to offer when it comes to improving the communication tools of the moment. One example, say experts, would be to bring more of the empathy from phone calls into email and text communication—by using emojis or taking time to use more thoughtful language. “We can’t push our medium of preference upon others,” says Solis. “The most effective communication in any relationship happens when a person transforms to connect with the person they’re trying to engage.”