Forget voice mail. Just get rid of your desk phone altogether

Employees increasingly ignore them, and they cost a fortune. Time to cut the landline altogether

Woman kicking a landline phone off her desk while talking on a mobile phone

(Illustration by Peter Arkle)

“At the tone, please record your message. When you are finished, please hang up and send an email containing all the same information.” Those aren’t the voice mail instructions we’re used to hearing, but they should be. Electronic correspondence is the new staple of office communication, and leaving a recorded missive for someone is as obsolete as the Rolodex gathering dust in your drawer.

Coca-Cola got the message last December, dropping office voice mail in favour of a recording that instructs callers to use an alternative method of communication. In a company-wide memo, chief information officer Ed Steinike described the move as an effort “to simplify the way we work and increase productivity.”

Between answering work emails, thinking up ingenious emoji rejoinders to colleagues’ instant messages and reaching out to customers on social media, employees are already doing all the communicating they can possibly manage. The desktop phone is increasingly the last device we turn to: 30% of voice messages go unheard for three days or longer, according to data from uReach Technologies, while 20% of users who took the time to set up their voice mail rarely bother to check it. It’s as much a generational shift as a technological one. A study conducted by the Opinion Research Corporation for U.S. wireless provider Sprint found that 91% of people under 30 respond to texts within an hour.

Even when you do make the effort to check your messages, gleaning the necessary information from them can be a frustrating process. Few of us can write as fast as people speak, so transcribing names, phone numbers and other vital details requires replaying and fast-forwarding. The time you waste trying to decipher if your correspondent said “fork handles” or “four candles” would be better spent elsewhere. If you hold out long enough, the same details are bound to arrive in an email anyway.

But cutting voice mail isn’t enough. It’s the phone itself that can be a productivity killer. In a recent survey by business centre operator Regus, 19% of respondents listed inbound cold calls as the worst interruption to their workday. Conference calls were the primary source of disruption for another 13%, putting telephone-related disturbances higher than transport delays and just behind lengthy meetings in the ranking of productivity impediments.

There’s a financial argument for snipping your company’s landlines too, one that Carlos “Beto” Sicupira understands well. When his firm, 3G Capital, acquired Burger King in 2010 (which last summer purchased Tim Hortons), the new management abandoned all pre-Internet forms of communication. “Costs are like fingernails,” Sicupira says. “You have to cut them continuously.” So now managers have only mobile phones and laptops. Long-distance calls are made via Skype, and courier services are banned—important documents are scanned and emailed instead.

Detailing the minutiae of how your employees communicate might seem unnecessarily dictatorial, but the savings may make up for the micromanaging. “In a 100-person business, you might be looking at anywhere from 25 to 30 phone lines,” says Tim Rayl of Simple Business Solutions, a small-business consultancy focused on finding operational efficiencies. “You would be looking at anywhere from $600 to $800 a month in savings, on the low side.” That doesn’t even factor in the cost of using the phones, which can add up for a business with multiple locations. Just imagine what a company with thousands of employees across continents might save.

Better to cut the cord and communicate with people via email, text, instant message, social media or carrier pigeon. You’ve been ignoring your calls anyway.