Should voice calls make a come-back?
The place of voice calls in our working lives
Let's start with the shock. The other day my land line rang. I almost jumped out of my skin. My first thought was that there was a family emergency. Who else would call without an appointment during the day? My pulse had actually quickened.
I then realised that I rarely receive, or make, any unscheduled telephone calls any more. It hasn't been a conscious decision, I wasn't even aware of it, it was just a pattern that has emerged gradually over time. Most of my communications now come via email, or messages from other social media platforms, or scheduled online calls on Skype and conference calls.
Research from the Radicati Group, specialists in technology market research tell us that in 2014, 108.7 billion emails were sent every day. We all feel as though we get our unfair share of those, especially into our spam folders. Even with the increase in smart phones they are not being used for phoning. "Voice calls" as they are seemingly now labelled, are on the decline and have been for some time. 50 billion WhatsApp messages are sent per day, in addition to regular texts. This preference for texting is leading to what a doctor friend describes as a spike in, "numb thumb " to use the vernacular, and other repetitive stress injuries to the hands and wrists.
The phone call has gone the way of the hand written letter.
The first conversation was with a fellow business school coach and senior H.R. professional, Jocelyne de Pessemier , who runs a large L & D team at BPost, Belgium, She recounted the failure of her internet connection when she was telecommuting. Rather than decamping to an internet café or making the commute to the office to send her mails, she decided to make calls. On the telephone.
She could certainly have covered the content quicker in a mail. It would have taken a nanosecond to hit send. But the upside was that she spoke directly to the intended recipients of the mail and realised straight away the power of personal contact and the value of the small talk at the beginning and end of the conversation. Listening to their voices she was able to gauge more closely their reactions and what was really going on for them. It was something she had stopped doing without realising it.
She is now going to integrate unscheduled calls into her business routine.
The second conversation was with a client who wanted to clear up a miscommunication and apologise for a misunderstanding.She also wanted to re-establish a professional relationship with this person who had become distant. I asked her if she had considered calling.
Her response was " what...you mean a voice call... on the phone.. without an appointment?"
I did. Clearly prefaced by asking her if she had time. Another job seeker looked aghast when I suggested he pick up the phone to call some connections.
Phone calls are now considered to be an outdated way of communicating and unscheduled calls intrusive and even rude interruptions. There are any number of other, faster methods to communicate. We also now have ways to control these interruptions via voice mail, caller ID and even a decline option. This is impacting many traditional business models.
The bonus, as one procurement manager told me is that it makes it easier to manage or block cold calls from sales people.
In a large open plan office recently one thing struck me forcibly. The silence.
In door less office spaces, with no admin to field calls for even senior people, voice calls are a clearly a rarity. Phone call appointments have become the new business norm, very often taken in sound proofed rooms, allocated for that specific purpose. Without an appointment, we have no guarantee a call will be achieved. Chance contact may also not be well received. An account manager charged with cold calling for his company, reported tales of extreme verbal abuse (f words liberally used) when he did finally speak to someone.
A Finance Director confessed to now finding unscheduled calls " intensely irritating " particularly if she is in the middle of something. But she also admits that five years ago they wouldn't have bothered her. So what has changed?
"I am totally bogged down in email" she said. "I have no time to take unscheduled calls"
The average UK worker deals with 40 emails a day with one in twelve handling as many as 100 daily. 20% never even leave their desks.
Yet all research suggests that the scope for miscommunication via virtual channels is high (about 50% chance of misunderstanding.) And we continue to do it.
The other element is that many simply don't know how to approach their jobs on the phone. They either lack the skills or old ones are rusty.
Virtual communication is even spilling over into our private lives. Contact with my kids who live in different parts of the world is challenging, as they are difficult to pin down on the phone. "Why do you want to hear my voice " asked my London based son, genuinely bemused. Doodle polls, texts, emails and social media are now tools used to set up social occasions and make arrangements. Large events have web site templates to make communication easier.
But as we entomb ourselves in our digital and silent worlds, knowing that the chances of effective communication are potentially fraught with misunderstanding, will there ever be place again for an unscheduled telephone call?
Just like the hand written letter, by exception the phone call can be a very meaningful form of communication, if used judiciously with discretion and respect.
Do you think "voice calls" still have a place? Can they make a come back? Let me know! Take this poll!