Wednesday, March 23, 2011



This piece in the New York Times -- motto: No Paywall ‘til Monday! -- and this post by Tenured Radical got me thinking about office phones. The Times piece suggests that voice calls are going extinct, and TR suggests sacrificing office phones as a budget cut that wouldn’t really hurt, since they’re mostly vestigial anyway.

Do you use your office phone?

Office phone lines are much cheaper than they once were, thanks to VOIP, so eliminating them wouldn’t bring the savings it would have years ago. But waste is waste, and if phones have become about as relevant as typewriters, it may be time to ask the question.

In my role, I still use the phone, but it’s mostly to find out if someone has a few minutes for a face-to-face conversation. Serious business is conducted either face-to-face or via email. (Exception: phone calls can be useful if you’re trying to convey a message without leaving a paper trail.) But the calls I make to faculty could, conceivably, be replaced by ‘chat,’ since anything substantive requires a face to face discussion anyway. I get the occasional call from home, but there’s no reason I couldn’t use my cell for those. Phone calls can be helpful for urgent and complicated matters, like scheduling interviews with job candidates from a distance, but the number of offices that need to do that is pretty small. I can see having a phone in a department or division office, and some emergency phones here and there, but I’m starting to wonder if a phone in every office is a monument to 1977.

Thinking about how I use my cell, the one function that barely gets used at all is voice. Twitter? Yup. Email? Of course. Angry Birds? Check. Mobile hotspot? Sure. Web surfing? Yup. Texting? Not much, but occasionally. Voice? Barely -- other than calls home on conference trips, I think I’m averaging about five minutes a month. (They’re usually “I’m stuck in traffic” calls.) The fact that over half of my monthly cell bill is for “voice minutes” strikes me as disproportionate. I’d happily go with ten cents a minute for voice on top of the monthly data plan and be done with it. Fifty cents a month for the capacity to call 911 seems fair.

Other than personal calls, voice calls are pretty inefficient most of the time. There’s the etiquette involved, which stands in odd tension with the interruptive quality of the call itself. If you don’t take the call, voicemails are even worse. For reasons I’ve never fully understood, some people never got the memo saying that voicemails should be short. Unlike emails, you can’t skim them, and in some systems you can’t even delete them midway through. You have to listen all the way to the bitter end. (I’ll never understand why some people feel compelled to listen to voicemails on speakerphone with the volume ALL THE WAY UP.) They’re much clunkier to save than emails, and people seldom give them much thought as they speak. (My evidence for that is the occasional voicemail left in Spanish.) For my money, the old Replacements song “Answering Machine” was pretty much the last word on them. When they were the best technology available, we lived with them, but they seem archaic now.

I see students use phones on campus all the time, but almost never for actual calls. They’re constantly tap-tap-tapping on them, or sometimes listening to music with them, but almost never talking into them.

Any loss is a loss, of course, but say that you were given a choice: you could keep your office phone, or you could shift that money to conference travel. What would you choose?

Conference travel. Hands down.

I disconnected my answering machine when I realized that it was buried under a small pile of paper because I never ever needed to check it; no one's commented that they tried to call and couldn't leave a message.

My students are all deaf, so that added a layer of complexity in the old days. We all needed TTYs and answering machines that would record TTY tones. Now with video chat and some proprietary video communication systems, email, texting and IM, deaf folks are just as in-the-loop as hearing people ever were.
I use my office phone once a month at most, but I find that students still use it to call me a bit more often (in case of emergency and illness, particularly). They also give out the number, with my permission, to references. That's probably the most compelling need for my office phone.

There's no way I'm giving any of them my personal cell number!
I rarely use my office phone and our awful voicemail system is a giant black hole, but there are times when I still need to make work-related calls. Not everyone has unlimited cell plans, particularly people at the lowest end of the pay scale (adjuncts). Get rid of the old phones, but there should be some way to ensure that you aren't making assumptions based on your purchasing power that don't apply for large percentages of your contingent faculty, who also probably are not allowed to access institutional travel or conference funds, either.

Can anyone share a rough dollar figure for your campus phone use, or estimated savings from its abolition? Would you save enough money to bother with if, say, you gave everybody who wanted one a VOIP account instead? Individual VOIP accounts aren't very expensive. I'm thinking that would save you a bundle on infrastructure, make phone service available to those who don't have unlimited cell plans (or don't want to subsidize work expenses on their private phones, or don't want to give out their personal cell #s). But I'm not sure what the costs are for a typical school phone network now.

The VOIP option also means everyone would need reliable access to a computer & decent internet connectivity in their offices. Do your contingent faculty have that?
My department replaced our university-supplied phones with Skype phones. This will save us approximately $30,000 per year. The downside is we had to change our numbers (so lots of folks will try to reach us on the old numbers) and we are now not on the system that sends out university-wide messages. Also the quality of the calls isn't quite as good as before. However, on the whole, the switch is probably worth it. Otherwise, we were going to have to lay off a staff person.
I still use my phone frequently. My department is wildly geographically seperated, so it helps when an email just can't convey or we need to brainstorm. When I need something from the main campus, I know that I can *eventually* get someone to answer the phone instead of having an email linger in limbo.
Wait, Not so fast . . .

While for many, the landline might not be used in day-to-day business; don't forget that it is often the ONLY thing available/working during emergencies.

Even in minor emergencies, did you ever call 911 on a cell phone? Depending on where you are the 911 operator will need to patch you through to another 911 operator; thereby wasting precious seconds.

The 911 operator does not have caller ID (i.e. location) for cell phones; so, if you are unable to tell where exactly you are a landline will give the 911 operator the exact address; something a cell phone cannot do.

The day you do get rid of landlines to "save money" AND there is an emergency in which only landlines would have been helpful is the day that everyone will scream for the head of the administrator who "got rid of them."

So, ask yourself, is the money saved worth a potential loss of life?

I wouldn't be so quick to get rid of landlines yet.
office phone conversations can be replaced with chat sessions.

with chats, everything is just as immediate as phone conversations, and everything could be logged, so that there is never any "he said, she said" going on.

i use my PBX'd office phone once a month, and that's when someone calls me for some odd reason.

get rid of them and use the money on something more productive.

good idea on 10 cents a minute for voice. that would be great.
We've talked about this in my department. We're chemists, so for legal/safety reasons it turns out that we can't get rid of the ones in labs.

We also use our phones for some purposes:
(A) The idea of email as a time-saver is often wrong. A quick back and forth on the phone can often get you the answer a lot more quickly than a string of emails back and forth clarifying and asking follow-up questions.
(B) We have online/distance courses, and it's often quicker and clearer to answer a technical student question by phone than email - a clear email explaining something that a student hasn't been able to understand from a book or a recorded lecture is actually very difficult to write.
(C) Our students potential employers call looking for our input.

In the end, the savings were minuscule given that we'd have to keep the lab phones and find some adequate replacement for the functions of the office phones that I listed.

Incidentally, we did get some savings by rolling the voicemail system into the email system. We now get all our voicemails delivered to our email accounts, which makes them easy to save if necessary.
I use my phone most often during student advising. They're only here for a 20-30 minute window, and the people at the registrar or where ever might or might not answer the email in time, so email would leave us in limbo. Second most is for other internal calls. Rarely do I call outside.

I don't know the economics, but you might see if you can cheaply keep them for internal calls (since you already have the machines and the wires in your buildings) but lose the external functionality.
That may be fine for communication with other campus members, but what about faculty who often work with people outside of the campus community? My service work regularly involves bringing out of town guest speakers to campus and it is much easier to clear up logistics questions with a quick phone call rather than an email volley.

Also, many of my students do not have access to computers at home. While their cell phones substitute to some degree, they often prefer to call rather than email through their phones when they have questions.

There is room for compromise here. What about a centrally located phone or two available for outbound calls (preferably in a workroom that adjuncts can access!) and a voicemail system that routes messages directly to the intended recipient's email? Faculty would still have access to phones, messages would still be private, and the costs would be drastically cut.
We have a chat system in our department and since it went live last year, my phone mostly collects dust.

However, phones are still a big part of what the department does, overall. We serve students, and prospective students, and they call us when they have questions. Sometimes they email, but surprisingly often, they want to hear a live voice. This is doubly true of their parents. They are nervous and the bureaucratic maze of academia is overwhelming, and making that personal connection really matters. And while we have front line phone people that handle the vast majority of calls, there are very busy times when everyone has to chip in, or when a call from one of these folks has to be transfered to a dean or director. An agitated student or parent doesn't want to hear, "just send him an email because he doesn't have a phone at his desk, we promise he'll read it."

In fact, trying to figure out how to provide good customer service to them on a shoestring budget is one of our continual headaches - technology is cheap but people are not. Cutting down the availability of phones would not help.

On a personal level, however, I'd love to hurl my phone off an overpass. Someone always calls with questions I'm utterly unprepared to answer when I'm trying to concentrate on something else. Email gives me a chance to get my thoughts in line and give a thorough and correct response. The combination of email for more intense stuff and the chat system for quick questions is ideal, within the university structure. But I don't see a way around phones when we're dealing with customers.
Charles raises one of the points I would have. I can cite more than a couple of cases where even a grad student having an office phone ending up being a lifesaver.

Still, I use mine pretty much all the time; in fact, I give that number out more regularly than I do my house or cell phone. I hate giving out my cell number, and my office voice mails get forwarded to my e-mail, so I can check them anywhere.

I also have administrative duties and being able to call registrar's or advising without having to wait for them to reply to an e-mail just saves time.
I use my phone almost every day. I'm at a rural college where many students do not have cell service at home and satelite internet is cost prohibitive. They only have a land line and can only contact me via phone. And I can only contact them via a return phone call. I am not making those calls on my personal cell. I believe your college (DD) is not in such a rural area so it may not be an important factor to consider.
We have one phone for the adjuncts and it has no voicemail. I use it to call my wife to say "hi, how's your day going?" and to call IT with a problem, but that's it.
In our department, GRAs in the PhD program as a rule do not get a phone. When I first arrived, we had a phone per floor to share but then that disappeared.

We all get by day to day just fine. EXCEPT for when *research* requires phone calls... as in trying to reach a hard to reach population (very old or very poor come to mind), often in multiple languages. Or worse yet, a survey that asks for them to call if clarification is needed and/or follow-up open-ended qual questions. Not having a dedicated line that actually rings during the business day has become very problematic. And no, I'm not going to use *my* cell phone minutes or muddy up my personal voice-mail with hundreds of messages for the *faculty's* research.
Phone. I'm an administrator with arthritis, so being able to pick up the phone and call someone - as opposed to typing several email messages - is more convenient and pain-free. And it saves time. Moreover, I find it useful to chat with people occasionally - ideally, face-to-face - but when that's not possible because we are dispersed over three different campus, the phone is the next best thing. I can't tell you now many email conflicts over the years have been defused by one phone call.
I am impatient. I like phones because I can get instant answers. I use them all the time.

For those of us who do have a research component to our jobs, there are three words that will make phones always necessary: "Call for quote."

Yes, you can e-mail for quotes too, but usually for the kind of money you're spending in those circumstances, you want to ask a bunch of questions, and phones are still the most efficient way to do that.

That said, if I am too impatient for e-mail, I am way too impatient for voicemail. If I call you and you're not there, I'll send an e-mail or call back later. If you call me and leave a voicemail, you're lucky if I check it within a week... Keep the phones, ditch the voicemail.
I still get phone calls from students pretty regularly -- especially from weaker students who tend to be less comfortable in a text-based medium, and from older nontrads who don't really feel at home with computers. I'd be concerned that eliminating phones would put both of these groups of students at a disadvantage.
I'm old. I still make actual voice calls, even from my office...although I rarely get any calls.

For work purposes, my phone has largely been replaced by email. (I'll admit I don't use social media, having killed my Facebook account when I realized that 90-95% of the stuff I saw was stuff I cared not to see...) My students basically use email to contact me (and, in addition, I could cancel my office hours, as little as students make use of them).

One thing that is still important is a consequence of our physical setup. No one can come directly to my office; they enter through a main departmental office suite, and cannot get past the locked door without authorization. So the people in the office suite need a way to find out if I am actually in my office and available.

A second thing that still matters is that I speak frequently to local media on matters related to my professional (I'm an economist) specialization (they call me). Without an office phone, that part of my job woould become more difficult for me, and for them.

So as a cost-savings, yeah, maybe. But there remain drawbacks. Maybe shared phone lines?
wouldn't the need vary by discipline? For those of us recruiting subjects, a landline helps quite a bit and many of my interviews are conducted over the phone. So phone use really varies by where in the research project I am. I can see individuals who maybe do archival work not needing a phone, but this seems really a case by case basis
We have a system that sends voicemail (and missed call with phone number) to e-mail, and it is very nice. I have no idea if it saves money, but it much better because it works off campus. You can send an e-mail reply after doing a student look-up when your own phone is not available.

I also find that it is my Distance Ed students and ones with an emergency who are most likely to use the phone.

One problem we have is that many of our calls to students are "long distance" because their number is in a different area code than where they currently live. Any future system has to deal with that on a cost-effective basis.

I'd guess we might go to VOIP with a few land-line phones in the future. (If VOIP is down because a router is down, how do you call the support staff to report a network outage? They might not notice that their phones are not ringing!) Some businesses use it with little trouble.

What I wonder is if it might be possible to get simple cell phones for everyone, with an enhanced system from that provider inside buildings like they do inside airports, one where calls made on campus are free but the individual is billed for any use off campus. Could be profitable for them, leading to a good rate for the college, but you might still have to audit for excessive improper use on campus.
One suggestion for people who don't want to give out personal numbers to students: If you sign up for Google Voice (free), they will give you a local phone number. You can then set this number to forward to your home, cell, or wherever. And if you dial into Google Voice before making an outbound call, then that is the number that will show up on the student's caller ID. I teach primarily online (and I'm not in my office much), so this has been great because I can use my cell phone but not give students my "real" number. More information is at
Phone is my daily buddy on my work. I do use it almost every hour everyday on different business transactions. Thanks to VOIP which made calling rates much cheaper than before.
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