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?