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Unintended Consequences from Tossing Out the Office Phone

Posted by Peter Post  September 3, 2013 07:00 AM

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“A manager at a large utility company recently had to teach his young employee what a dial tone was and explain that desktop phones don’t require you to press ‘Send.’” Wall Street Journal, August 27.

I was driving through Boston when I heard a news report on WBZ about millennials having trouble with real office desk phones at work. I had to find out more so I Googled “millennials won’t use phones” and up popped an article by Anita Hofschneider on the Wall Street Journal website.

It turns out there are people—millennials primarily—who don’t like to use office phones because they think a phone call is an interruption. The Wall Street Journal article expanded on this notion: “The company (Paperless Post) says not having individual phone lines in open-plan areas protects people from unwanted calls, which can interrupt conversations.” There’s a novel idea: We’re in business, but we don’t want to receive phone calls that could be business because we want to protect our workers who are having a conversation from being interrupted.

Following the logic that unplanned calls are an interruption, the article goes on to introduce a 32-year old technology officer at Technossus a business software company, who believes an email before a call is the way to go. I hope he doesn’t call me, or tons of other people I know who don’t drop everything every time an email comes in just to read it. Talk about interruptions—email may well be the single biggest interruption in a business day. If a person lets his email notification chime every time a new email arrives, he will waste untold amounts of time interrupting what he is doing to look at the email. The alternative is to batch process emails at regular intervals during the day, which cuts down on the interruption significantly. Batch processing also means if you email me to tell me you’re going to call me, I very well may not see your email before you call me. So now you risk not only interrupting me, you’re clogging my email box with useless emails. Hmmmmm.

The point here isn’t that phone calls are an interruption and communicating by email or text is more considerate. The point is that the successful businessperson knows how and when to use every communication option and does so to his or her advantage. Phones and phone calls are not going to go away, and the person who simply unplugs the phone on the assumption that the call isn’t important or that people who have something important to communicate should do it via email is going to miss out on opportunities. Knowing how to use phones—including a real old-fashioned desk phone with buttons and multiple lines and a handset you pick up and even a dial tone—is a basic skill people in business need to have. Similarly, knowing when to email and how to email appropriately is a basic business skill. Likewise texting is becoming mainstream in business just as email is.

Communication is a two-way street. The smart businessperson recognizes that different people communicate better or worse with different communication tools. Client A may use email while for Client B a phone call is by far the best communication method. Not respecting their differences in communication styles can end up having unintended consequences: like lost business.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Since 2004, Peter Post has tackled readers' questions in The Boston Sunday Globe's weekly business etiquette advice column, Etiquette at Work. Post is the co-author of "The Etiquette Advantage in Business" and conducts business etiquette seminars across the country. In October 2003 his book "Essential Manners For Men" was released and quickly became a New York Times best seller. He is also the author of "Essential Manners for Couples," "Playing Through–A Guide to the Unwritten Rules of Golf," and co-author of "A Wedding Like No Other." Post is Emily Post's great-grandson. His media appearances include "CBS Sunday Morning," CBS's "The Early Show," NBC's "Today," ABC's "Good Morning America," and "Fox News."

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