October 7, 2013
This is the process I go through when I receive a voice mail:
2. Consider ignoring it.
3. Become overwhelmed by guilt.
4. Press "voice mail" button.
5. Forget password.
6. Try again.
7. Listen to voice mail.
8. Sigh, louder.
9. Promise to never check voice mail again.
That takes about five minutes. It would have taken seven seconds to look at an email or text message.
Call me a disciple of the digital age, but I no longer have the time or patience for voice mail. It has become an archaic means of delivering workplace messages and should go the way of the pneumatic tube. (Actually, I'd be in favor of bringing back pneumatic tubes, which are at least fun to watch.)
I'm not alone, of course. Last year, USA Today had Internet phone company Vonage put together data that showed that in just one year, the number of retrieved voice mails had fallen 14 percent.
To explore this subject, I reached out to Michael Schrage, a research fellow at MIT Sloan School's Center for Digital Business and author of the book "Serious Play." Schrage recently wrote a blog post for the Harvard Business Review expressing his distaste for voice mail.
Schrage was overseas and suggested that — in the spirit of the anti-voice mail movement — we conduct the interview via email. I thought that was a great idea, as it allowed me to stay in bed with the covers over my head, generally my preferred work environment.
Here are my questions and his responses, which I edited slightly and then sent back to him for approval:
Q: What made you hate voice mails so much?
A: I'm not a hater. Once upon a time, voice mail (and voice messaging machines) were terrific for communicating and coordinating with friends and colleagues.
I have the same emotional attachment to voice mail that I do to fax machines and carbon paper; they were appropriate for their time and place, but we have better, easier and more appealing options now. Please don't make me send faxes or make carbon copies; similarly, don't make me use voice mail.
Q: Aren't we always dealing with some form of fading technology? How do we decide when it's time to cut the cord (phone pun intended)?
A: Ha! My cordless phone laughs in your face.
I'd argue there are simple rules for exit:
When you find yourself increasingly annoyed by that technology.
•When you find out that what the technology makes convenient for you is a pain in the butt to the friend or colleague you're imposing it on. Neither my wife nor brother listens to my messages; they simply see that I've called and call me back. I now return that favor.
Q: What if older employees or managers aren't as comfortable with electronic communication and prefer leaving voice mails? How does a company get away with bagging its voice mail system? Should it be up to everyone in the company to get comfortable and up to speed with the latest communication technology?
A: My glib answer is this:
When I first entered the workforce, my company would charge me for "personal" and "outside" calls. So we should let people leave as many voice mail messages as they want, but charge them a dollar for each one. Let people put their money where their mouths are, pun intended.
The real reason I want internal employee voice mail unplugged is that it's less efficient, effective, auditable and productive.
Q: Say we do away with voice mail in favor of emails or texts. Does face-to-face communication remain important? Or are we creeping toward predominantly virtual work relationships?
A: I am a huge believer in face-to-face communication and phone conversations themselves. I love the dynamism and interaction of human communication. But voice mail is inherently asynchronous.
It is the antithesis of live or dynamic. It should join the choir invisible.
Q: What would you consider the primary advantage of doing away with voice mail?
A: More time, less obligation, less concern about whether someone listened to our message, less anger that the bozo from accounting left us a three-minute message detailing how he wants us to re-document our expense form, etc.
Q: While companies can outlaw internal voice mail, I assume we'll have to continue accepting voice mails from clients/customers/the public until the rest of the world gets up to speed, correct? Or is it OK to have an outgoing phone message that says, "I don't take voice mails, so if you need to get a message to me you can email or send a text."
A: Clients and customers are what matter. I think it's better and healthier for an organization to say to itself: If it's from a customer, it's important, so they get to leave messages and get the immediate callbacks.
• • •
So think about it, companies. Perhaps it's time to do away with internal voice mail systems.
If you have any other questions, email me. I'll be under the covers, watching online videos of pneumatic tubes.
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