‘Please don’t leave a message’

Does voicemail still make sense?
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 07/10/2015

They say it’s going the way of the fax and the ballpoint pen. But is voicemail really on the way out?


Two major companies in the United States — JPMorgan Chase and Coca-Cola — recently revealed they have phased out voicemail for some employees. 


Office voicemail at Coke was shut down “to simplify the way we work and increase productivity,” said an internal memo from chief information officer Ed Steinike. Instead, a standard outgoing message tells callers to try later or use an alternative method to contact the person.


And JPMorgan is eliminating voicemail for thousands of employees who do not take calls from customers. Hardly anyone uses voicemail anymore, said Gordon Smith, chief executive of consumer banking operations.


“We are all carrying something in our pockets that is going to get texts or email or a phone call,” he said, according to Reuters. “We started to cut those off.”


In the consumer and community banking business, the 135,000-employee JPMorgan hoped to reach a goal of 50 per cent reduction of voicemail, but the response among employees was so overwhelmingly positive, it was able to reduce voicemail by 65 per cent, said Michael Fusco, spokesperson for JPMorgan.


“More employees are relying on other forms of communication like email.”


Instead of voicemail, there’ll be a message saying the person is not available and to try later or reach her by email.

But does this kind of move make sense? Absolutely, according to Matt Stambaugh, tech expert and vice-president and COO at Automated Aeronautics in Calgary.


Voicemails can build up throughout the day and people must listen to them in a linear or serial fashion by logging in, entering a password and listening to each message one at a time, he said. 


“Whereas something like a text message or email or anything that allows you a visual representation of who called, the length of messages, sometimes there’s some priority capability beside it — you know the red flag beside it — it lets you at a glance understand what’s more important than another.” 


Stambaugh said he finds it much more useful to look at email right away to know if he needs to respond or not,  and some people don’t even bother listening to voicemail.


“Voicemail made a lot of sense when that was the primary technology, and the telephone was what you had, it was the best there was. And as different technologies like mobile communications and cellphones that have texting and email are taking over the workplace, there are simply easier ways to leave a message.”


The buzzword in the industry these days is “unified communications” and that means having some kind of portal to access voice information, texts and emails, he said.


But there will still be those who prefer in-person communication — and that makes sense, said Stambaugh.


“People are going to use email and text to then set up an actual conversation, and I think that’s the right balance… you’ve got a really rapid-shot form of communication, like text and in most cases email, designed primarily to set up a more full-fledged conversation, be it over the phone or in-person.”


What really matters is what constitutes efficient, effective and convenient communication, said Michael Schrage, research fellow at the MIT Center for Digital Business in Cambridge, Mass.


“Voicemail is a means to an end, which raises the obvious question: What’s the end? Do we really want to hear the sound of somebody’s voice, do we really want to spend 45 seconds leaving a message, or do we want to come away with or to leave the essential message, the essential information, the essential affect, essential feelings that’s going to get the action that we want, the response we want? Those are the better questions.”


Some people prefer to talk on the phone or have face-to-face meetings by flying five hours for a 20-minute get-together, but that isn’t cost-effective, he said. And while that might be OK in our personal lives, in our professional lives, people care about things like productivity and deliverables, so the issue is going to matter more, not less.


“If organizations want to cling to 1995 like it’s never going to go away, that’s fine, but do me the favour of giving me their names so I can sell their stock short,” said Schrage.


The question is how many people are happy using voicemail and are they productive employees who matter to the organization? 

“My bet is absolutely not, absolutely not. The people relying on voicemail in the year 2020 are the people who the organization desperately wants to lay off or do a buyout or get rid of,” he said.


What’s prompting the switch?

This is very much a demographic phenomenon, said Schrage.


“People like myself have grown up with voicemail so we’ve been trained to use voicemail. My students, as a general rule, people under the age of 30, don’t use voicemail. If you leave a message for them, they will see the number or the name of person who called them and they almost never… play the message back, they almost always text or email or call back and say, ‘What do you want?’” he said.


“People… over the age of 40, will get wistful and nostalgic; the people… under age 45 will say this is cute but completely irrelevant to how I work in my organization.”


There does seem to be an age divide when it comes to the usefulness of voicemail, with a break probably around employees in their mid-30s, said Stambaugh.


“There’s a sense for younger employees for sure that it’s a fairly inefficient means of leaving a message or attempting to communicate.”


Cost-savings are also behind the severing of ties. For Coca-Cola, eliminating voicemail will mean savings of US$100,000 per year — but the decision has more to do with simplifying work than trimming costs, said spokesperson Amanda Rosseter, according to the Huffington Post.


And for JPMorgan, at a savings of US$10 per month per person, there was a positive impact of US$3.2 million for consumer and community banking in annualized savings, said Fusco.


But Stambaugh said he has seen some wildly different cost estimates.


“It obviously depends a lot on the back-end system. Some companies are going to legitimately see costs savings if they’re large enough, in the hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars. But it seems like most people are doing it as much for a communication workflow as cost savings.”


There are definitely some legacy voicemail systems that are end of life, he said, and that’s a good time to make a decision: Do you transition to back-end technology or just retire it?


Mobile future

Even landlines may be on the way out, with a complete switch to mobile options, said Stambaugh.

“That definitely helps with cost savings because you can retire a whole ecosystem of telephony sometimes and it tends to simplify workflows.”


There are a variety of technologies available for rapid communication, along with more advanced telepresence options such as webcams or even holographic technologies, said Stambaugh.


“Voicemail will still be around in one form into the future, I just think it’s going to become less and less prevalent. There are still fax machines and there are still some niche roles where fax makes sense but I think voicemail will be supplanted by email and other forms as a primary messaging technology,” he said.


“I wouldn’t be surprised, in the next five years, if we don’t see more companies looking at (pulling the plug on voicemail).” 


But it’s a slow burn, he said, adding he’s not heard of many Canadian companies making the same cuts.


“The concept seems so straightforward but I haven’t really seen it pushed or used extensively yet. I think it’s just because we’re so used to using phones.”

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