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The end of office voice mail

(Illustration by Marco Goran Romano)

Corporate cost-cutting measures usually aren't something to celebrate. Layoffs. Slashing the 401(k) match. Penny-pinching efforts that put the kibosh on Friday happy hours.

But here's one that could actually help us all: disconnecting office voice mail.

We've all sat through rambling, five-minute-long messages from people who really should have sent a two-line email. We've all screened numbers we didn't want to answer and then — minutes later — gotten a redundant email or cell phone call. And we've all wondered if that automated, robotic voice saying "message. received. on. Thursday. June. 4th. at. 2. 53. pm" could really be any slower.

As M.I.T. research fellow Michael Schrage wrote in a popular Harvard Business Review article extolling the end of office voice mail, "a communications medium that was once essential has become as clunky and irrelevant as Microsoft DOS and carbon paper."

A few companies are starting to agree. Recent reports show that companies such as Coca-Cola and JPMorgan Chase are disconnecting voice mail from their workers' office landlines as employees increasingly rely on email, instant messaging, cell phones and even text messages to reach the people they need at work. (Some unfortunate employees, such as those in client-facing jobs, will be keeping it.) Citigroup and Bank of America, the Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday, are considering doing the same.

“We realized that hardly anyone uses voice mail anymore,” a JPMorgan executive said at a financial conference Tuesday, according to the Journal. “We’re all carrying something in our pockets that’s going to get texts or email or a phone call.”

While JPMorgan said that nixing voice mail will have real cost savings for the company — eventually some $3.2 million a year — a Coca-Cola spokeswoman told Bloomberg the savings would be minimal. Their decision, she said, was more about simplifying the way people work.

I have to say I believe her. I can't remember the last time someone left a voice mail on my desk phone that was important. I also can't remember the last time someone returned a voice mail I left faster than they got back to me on an email I sent.

Even people who have fancy "unified communications" systems that email them sound files or text versions of their voice mails say the mode of communication is dying. Craig Wigginton, who leads the telecommunications consulting practice for Deloitte, told me in a recent interview that he wades through those emailed sound bites at the same time he's going through his regular emails.

"But honestly, I can't tell you the last time I've gotten a relevant voice mail message, even sent to my PC," Wigginton said.

He adds that he's seen companies do away with legacy voice mail on desk phones not only because of the ubiquity of cell phone and email usage, but also because more and more work communication is taking place via text. "I'm amazed at the amount of professionals using text messaging," Wigginton said. While that used to be largely the domain of friends and families, "we're starting to see that more in the professional realm."

That will only continue: As millennials become the largest generation in the workforce, their habits are going to have a huge influence on workplace practices. And when it comes to voice mail, millennials are pretty much over it, while their love affair with texting seems to know no bounds.

As with all things, though, how companies make the transition will matter. Coke's system reportedly tells callers to try later or contact the person through "an alternative method." And the Journal reports that people who call a JPMorgan employee will get a generic message saying "the person you are trying to reach is unavailable to take your call. Please try your call later."

So perhaps the best answer isn't to eliminate voice mail systems entirely, but to at least do away with their function as a mailbox. Instead, callers would simply hear a scripted message that provides useful information for how to best reach the person, be it an email address or a phone number to text.

After all, the allure of eliminating voice mail isn't that it would make us harder to reach, but that we would have one less inbox to manage — especially one that's time-consuming and archaic.

Read also:

What you think about millennials is wrong

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