The Great Desk Phone Dilemma

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I received a curious question from a client last year after being engaged by the company for communications technology consultancy services. We were there to assist in designing the company's network infrastructure, redundancy, and business continuity plans. We discussed their Wi-Fi coverage, cellular usage and needs, PRI contractual commitments, and features of their phone system. And after all the discussion, I got a polite but perplexed look from them, asking this question: "Tell me again why I need a desk phone?"

And I thought, "Wait a minute...this is a GOOD question."

Who Doesn't Want a Desk Phone?!

Combined, Millennials and Generation Z make up about 40% of the U.S. workforce. The youngest Boomer was 53 years old in 2017. Clearly, the workforce is changing, and with that change comes technology adaption.

According to an infographic put together by Citrix ShareFile, Millennials want technology, collaboration, and a good balance of work/life, among other things. Permitting these employees to use their personal smartphones, or even tablets and laptops, allows for flexibility in the workplace, team collaboration (with the right platforms for communication), and even greater productivity since work is not confined to 8-5 in the office.

How Did We Get Here?

Younger staff are questioning why they should have a desk phone at all. The smaller, and thus more mobile, organizations don't even buy desk phones in the first place. Here's some follow-up questions that Millennials ask around this issue:

  1. If my work number rings my cell phone (twinning), why have a desk phone?
  2. If I get a mobile app for making and receiving calls, messaging, and even texting through my work phone system, why have a desk phone?
  3. If the phone system/service has software integrated into the desktop computer (a.k.a. softphones), why have a desk phone?
  4. If I'm away from my desk and can be reached at my smartphone, I'm more productive. Why can't I do the same thing in the office?

Over 95% of American adults have a cell phone (77% smartphone), and everybody wants options. Communications technology continues to go through significant changes. Make sure you are adapting, too.

Over the past 10 years the consumer market has had a strong influence on the workplace. It used to be the other way around. Remember when everyone started canceling their land lines at home? Then employees wanted to use their own smartphones instead of carrying two -- one for business and the other for personal use. This brought on the BYOD (bring your own device) movement.

Technology decisions are no longer pushed from corporate or IT; instead, businesses are listening to staff who want more flexible working conditions. Those organizations that don't comply lose these employees to competitors who do give options.

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Is It a Good Idea?

When staff want to use their devices (smartphones and tablets) instead of desktops and desk phones, can your IT department say yes? That is to say, can IT give staff a device (or let them BYOD) and login so they can download the mobile UC app for business communication?

This flexible approach seems to make financial sense, since businesses won't have to purchase desk phones. Even more so, organizations that allow employees to use their own devices won't have to pay for those either.

What Has to Happen to Pull This Off?

Keep in mind we are NOT talking about removing phone systems or hosted VoIP service; we're just talking about the physical phones on the desk. And we are also not talking about allowing employees to use whatever platform they please for communication and collaboration (Slack, Facetime, WhatsApp, etc.). Still, this "ridding of the desk phones" causes some head scratching for IT staff, who have their own questions:

  1. Fewer phones means fewer devices to support on the network. Is this a good thing?
  2. Does IT now have to support staff's personal devices (smartphone, tablet, laptop)?
  3. It's now more complex to troubleshoot poor call quality if you are using a smartphone or Bluetooth device connected to the desktop PC. Do we really want to take on that?
  4. This shift in how we approach communications means that we'll need to provide high-quality wireless earpieces. Is that in the budget?

Of course, you must consider alternative factors too:

  • Cellular call quality in your offices
  • Whether the mobile UC app uses cellular minutes or data (This can also affect call quality)
  • Cellular data plan allowances
  • Wi-Fi coverage and whether the mobile UC app can prioritize voice calls
  • Possible additional cost for softphones on the desktop and/or smartphone
  • If your desktop is slow, needs a software upgrade, or a smartphone becomes lost or damaged, that means the user is out of luck with no desk phone as a backup

And finally, there's the nontechnical factors to keep in mind:

  1. Who is going to be your champion for this project? President, CIO?
  2. Will the company culture allow this shift to happen?
  3. Will you allow staff to go back to desk phones if they want to?
  4. Do you have a budget for training in case some staff take the jump but find they're not as productive?

Technology changes are exciting and scary at the same time. And wireless devices are changing our society like we've never seen before. Technology staff need to weigh the pros and cons of adaptability, security, and project priorities. However, you can be sure this question isn't going away soon.

"SCTC Perspectives" is written by members of the Society of Communications Technology Consultants, an international organization of independent information and communications technology professionals serving clients in all business sectors and government worldwide.