Many assessments have been made of the trends and impacts COVID-19 has had on telecommunications use. Some of the patterns observed are headlining the news in both the trade and mainstream press. But what about the developments that didn’t make it there? Perhaps others have slipped beneath the radar but are equally significant. I want to take this opportunity and reflect on the social impact surrounding simple telephone calls – because change is in the air.
Telephony has remained a top trend compared to other modes of communication. And the humble handset has stubbornly held on. Although I wonder if its day has finally come as a result of natural changes in human behaviour.
COVID-19 has had a significant impact on our industry. In particular:
- Working from home is now routine for millions of employees
- Everyone is traveling less
- We are attending more virtual meetings
- Many people don't have access to their business telephone line from their home office
For some time now, the necessity of a physical telephone handset has been questioned. Many of my clients now wonder, ‘do all users still need an external telephone line?’ After all, this capability is becoming increasingly expensive to provision, in comparison to the low-cost voice communicability bundled with collaboration solutions and available free of charge with an increasing number of social media platforms. The workforce is increasingly making use of the 'always-available' messaging that we have become used to using on our mobile devices in our social lives.
I’m finding that even a 1:1 conversation tends to be scheduled or preceded by a text-based chat negotiating a suitable time to talk? So, perhaps a little tongue in cheek, ask yourselves, ‘Is it acceptable to call somebody unannounced anymore?’
With a majority of administration and knowledge workers now having ready access to an online meeting experience, there’s been a 30x increase in Zoom usage from 10M - 300M daily participants, according to Zoom, and a similar, if not greater growth of Teams, that reached 200M daily participants in April 2020, according to Nadella.
I’ve been unable to locate similar statistics for the volume of telephone calls during COVID-19. Anecdotally, business calls have reduced in favour of meetings, while personal calls have increased as a result of lockdown isolation.
What does this mean?
- We are all remote workers.
- Our day is much more structured around meetings/calls than when we were in the office.
- An unscheduled phone call can be perceived as an imposition – rude, even.
I find myself scheduling phone calls and arranging them as a meeting. Even if they only involve two participants, it’s essential to reserve that valuable timeslot in my colleague's diary. I don't believe I have made a work-related PSTN telephone call since lockdown started.
The future will be different from the past, and many of our new working habits are likely to continue. Even when we return to the office, many of us will still have to meet virtually. For example, my daughter's safe return to work plan arranges staff in bubbles of approximately five co-workers. All communication outside the bubble must be via online meetings, including intraoffice interactions.
This situation is an opportunity for those responsible for the provision of these facilities to optimize enterprise communications infrastructure. Predicted changes include:
- The desk phone will demise–we have all managed without for many months
- The trend from calls to meetings will persist–as videoconferencing increases in popularity
- Many users don’t need an external telephone line (if they can ‘meet’ with participants outside the organization).
If these predictions come to light, this could have substantial savings potential. But that will vary according to your technology preference. As an example, if you are a Microsoft Teams based organization, the following will all directly reduce your operational costs for each affected user and could generate savings well in excess of a hundred dollars per user per annum:
- No need for a physical telephone
- No need for a PSTN telephone number
- No need for a Teams phone system license
- No need for access to external public carrier services or a call plan
Will this be acceptable to users? I see no reason why not. Telephones are no longer required for social or personal purposes. Think about it, do you still have a landline at home (and if so, do you receive anything other than unsolicited sales calls)? There will be inhibitors - safety and wellbeing included. There’s an ongoing obligation to provide a means for staff to contact emergency services. But I see that as a challenge for the industry to fix rather than a reason to do nothing.
Customer service roles will also be an exception. However, those activities are being concentrated into contact center capabilities rather than enterprise telephony. To sum it up, user-based enterprise telephony is being squeezed out by a combination of online meetings, contact centers, and messaging platforms. We've already acknowledged the demise of the private branch exchange (PBX), but that of the phone call itself may be hard on its heels.
"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.