Rest in peace, voice mail

It’s time to let go of the nostalgia associated with business voice mail.

Voice mail is dead. There. I said it. When I heard that Coca-Cola, one of the world’s best-known brands, disconnected voice mail at its Atlanta headquarters last fall, it made me stop and think. The reason it got rid of it was "to simplify the way we work and increase productivity." At least that’s what the internal memo from CIO Ed Steinike reportedly said.

Initially, I was appalled. How could it be more productive to limit the means to communicate? Had Coca-Cola taken into account the effects on client service or the fact that most people can speak faster than they can type? And didn’t it rely on the many features of unified communications, such as email inbox links to voice mail or voice-to-text transcription?

It then hit me that for the past couple of years, my mobile’s voice message prompt has been, "Leave a message here at your own peril as I don’t often check for voice messages."

As it turns out, I am not alone. A spokesperson for telephone service provider Vonage says the number of voice mail messages left on user accounts was down 8% from October 2013 to April 2014. Even more interesting, retrieved voice mail fell 14% in the same period.

My feelings are mixed about voice mail; the thought that we should have it even if we don’t use it may be chalked up to age. "People north of 40 are schizophrenic about voice mail," says Michael Schrage, a research fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management’s Center for Digital Business. "People under 35 scarcely use it."

It makes sense. In many ways, voice mail was the first step to the collaborative environment we now work in. The patent for commercial voice mail was issued in 1983. Up until then, aside from snail mail, fax and face-to-face meetings, the only way to communicate was via telephone, and without voice mail, legions of executive assistants were charged with arranging those calls and transcribing short messages when one of the parties wasn’t available. Voice mail allowed us to leave detailed messages, pose and answer questions, communicate observations and opinions and collaborate when it was convenient to do so. In other words, it was used as a productivity tool.

This revolution in collaboration continued up to the mid- to late 1990s when email took hold in the workplace, eventually pushing voice mail to become a repository for contact info leading to telephone tag rather than a means to get things done. Email introduced a code of behaviour that respects the recipient’s time, allowing you to reflect and structure your thoughts, share documents and respond whenever you choose.

Now email is starting to be replaced by the next generation of knowledge-age collaboration tools such as Microsoft Lync. These are secure tools that put you in charge of who can reach you by restricting access to only those people you add to your contact list, thereby eliminating junk mail. Even better, it encourages efficient communication between people who want to connect. That communication can take the form of text, voice, screen sharing and video conferencing.

For example, you can use text for informal micro conversations to confirm small points of understanding. You can deliver published content as attachments. You can use voice for true interactive exchange. And best of all, you can engage in video conversations and capture all the communication nuances of voice, pictures/drawings and body language (see You Need to See This, June/July 2014).

It’s time to let go of the nostalgia associated with business voice mail. It has lost its importance as a tool for collaboration. As with mail and faxes, there will be the odd reason to use it but not for much longer. It’s time to post one final message: "I no longer respond to voice mail. Here’s my email address."