A few weeks ago JPMorgan scrapped voicemail. Now anyone trying to attract the attention of its retail bankers has to email, text or call their mobiles instead.
As practically no one leaves messages on landlines any more, the bank reasoned, there was no point continuing to pay $10 a month per line for the service. Petty, came the inevitable complaint: the bank made $22bn profit last year and so to kill voicemail in order to save a few million made no sense.
Yet the move, which follows a similar one by Coca-Cola late last year, makes complete sense. Voicemail has become a cumbersome, last-ditch form of communication, used only by people who have failed to solicit a response by email or for the half-dozen people in the world who are so technologically backward they have failed to master email.
Few people leave voicemail messages; fewer still listen to them, which is why people were at least mildly interested recently in rumors that Apple was working on a way to convert voicemails to texts.
The last time I checked my own voicemail there were more than 100 messages waiting, none of any interest and mostly alerting me to an email that I was also ignoring.
What is so remarkable about corporate voicemail is that it died before it got the chance to grow up. It was invented in 1979 by Gordon Matthews, a US entrepreneur who claimed to have been inspired by seeing a pile of “while you were out” slips.
At first, it seemed wonderful. It was an end to pointless games of telephone tag. It felt modern, efficient and productive – as well as slightly scary. Initially, people were stage-struck at the idea of having their stumbling words recorded, but after a while they stopped stammering helplessly and learned to speak relatively naturally.
Yet voicemail also inflicted social damage on the office. It hastened the death of the secretary, as there was no longer a need to have someone poised to snatch up the boss’s phone with a “Mr. Smith’s office” every time it rang. It also did for a particular sort of connection between workers. Until everyone had voicemail, colleagues would answer each other’s phones and take messages. It was annoying, but the mutual obligation was bonding.
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The rapid coming and going of voicemail is part of a longer, slower story of the coming and going of the telephone at work – and JPMorgan plays a large part in both.
Just as it is one of the first big companies to axe voicemail, 100 years ago it was one of the first big companies to embrace the telephone. In the first years of the 20th century in New York, George W Perkins, a JPMorgan associate on Wall Street, came up with a system for calling up to 30 men on a list as quickly as the operator could reach them, with the result that Perkins got the reputation of being the only man alive who could raise $20m in 20 minutes.
In the UK, JPMorgan’s London office was the first to put in a bulk order for telephones, at a time when other banks were eyeing the new instrument with mistrust, preferring to do business via messenger boy and handshake.
The Bank of England saw no need to install a telephone until 1902; up the road at Schroders, the merchant bank was so suspicious of the new gadget it had just bought that it refused to be listed in the new telephone directories, on the grounds that it did not want people to ring up and distract its employees.
In the early days, there was all the fear, loathing and ignorance over how to use the telephone that has more recently been stirred up by email.
In 1912 a German psychiatrist told Telephony magazine that the telephone made some of his excitable patients hysterical. In 1927 some American sociologists fretted that phone calls, flooding in at less than one a day, meant that “personal isolation – inaccessibility to the demands of others for access to one’s attention – is increasingly rare”.
At the same time, people were also baffled about how to use the phone. One manual advised: “Speak directly into the mouthpiece keeping moustache out of the opening.” Another advised on the rudeness of opening a phone conversation with “Hello”. Anything colloquial was out: Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank told employees to greet callers with: “I am the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank”.
Even if office workers were slow to get the hang of it, the telephone changed not only how they worked, but where they worked. Managers did not have to be where the work was actually happening. Office workers did not need to get off their bottoms to talk to people on the next floor – they could phone up instead.
In the early 1900s, an AT&T chief engineer argued that without the telephone, the skyscraper would have been impossible: “Suppose there was no telephone and every message had to be carried by a personal messenger. How much room do you think the necessary elevators would leave for offices?”
Unlike email, which is a democratic way of communicating, the telephone was a symbol of power. Only the important had one on their desk, and they only used it, if at all, for conducting the very most urgent business.
For decades, the standard photograph of the powerful businessman at work showed him talking on the phone. As recently as a couple of years ago UK Prime Minister David Cameron posted a picture of himself talking on a landline to Barack Obama on LinkedIn under “Where I work”.
Yet what the phone contributed most to the office until recently was the ringing and the bellowing, noise that made offices lively, convivial places. Everyone knew what everyone else was up to, as the whole office could overhear conversations with clients and contacts – as well as with spouses and plumbers.
But as the mobile has taken over, the office phone has stopped ringing. Walk around any office and even now there is still a clumping telephone on almost every desk, but they are largely silent. Whenever mine rings, I look at it suspiciously, rather resenting the intrusion.
Instead, people take calls on their mobiles, most of which are on “silent” and merely vibrate. And then, for fear of disturbing colleagues, we step away from our desks to take calls crouched in stairwells or in corridors.
It cannot be long before companies – perhaps led by JPMorgan – will decide that the landline itself serves no more purpose than voicemail. And when they finally axe it they will not only save on the line rental but on the salaries of an unsung group of people who used to know all the secrets and glue companies together: the telephone switchboard operators.
By Lucy Kellaway
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