Rediscovering the telephone

Are you over video calls? Are email and quick messages too distanced? Is it currently difficult or impossible for you to catch up with colleagues in a cafe or a meeting room? Let me tell you about the telephone.

Now you may hate the telephone, and I have to admit I haven’t been a fan since I was a teenager in the 1990s. If I want to talk to a friend or my family, I’m more likely to send them a message or pop something in the group chat. And at work, I’ll usually send you an email or set up a meeting. But… it’s the pandemic.

I dislike communicating via phone for lots of reasons. Voice, and, worse, voicemail is a terrible way to get information—mishearing names and numbers is common, and it takes so long to listen, write it down and then respond.

Missed calls are another annoyance. If you miss a call you have to call back and apologise. And when you ring back, the other person might not be able to answer, so then they miss your call… (or have their phone on silent; or the phone is at the bottom of your bag and you couldn’t find it quickly enough…) and then they have to ring you back and apologise. It’s an inefficient and unpleasant cycle.

Worst of all is if you actually do pick up the call but it interrupts what you are doing. I’m never sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring, so if you ring me you are always interrupting something. I’m often happy to be interrupted if I’m at my desk, but mobile phones mean that I’m often having to juggle a coffee and a handbag and a door handle while trying to find a quiet or confidential place to have a conversation where I can both hear you and not be overheard too much. (As someone who often works in libraries, or open plan offices, for example.)

For all of these reasons, I had come to reserve my phone calls for essential services, job hunting, and quick real-time check ins with my team (hi, are you onsite at the moment? shall I pop over?). And most people my age and younger do the same.

But this pandemic has meant that we are not seeing friends and colleagues face-to-face, and we can now be in video calls all day. I don’t mind the teaching or formal meetings via Zoom or Teams, I find it works quite well for those structured group sessions. But I haven’t found Zoom a good replacement for the on-campus coffee catch up. (I also haven’t found the solution to the corridor chat, but that is another post.)

When I thought more deeply about the coffee catch up, I realised the coffee but wasn’t the main thing. Rather it was that coffee chats were individual, semi-formal meetings that also gave you a bit of a change of pace in the day.

Semi-formal meetings are scheduled, mostly unstructured, but with a work purpose. You know the person you are meeting, and you usually get on well. You have a shared purpose and expect the meeting will include some fluff time (arriving; ordering the coffee; finding a seat), shared eating or drinking, some general catch up, as well as the point of the meeting. You are likely to take a few notes, and leave with more information, a new perspective on a situation, an opportunity, or some action items. You might also use these meetings to build up your network, or get some work emotions off your chest.

I tried having these meetings on video call and I found them tiring and unsatisfactory. It just didn’t encourage the kind of energising, expansive, intimate conversations that I usually have over coffee. Instead I have started using the telephone for scheduled, semi-formal, individual meetings and it is transformational.

What’s different about these meetings? It removes all the problems normally experienced with telephones.

  • Because the meeting is scheduled, you get rid of all the annoyance of missed calls, or calls that interrupt you when you aren’t expecting them.
  • There’s no voicemail, or trying to work out who is ringing you.
  • Telephone calls are difficult with multiple speakers, but knowing when it’s your turn to talk or listen is pretty easy when there are only two voices to differentiate between: the one coming out of your mouth and the one coming out of the telephone.

Phones do take away a lot of visual cues, so they can increase the chances of misunderstandings. This is why you want to use a video call for a job interview or difficult negotiation—anything formal, high stakes or tricky. If I’m chatting to someone I know quite well, and with whom I get along, someone I generally trust… then even if we do have a misunderstanding on the phone, it’s easy to clarify or correct things without feeling too awkward. But the lack of visual information (often in a grainy, laggy, tiny video window) takes a lot of extra load off your eyes and your brain. You don’t need the extra info, so you can just cut a whole stream of content out. You don’t have to watch anyone, and no-one is watching you.

Semi-formal meetings are usually less about hammering out specifics, and more about exploration, getting onto the same page, or general connections. This makes them appropriate for coffee shops, which are noisy and chaotic. Similarly, phones make it hard to focus fully or hear perfectly. However, I can totally hear your enthusiasm, or we can quickly rattle through a range of dates that may or may not work for both diaries. Phone calls are good for conveying emotion, getting impressions and for quick-fire back and forth.

What’s more, the diffuse connection of drinking a hot beverage at the same time at the coffee shop or campus cafe meeting can easily be replicated by doing a shared, simultaneous activity. Whether that is both looking at a Google doc or going for a walk around your respective blocks, doing similar things at the same time puts you both in a compatible frame so your brain doesn’t have to work so hard to focus on being on the same page. And you can switch between focusing on listening and doing — editing a document or safely crossing the road — without abandoning the meeting. These moments of dis-attention are what makes a cafe kind of meeting feel energising and refreshing (also the chance to get in some movement, fresh air and food or drink, so add those into your phone meetings too!)

Just over a month ago, Tseen Khoo (of the awesome Research Whisperer blog) and I set up a virtual unconference, and eventually we’ll do a proper how-to blog post about it. But our main collaborative platforms were Twitter dms, Google Drive and telephone calls. While we held the event on Zoom, we were both very relieved not to have to plan it via Zoom. Since then, I’ve used telephone to replace coffee conversations with a number of colleagues and it’s been delightful. Recently a colleague suggested we go for a walk at the same time as ringing each other and it was fantastic.

I can’t wait till I’m back on campus, and you’re back on campus, and the cafes are open on campus. Till then, let’s catch up by reengineering some old tech to fit our new life. Let’s set up a meeting and I’ll ring you.

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