Even large firms are cutting landlines
February 13, 2016
If you stop in the Near West Side offices of data science company Civis Analytics, you'll see exposed brick, an open floor plan, lots of millennial workers—and no desk phones. The company has exactly one landline, for its reception desk. “If it rings twice an hour, that's a lot,” says Lisa Rodriguez, vice president of oppressions.
Civis' 100 employees prefer Gchat for one-on-one conversations with colleagues, messaging service HipChat for larger team discussions and, for client calls, speaker boxes that connect via Bluetooth to cellphones and laptops.
The stodgy desk phone, which tethers an employee to a permanent workspace, contradicts “the whole idea of an agile, collaborative, modern, mobile-first workspace,” says Tom Bianculli, vice president of Zebra Technologies' emerging technology office. The company's Zatar unit in the West Loop, which sells cloud-based software, has fewer than 10 landlines hooked up in meeting rooms.
While tech companies and startups were early adopters of landline-free offices, the benefits of cutting the cord have become so great that bigger companies are following suit.
Leo Burnett ditched its physical phones in November. The ad agency's 1,600-plus Chicago workers now have Bluetooth headsets, and voicemails are immediately transcribed to email. Many employees automatically forward their work numbers to their cellphones.
Even old-line professional services and law firms have moved away from traditional landline phone systems, prompted by updates to their buildings' cabling, their executives' need for secure communication channels outside the office and the desire for such extra capabilities as voicemail-to-email transcription.
“We're seeing a significant shift in the marketplace,” says John Shave, who launched Globalcom, one of the first phone services to use fiber cabling instead of old-fashioned copper cabling, in Chicago in 1993 and sold it for $58.5 million in 2008.
He's created Xtracom, which provides “unified mobility” services that connect a worker's primary phone line to any device or location. Demand is booming as employees increasingly travel globally, work from home or move their workstation within the office depending on the day's tasks.
Bianculli at Zebra says Atlas-sian's suite of collaborative communication software, which allows multiple users to post, comment on and edit conversations, fits Zatar's digital-native, textcentric workforce far more comfortably than a phone. (We won't even get into voicemail, which prompts a level of millennial anxiety worse than student debt, global warming and GMOs combined.)
“We have a good number of people who are 25 and under, and since they were teenagers, they've known nothing else besides these tools,” Bianculli says.
The number of U.S. workers relying entirely on mobile technology—smartphones, tablets and laptops—will increase steadily over the next five years, according to IDC, a telecommunications market research firm in Framingham, Mass. By 2020, three of every four employees in the country will be completely mobile, communicationwise.
IDC also found that more than 75 percent of corporations it surveyed either already have or plan to implement unified phone systems that extend to workers' mobile phones.
“We have a 100-person law firm (in Chicago) that recently pitched their phone equipment,” Shave says, declining to name the firm. “They want to bridge the mobile gap. If I'm a lawyer working at my vacation house in Colorado, I want to make a phone call to a client that comes from my office line.”
FROM COPPER TO FIBER
The first baby step toward ditching a desk phone involves switching from traditional copper cables, which for decades composed the backbone of telephone service, to fiber that allows voice-over-IP systems to connect landline phones via the Internet.
“Ninety percent of new clients are making the switch,” says Kara Sartwell, a Chicago-based manager at REX Electric & Technologies. Her company helps corporate clients and commercial buildings ensure secure, speedy connections.
The country's copper network is decaying, and providers such as AT&T say it won't make financial sense to maintain the system as fewer and fewer people use it. As a result, and because high-speed connectivity is paramount, most Class A office buildings in Chicago have installed fiber cables recently, Sartwell says.
It's therefore extremely cheap for tenants to switch over to wireless Internet phone service. Doing so can save thousands of dollars and time for companies moving into new office space, because union electricians are no longer required.
Despite the shift, many offices have a long way to go until they rely entirely on cells or laptops to make calls.
“A lot of people still want to touch the elephant on the desk,” says Xtracom's Shave. “We're still in the second inning of this game.”