Younger Workers Don’t Use Phone

Managers want their employees to get off email and pick up the phone.


Managers want their employees to get off email and pick up the phone.

WSJ (“Bosses Say ‘Pick Up the Phone’“):

Patty Baxter realized there was a problem. In her 20 years at Metro Guide Publishing in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the office usually hummed with sales calls. Now, it was quiet.

Advertising sales were down and Ms. Baxter identified a reason: Her sales staff, all under age 35, were emailing clients with their pitches, not calling them on the phone.

Younger workers may have mastered technologies that some of their older colleagues have barely heard of, such as photo and video sharing apps Instagram and Vine, but some bosses wish they’d learn a more traditional skill: picking up the phone.

Although I’m considerably north of 35—and use neither Instagram nor Vine—I immediately guessed the reason.

While Millennials—usually defined as people born between 1981 and the early 2000s—are rarely far from their smartphones, they grew up with a wider array of communication tools, such as texting and online chatting, and have different expectations for how and when they’d like to be reached. In the workplace, some managers say avoiding the phone in favor of email can hurt business, hinder creativity and delay projects.

Stephanie Shih, 27, says phone calls are an interruption. The brand marketing manager at Paperless Post, a New York-based company that designs online and paper stationery, doesn’t have a work phone. Nor do the majority of her co-workers. The company says that not having individual phone lines in open-plan areas protects people from unwanted calls, which can interrupt conversations.

Besides, says Ms. Shih, phones seem “outdated.” She takes scheduled work calls once or twice a week. “Even my dentist’s office texts me because they know phone calls can be burdensome,” she wrote in an email.

Kevin Castle, a 32-year-old chief technology officer at Technossus, an Irvine, Calif.-based business software company, says unplanned calls are such an annoyance that he usually unplugs his desk phone and stashes it in a cabinet. Calling someone without emailing first can make it seem as though you’re prioritizing your needs over theirs, Mr. Castle says. Technossus’s staff relies mainly on email to communicate, which helps bridge the time difference between the company’s offices in the U.S. and India, he says. He uses Microsoft Lync for instant messaging and video conferencing. Phone calls are his last resort.

My strong preference is to conduct business via email for exactly the same reason: getting an unexpected phone call interrupts my thinking and writing. Indeed, I consider being cold called by someone I don’t know quite rude and tend to act accordingly.  Email is much less intrusive, allowing people to communicate when it’s convenient.

That said, people can be too passive with email. If the matter is under deadline, simply firing off one email and letting the matter go until receiving a response is unacceptable. Emails get buried in the inbox. People get the email on their phone, intend to respond in detail once at a workstation, and then forget. Follow-up is essential.

Even there, I tend to use the telephone relatively rarely. If I have business with a co-worker that can’t wait, I just walk over and talk to them.  I find it rather odd when someone who sits 100 feet away calls me rather than just knocking on the door.

There are some lines of work, however, that don’t fit well with this ethic:

But email won’t cut it in professions like sales, where personal rapport matters, says Ms. Baxter, age 49. “You’re not selling if you’re just asking a question and getting an answer back,” she says.

Earlier this month, a member of her sales team misunderstood an email from a client and anticipated a sale that didn’t happen—a mistake Mr. Baxter says could have been avoided had the employee called the client to begin with.

Since May, she’s had Mary Jane Copps, a phone-use consultant in Halifax, Nova Scotia, spend two days a week at the office helping nudge her staff onto the phone. Now, employees keep track of how they contact clients and follow a script when leaving voice mail.

Ms. Copps’s training includes role playing that simulates sales calls to help with what she calls “phone phobia.” “For many people, it’s a lack of confidence that they’ll be able to say the right words in the right order in the right amount of time,” she says.

Ms. Copps, 55, whose website is, charges $1,800 for a full-day workshop. She began working as a phone consultant in 2003 at the encouragement of a friend. She was skeptical at first as she thought phone skills were just common sense.

Those in the sales business, especially those who do cold pitches to potential customers, are going to get even more unpopular over time. The new ethic of expecting asynchronous communication with anyone but one’s most intimate acquaintances will only grow over time. And people leave voicemails at their peril; most people, especially young people, ignore them.

Then again,

Jason Nazar, a 34-year-old Santa Monica, Calif.-based technology entrepreneur, says his company has missed out on potential hires because his 20-something employees schedule interviews by email, rather than phoning applicants, which can take longer. “If you can do something more quickly and more efficiently by using older technology, then do it,” said Mr. Nazar, who is chief executive of Docstoc, a service that helps small businesses manage documents online.

Has anyone ever gotten annoyed to receive a phone call offering them a job interview? Granted, there may be times when taking that call are awkward. But, otherwise, that’s a pretty clear case where reaching out by phone seems like an obvious move.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Eric J. says:

    This pretty much exactly tracks with my experience. If I get a cold sales-call, the first time the caller pauses, I say “No thank you” and hang up before they have a chance to respond. I’ve begun doing the same with any door-to-door sales/solicitation/political canvassers at home. It’s somewhat rude, but well, you interrupted me.

  2. I prefer emails over phone calls – even among co-workers I know – simply because there’s an (e) paper trail. No one can claim they didn’t say something they did. Well, they can try, but the words are typed out in front of you.

  3. Mikey says:

    @Facebones: In the IT security world, we call that “the principle of non-repudiation.”

    I tend to e-mail and follow up with a phone call. But then I’m not in sales, and generally contacting people I’ve already been working with.

  4. JKB says:

    Could it be the high unemployment rate among Millenials is partly because they don’t return calls or check voice mail? Such behavior would be one of the easiest ways to get kicked to the bottom of the candidate list.

    Seems to me the problem here is a lack of flexibility and the much heralded diversity. If you are under 35 and want a job or other opportunity, it probably behooves you to answer your phone and keep up those voice message returns. If you are over 35 and want to hire or do business with someone under 35, you might want to follow up with an email.

    And if you want to sell someone something, they you might want to use some discretion and use the means most likely to result in a sale.

  5. rodney dill says:

    @Eric J.: Agreed. Door -to-door and telemarketers have three strikes against them from the start. They’re intruding on my space, my thoughts, and my time.

  6. Scott says:

    Heck, it works the same way with family and friends. I watch my kids text each other making arrangements to go to movies or what not. I’ll watch the back and forth and I’ll ask ” Wouldn’t it be quicker to just call?”. Of course, I get that blank teenage look of ” You are so dumb”.

    On the other hand, you can get communication out without interrupting classes and other activities that a voice call would.

    The young are being trained to operate in a certain way. It may not be right or wrong but just different.

  7. Gromitt Gunn says:

    I informed all of my classes this week that my College email address goes straight to my phone, which is usually within a few feet of me, and that they’ll typically get a response within a few minutes to a few hours (not on weekends!). I also told them that there’s a thing on my office desk called a “land line” that I might possible look at once a week or so to see if there’s a blinking red light.

    And I am in my 40s.

  8. rudderpedals says:

    Alvin Toffler (remember him?) predicted a “high touch” future where businesses thrived because widespread high tech would allow offering extreme customization, cheaply, to fully satisfy their customers’ needs.

    Was Toffler wrong? He was treated like a god in mid 80s biz school.

  9. Todd says:

    Seems everybody texts these days.. even at times when it makes no sense.

    I’ll be driving to work in the morning, and get a text from one of my guys telling me they’re going to be late for formation. Ummm, I’m driving, please call instead.

    My other favorite is when it’s 1 in the afternoon on a Saturday, I happen to pick up my phone and notice that my neighbor sent me a text earlier in the morning asking if I wanted to play golf … tee time was 2 hours ago. 🙂

  10. Joe Cascio says:

    This article calls out the very reasons why people are deserting the telephone and deservedly so.

    “Calling someone without emailing first can make it seem as though you’re prioritizing your needs over theirs,”

    Yes, this is exactly why I hate the telephone. You’re interrupting me because you think what YOU want is important enough to require me to drop everything I’m doing and attend to YOUR needs.

    “But email won’t cut it in professions like sales,”

    Tele-sales is by definition Interruption Marketing. You, the salesperson, have decided that your need to sell me something is more important than whatever I happen to be doing at that moment. I can hardly think of any time when that would be true for me. If I wanted what you’re selling, I’D CALL YOU.

    Oh and by the way, I’m 65 yrs old, and haven’t had a land line in several years. Sometimes, it pays to watch what young people do and learn.

  11. Rick Almeida says:


    Why would you prefer to talk on the phone while driving rather than receive a text? The voice conversation seems likely to be considerably more distracting than a glance at a text.

  12. Todd says:

    @Rick Almeida:

    I agree, both are distracting. Ideally, nobody would be contacting me to say they’re going to be late. 🙂

    But my eyes are off the road for less time to take a call that to “glance” at a text. Plus, I’m “half old”. Although I rarely make phone calls myself, if someone really has a need to get ahold of me, I’d almost always prefer a call over a text.

  13. Gustopher says:

    Has anyone ever gotten annoyed to receive a phone call offering them a job interview? Granted, there may be times when taking that call are awkward. But, otherwise, that’s a pretty clear case where reaching out by phone seems like an obvious move.

    Scheduling an interview? Given the sharp divide between how young and old use communication technology, I’d assume that using email is a way of subtly getting rid of old people.

  14. ernieyeball says:

    My not-so-smart phone (LG Env3) will read texts to me so I don’t have to look at the phone. That, combined with the Bluetooth connection to the My Ford feature in my new 2013 Fusion and thumb controls on the steering wheel make it so that there is little distraction.
    Of course I do know how to shut it all down if I don’t want Electric Flags Killing Floor to be interupted while President is Johnson talking.

    “I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of Democracy. I urge every member of both parties…”

  15. JKB says:

    Why is everyone so eager to discriminate and promote inequality against people who do not write or read well? Aren’t we suppose to be inclusive? Aren’t we suppose to fight inequality?

    But here we have all these commenters saying “screw you, poorly trained in writing and reading”? Maybe if people sent audio and video “texts’?

    Why are you so eager to discriminate against those who were trapped in bad, urban, public schools? Given the make up of the latter, isn’t demanding written communication, racist?

  16. Tony W says:

    @JKB: Don’t U wry – gd splng is not ndd 2 comm.

  17. Craigo says:

    We do quite a bit of business with other branches of my firm by phone – but even so, it is a major, major faux pas without emailing or texting first. A phone call is a monopoly on both parties’ attention, incredibly inefficient, and leaves no record to refer back to.

  18. grumpy realist says:

    anyone who tries to sell something by cold-calling deserves what he gets — getting hung up on or going directly to voice mail. The only exemption I make for this is headhunters calling me. But even then, you’d do much better contacting me via Linked-In. That way I know how you found me, I can do some research on you if I want to, and you can provide me with more information.

    Using the phone in sales only works after you have a connection with the individual. The glut of telemarketers has made everyone realize exactly what they’re giving up by accepting phone calls. Basically–you guys who want to use phones? You blew it by calling people too much, and now no one wants to listen to you. Tough cookies. And I’ll redirect all your emails to “spam”.