The Lost Art of the Phone Call

With email and Zoom use rising, firm leaders say phone use for even critical operations is dropping off. How much is “phone phobia” hurting business?

The supply-chain manager got the client’s text notification ordering that a shipment be delayed. With little time to spare, she phoned her assistant manager. But there was just one problem: he never picked up.

Welcome to the era of phone phobia. A reported four out of five millennials—the bulk of today’s workforce—get anxiety just thinking about making a call. A reported 21% are likely to avoid calls from work, frustrating leaders (especially boomers) who still consider the phone to be a robust method of communication. “What's troubling is when people don't respond at all—whether you're talking about reports, peers, or colleagues,” says Brad Frank, senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Technology practice.

The change in habits can be more than merely frustrating: experts say critical business operations can fall off because email can be slower or unclear. "There are too many dynamics to try to email your way to a solution in supply chains,” says Seth Steinberg, a Korn Ferry senior client partner in the firm’s Supply Chain Center of Expertise. “It's too big, too global, too complex. There are too many things happening at the same time.” Steinberg says a lot of such operations “require old-school leadership." 

Email, texts, and videoconferencing have greatly speeded up communications that help business. As a result, emailing alone grew more than 20% over the pandemic; daily volume now averages some 350 billion. But experts say that the phone still has a special place in the communication pantheon. “There's something that just feels more personal and intimate about a phone call,” says Sarah Jensen Clayton, senior client partner with Korn Ferry’s Culture and Change practice in North America. In the right circumstances, she says, phone use can enhance collaboration.

To enhance phone use in a targeted and effective way, experts say leaders need to better understand how millennials and other younger generations view it. “Whenever I get a phone call now, it always feels like, ‘Why are you calling me—who died?’” says Brian Bloom, Korn Ferry’s vice president for global benefits and mobility operations. He urges leaders to counter the doomsaying calls with occasional phone check-ins to share good feedback or simply see how employees are doing.

Clayton also suggests that sending a preemptive text before a call can prevent people from feeling caught off guard. Further, she asserts, leaders should encourage phone use for business, since many firms pay for employees’ cell-phone expenses. “They're investing in us making those calls and connecting,” says Clayton. Still, experts say, don’t push it. “Make the call—but don't be on the phone forever,” says Zach Peikon, a principal in Korn Ferry’s Marketing Officers practice. Some 75% of millennials reportedly think phone calls are too time-consuming. “Let's do what we have to do, then move on,” he adds.


For more information, contact Korn Ferry’s Culture and Change practice.