Working Conversations Episode 168:

Telephonobia: How the Fear of Phone Calls is Hurting Work


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Have you ever felt your heart race when the phone rings, or hesitated to dial a number, opting instead for the perceived safety of an email or instant message?

Ever wonder why this simple phone call at work can induce so much anxiety? 

If you’re one of the many employees dreading picking up the phone for work calls, you know exactly how it feels.

In this episode, I delve into the phenomenon of telephonobia—the fear of using the telephone—and how it’s quietly undermining workplace communication and productivity.

I explore why this fear is becoming more prevalent, especially among younger and middle-aged professionals. Factors such as the rise of digital communication, the preference for text over talk, and the overwhelming nature of modern technology all contribute to this growing issue.

Despite these factors, I make a compelling business case for reintroducing phone calls into your professional toolkit. I discuss how phone calls can enhance efficiency, provide clarity, and foster personal connections that emails and text messages often lack.

You’ll learn practical strategies to overcome telephonobia and reintegrate phone communication into your daily routine. Whether it's setting clear call agendas, practicing phone conversations, or gradually increasing your call frequency, these tips will help you regain confidence and improve your communication skills.

So whether you're a seasoned professional or just starting your career, this episode is essential for anyone aiming to improve their professional interactions and boost productivity. By tackling telephonobia directly, we can restore the advantages of phone communication and create a more connected, efficient workplace.

Discover how to overcome the fear of phone calls and why it's crucial for your career success. Let's bring back the personal touch in our professional communication!

Listen and catch the full episode
here or wherever you listen to podcasts. You can also watch it and replay it on my YouTube channel, JanelAndersonPhD.

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Episode 163: Norms Not Working For You? Change Them


Hello and welcome to another episode of Working conversations where we talk all things leadership, business, communication and trends in organizational life. I'm your host, Dr, Janel Anderson.

Do you ever feel a shiver run down your spine at the thought of making a phone call? Well, you're not alone. Welcome to the era of telephonobia, where the humble phone call has become a dreaded relic of the past.

Today, we are dialing into the reasons behind this modern day aversion and exploring why it's time to bring back the phone as a powerful business tool from the anxious millennial to the overwhelmed manager. We will uncover how this quirky fear is impacting the workplace, communication and productivity in your organization.

Are you ready to conquer your phone phobia and boost your professional game? Well, let's ring in changes and rediscover the art of the call. Okay, so today we are diving into a phenomenon that might seem a bit quirky at first, but it has significant implications for workplace productivity and communication, the decline of telephone use in business. Some have even dubbed this trend, yes, telephonobia in an age where digital communication reigns supreme, it is no surprise that many of us have developed this kind of aversion to using the phone for work related tasks, emails, instant messaging and all the collaboration tools that we have at hand, like Slack and Teams, have made it so easy to communicate without even picking up the phone, and this shift has led to a decrease in phone calls with many employees feeling anxious or even uncomfortable when faced with the prospect of making or receiving a phone call.

Now, a survey by bank myself found that millennials and Gen Z are particularly affected, with 81% feeling anxious about phone calls. This trend, again known as the telephonobia isn't just a humorous anecdote, but it is a real issue that can hinder effective communication and productivity in the workplace.

When I am on big stages and talking to audiences, and I mention using the phone, I can literally see the audience squirm in their seats, and it just makes me giggle a little bit and then remind them that the telephone is one of their most important workplace and business communication tools.

All right, so there are some sound business reasons why we still need to use the phone, and it's very prevalent in customer service, but also across the board.

So let's start with some of that customer communication. A full 71% of customer communication still happens over the phone. Those same people who don't want to answer the phone at work or use the phone at work, they definitely want to use the phone when they are the consumer. And 60% of customers will call a local business after finding them on Google. 60% now I definitely count myself among those customers.

I have recently called for hair appointments, called to see if an item was in stock with a smaller business that didn't have their inventory online. I have called my bank for an account issue and on and on, and that's just within the past week, and it's no wonder, you know, business phone calls still dominate how local businesses communicate with their customers, both new customers and old customers.

The trouble is, whereas text and email give employers time to pause and respond, phone calls require immediate answers. If you leave customers on hold for too long, you're going to lose them to a competitor. Or if they are ringing or ringing to voicemail, you may lose them to a competitor. And there is, you know, a certain immediacy to getting your question answered when you call on the phone. And a phone call can quickly resolve a situation, or at least make you feel like the situation is being attended to by a real person, even if the issue isn't something that can be easily resolved minutes or a routine call, but the business case for using the phone goes well beyond customer service.

But before we get into that, let's look at some of the root causes of why people are uncomfortable on the phone, and I must say, I'm often told that it's a generational problem, that it's Gen Z, and the millennials who don't like to use the phone.

But I think that's short sighted. So we're going to look at not only the younger generation, but also why some middle aged people don't pick up the phone more often as well.

Now understanding these causes is crucial for developing strategies to overcome this modern workplace challenge, because I am on a mission to bring the phone back, because it is such a useful and efficient tool, it will save your company hundreds of 1000s of dollars to have people on the phone instead of tied up in meetings.

Because you know what happens? Here's what happens. I'm getting ahead of myself a little bit. But instead of swinging by somebody's desk to ask them a quick question, like you would have done if you were co located, many people now could be picking up the phone, but instead they're going to the person's calendar and scheduling a meeting, and they're not just scheduling that meeting for their five minute question, they're scheduling the meeting for 25 or 30 minutes, and odds are, they're tying up that person's calendar, and maybe the five minute question is now taking 25 or 30 minutes, where it could have been just a quick phone call, but again, I'm getting ahead of myself.

So first, let's look at the root causes of this telephonobia amongst young people. So let's start off with looking at digital natives and their technology preferences. So those younger generations, particularly millennials and Gen Z, have certainly grown up in a digital world. They had iPads in their baby strollers, and they are accustomed to texting to messaging apps and using social media platforms which provide quick and convenient ways to communicate.

Now they don't always get an answer right away, but at least they're putting out there what their request is, and they don't have to do it with the risk of somebody not answering the phone or having to leave an email or having to leave a voicemail, these digital natives often find written communication more comfortable and efficient, leading to a preference for those these digital natives often find written communication more comfortable and efficient, leading to a preference for those methods over phone calls, which, again, might make them anxious, which brings us to our next root cause, anxiety and social comfort.

Now, many young people experience anxiety around phone calls. This can absolutely be attributed to a lack of practice and lack of familiarity with phone conversations and their conventions compared to digital communication, the instantaneous nature of phone calls can feel intimidating with the pressure to respond immediately, without the chance to clarify or craft a response, and you can do that when you're using email or text or messaging apps.

You can double check your answer before you hit Send when you're talking in real time, in synchronous communication on the phone, you don't always feel like you can take a pause and double check your answer before you respond, so that can lead to a whole layer of anxiety that's present for younger people that isn't necessarily the same when they're communicating through digital apps and email and the like.

Now remember that study that I mentioned earlier, that 81% of younger people feel anxious about answering calls. Well, this anxiety can stem from that unpredictability that comes with phone conversations and the fear of not being able to control the flow of discussion, and that is a real possibility. You might not have the answer, and you might have to be okay with that, but I'm getting ahead of myself with strategies for overcoming the telephonobia.

Now it may be true that younger people are anxious, and let's look at the training, though, and the experience that they've gotten. Younger employees may not have received any formal training or guidance on phone etiquette, and if they're not using the telephone much in their personal lives, because they're using so many apps and text messaging, they really may not have the skills.

So without this foundational knowledge of phone conventions and professional business telephone skills, they might feel ill equipped to handle phone conversations confidently, and this gap in training can lead to a preference for written communication and app based communication, where they feel more in control and more comfortable.

Now I remember being a younger employee in a face to face role at work, and I was asked to cover the phone for the receptionist during break time, even though receptionist and the skill set that went along with that was nowhere near the job that I was hired for. So even if you're in a totally different field, like marketing or human resources, if you were in a face to face environment, especially in a smaller company, you might be asked to cover the receptionist that is the main line telephone coming into the workplace.

Now, I can also remember having a job as a server in a restaurant now in that situation, and it was a finer restaurant, not a casual, quick service food restaurant, and in a restaurant like that, the host answers the phone, but when the host is on break or when the host is seating someone else at a table, it is the responsibility of the closest server or bartender near that ringing phone to answer it, and so anybody working in a situation like that should also be getting some of those foundational skills.

But of course, not everybody is working in a restaurant, or not everybody is working in a face to face environment where they're in a smaller business, where somebody needs to cover the reception desk, so they may not have gotten that training to answer it.

Now there's one more thing to mention, and that is cultural shifts in our communication norms. So these cultural shifts have played a role in reducing phone use among you young people and across organizations altogether and in many social and professional contexts, it's become much more acceptable to communicate via text or email or app based communication, whether that be Slack or Teams or dating apps in their personal life.

Now this norm extends to the workplace, where younger employees might view phone calls as being outdated or potentially intrusive compared to some of the more modern digital communication tools that they're using. So those are certainly some legitimate reasons that younger people feel uncomfortable talking on the phone, and we're going to come back to those in a minute, as we talk to as we talk about how to overcome this telephonobia.

But first, let's look at the root causes of telephonobia in older workers, middle aged workers, if you will. So the first one for them is adaptation to digital communication. So middle aged workers, you know, in their 40s, 50s, 60s, who are often in leadership and managerial roles, have had to adapt to the rise of all of the digital communication tools that we've been talking about, whether they be Slack or Teams or other app based communication, and while many of them began their careers relying heavily on telephone calls, the convenience and efficiency of emails, messaging apps and collaboration platforms have absolutely shifted their communication habits, and this adaptation has also led to a decreased comfort with phone calls as digital tools have become the default mode of communication for many tasks across the organization.

The reliance on written communication can erode phone skills over time, making phone calls feel more daunting regardless of your age. Now, busy schedules and time management also play a role to those middle aged professionals, again, many of them in management and supervision roles are often juggling numerous responsibilities and a packed back to back meeting schedule, so the perceived interruption of a phone call can be seen as a disruption to their workflow, whether you're making the call to them or whether they are making the call to you.

So emails and messages, on the other hand, can be managed asynchronously, of course, allowing for better control over one's time and priorities. The need for efficiency and time management, however, even though they're contributing to a reluctance to use the phone, are very, very important.

Now, phone calls, of course, require immediate attention, unless you let it ring to voicemail, which sometimes you have to do, but that immediate attention can be pretty as less time efficient compared to other forms of communication. Again, I'm getting ahead of myself, though, when I say that sometimes picking up the phone, you can have a very quick call that resolves something rather than going back and forth on email a bunch of times or scheduling on somebody's calendar.

All right, the third reason that some older and by older, again, I mean middle age, 40s, 50s, 60s professionals aren't using the telephone0 is professional culture and expectations.

So in many organizations, there is this unspoken expectation that phone calls should be reserved for very urgent or important matters, and this cultural norm can lead to middle aged workers avoiding using the phone for routine or non critical communication, reinforcing that reliance on digital tools, and this has become exacerbated by the pandemic.

In the quick turnaround to working from home that the pandemic required, there was an over reliance on asynchronous communication like email, because we just didn't have all the tools like teams and Zoom and WebEx and so forth, and nor were those tools as good as they are today. So those norms have been exacerbated and have really stuck around even if they're not serving the purpose that they intended in the organization.

Additionally, the hierarchical nature of many workplaces means that phone calls can sometimes be perceived as intrusive or potentially even disrespectful, even if the recipient is not in a higher position, and of course, definitely if the recipient is in a higher position.

And this perception can create a barrier to using the phone for regular communication or quick questions. Now what's kind of funny about all this, however, is that those same people who are uncomfortable calling someone on the phone usually have no reservation about walking up to their desk when they're co located in the office, and interrupting them then, which I think is hysterical.

And finally, technology overwhelm. Older workers and middle aged workers might sometimes experience technological overwhelm, given all the rapid pace of digital transformation and all the different tools there are to communicate with. So this constant influx of new tools and platforms can make it challenging to keep up, leading to a preference for familiar and comfortable methods of communication. And those familiar and comfortable methods may have become teams chat or email, and so for some, phone calls may feel like an added layer of complexity to an already tech saturated environment.

All right now that we have had a look at some of the root causes, both for younger people and older people alike. Now let's look at the business case for bringing the phone back, even beyond customer service, reasons that I shared earlier.

Now despite the convenience of digital communication, there are compelling reasons to reintegrate phone calls into our daily work routines. Here are a few key benefits of using the phone as a practical business tool:

The first is just simply for efficiency and clarity. One of the most significant advantages of a phone call is its efficiency. A quick call can often resolve an issue or clarify a misunderstanding way faster than a lengthy email thread. The immediacy of that phone call and the conversation allows for real time problem solving, reducing the time spent in that back and forth.

Now, the second reason is a personal connection. Phone calls provide a level of personal connection that an email or a Slack message or a teams message just lacks the tone of voice inflection and again, that immediate feedback create a more human interaction, fostering better relationships and more trust among colleagues and clients alike. This personal touch can be particularly important in negotiations, customer service, team, collaboration and clearing up those quick misunderstandings. It's a quick and easy way, and it doesn't require a meeting scheduled on your calendar.

The third practical purpose is it reduces miscommunication so email, text messaging and all the app based messages like Slack and so forth can easily be misinterpreted, leading to misunderstandings and potential conflicts.

The nuance of spoken language helps convey meaning more accurately. There are more social cues in it, and that reduces the likelihood of miscommunication. Hearing someone's voice can also provide context, and again, those social and emotional cues that are often missing in our written communication, even when we try to cram them in there, it's likely that the other person will skip over them or miss the subtleties that we intended.

The fourth reason is that it fosters creativity and collaboration. Those spontaneous conversations that phone calls can support can spark creativity and collaboration in ways that scheduled meetings and written messages just, quite frankly, not the dynamic nature of a phone call allows for brainstorming and idea sharing in real time, which can lead to innovative solutions and, again, a more collaborative work environment.

This is akin to stopping by somebody's desk when you're in the office, or grabbing them in the hallway between meetings to bounce an idea off of them, the phone call can do that for you, absolutely.

Okay. Now let's look at how to bring back the phone as a business tool. The first thing that your organization probably needs is some sort of training and support, because it is become a lost art, so offering training sessions on effective phone communication can help employees feel more confident and more comfortable when both making phone calls and receiving phone calls, and these sessions can cover topics such as phone etiquette, handling difficult conversations and using phone calls for specific types of business purposes.

And I am a strong advocate of this, and I think all organizations need to get telekit and telephone use back into their onboarding processes, so as people are being onboarded and taught how to use or shown how to use or given tutorials on all the different technology tools that they're expected to use in the workplace, including those apps like teams or slack, or what have you, they should also be given some training on telephone skills.

It may sound rudimentary and it may sound like something that people should know, but I'm telling you they don't know, and we need to train them. The second thing we need to do is encourage a phone friendly culture in the workplace. Now, leaders can set an example by using the phone for communication and encouraging their teams to use the phone as well, and recognizing and rewarding effective phone communication can also reinforce its importance, like thanking somebody for calling you up and asking a quick question instead of scheduling time on your calendar.

Now make sure to not always call people with problems. Make sure you're also, if you're a leader manager, make sure you're also using the phone to call to check in, to call to give positive feedback, to call to say, Good morning. How are you? I hope you have an awesome day today.

Call to do your management by walking around, especially for those of you who are in remote and hybrid workplaces. Now, you might be bucking norm but or creating a new norm by using the phone, but that's okay, and it may take some time. Your initial efforts may not be well received, or your main initial efforts may not stick. So I encourage you to go back and listen to episode 163 Norms Not Working for You? Change Them. We'll link that episode up in the show notes.

Now. Third, you also need to balance your digital communication with your phone communication. I'm not advocating that you abandon all of your email and your app based communication, but find the right balance between digital communication, those apps and email and phone communication.

Finally, absolutely key digital tools are excellent, of course, for certain tasks, and recognize when a phone call is more important, that recognition can enhance overall communication across the office in your effectiveness. And you might even go so far as to establish guidelines for when to use a phone call versus when to use email or other app based messages. This can help employees make informed choices, and that can again be part of the training and onboarding.

So also, especially if you're in a management supervisory or leadership position, don't be afraid to give feedback. You might say to somebody, Hey, this six back and forth email sequence could have been handled with a three minute phone call.

Next time, please call me, even if you don't reach me, leave a message and I'll call you back with the answer, or I'll call you back when we can talk about it, when my schedule is free.

Number four, create phone friendly environments now, when you can ensure that employees have access to quiet spaces for phone calls that will make all the difference in making them comfortable, this can be particularly important for open Floor plan offices, where noise and lack of privacy absolutely deters phone use. So if you're an office that uses hoteling or open workspace, has an open workspace design and so forth, those spaces lend themselves to people not wanting to pick up the phone.

Quite frankly, they have performance anxiety about picking up the phone because other people can overhear them, and if they don't have rock solid telephone skills, they're going to be extra anxious about other people overhearing them again, especially when they don't have polished skills.

So give training and create phone booths or small private rooms for taking calls in those open office environments. It's like the small rooms in airport lounges. If you ever are in the Delta lounge in an airport, you've probably noticed they have a lot of open seating area, but then they have a number of small spaces where either you have an open area behind you and you're facing into a cubicle environment, or it's a small, barely larger than an old fashioned tele telephone booth room that you can go into with a door that closes and has privacy. So I use them all the time when I'm taking calls when I'm traveling.

Now, sometimes it's personal or it's confidential client issues that we're discussing, and other times, I just want privacy. I don't like people overhearing me on the phone. I am not one of those people who is going to be taking a phone call while walking through the airport on my earbuds. I like privacy. I don't want other people to overhear my business, whether that is personal business or work business. And the fifth and final reason why we need to bring back to telephone is because of zoom fatigue.

Now, whether it's zoom teams or WebEx that you're on, if you're on all day, every day with your cameras on, it is exhausting. And if you are a longtime listener of the podcast, or if you've seen me speak in person recently, I'm sure you have heard me talk about zoom fatigue, and how even when you have the fastest processor speed on your computer, highest bandwidth possible, there is still a slight delay between the movement of somebody's mouth and the sound of their voice, and that is exhausting for your brain, and that is what leads to zoom fatigue.

So using the phone once in a while eliminates being on camera all day. So we want to bring the phone back so that we get away on cameras on. And I mean, I'm a big fan of turning the cameras off too, but still, just having the meeting booked on your calendar all day and having the camera on most of the day absolutely is exhausting, so using the phone is going to eliminate some of that Zoom fatigue and shorten up the back to back meetings that you have all day long.

Now, as we navigate the future of work, it is crucial to remain adaptable and open to revisiting traditional tools like the telephone, overcoming telephonopia and bringing back the phone as a practical business tool can absolutely enhance productivity, the personal connection that we still crave in the workplace and in the rest of our lives, and, of course, collaboration.

So the next time you're faced with a complex issue, or you need to build rapport with somebody, or you need to just have a quick question answered, please, please, please, consider picking up the phone, it just might be the most efficient and effective communication tool in your arsenal. Let's all work together to eradicate telephonobia.

Remember, my friends, the future of work is not only about new technology. It's about the values we uphold, the communities we build, and the sustainable growth we are all striving for. We need to keep exploring, keep innovating and keep envisioning the remarkable possibilities that lie ahead.

As always, my friends, stay informed and stay ahead of the curve. Tune in next Monday for another insightful exploration of the trends shaping our professional world. And as I wrap up just a quick request, please share this episode with a friend or a colleague who needs to hear it. Text it to them, email it to them, Slack it to them, or even pick up a phone and call them and tell them about the episode and why they need to listen. It would mean the world to me. Thank you, my friends, and until next time be well.

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