Businesses are cutting the landline tether surprisingly quickly.
"The rise of the cellphone-only worker is happening at lightning speed," wrote David Cameron, president of the IT services firm Rhode Island-based Conduit Systems, in an email.
It's a byproduct of the Great Recession and the continuing push inside many businesses to pare costs. Employees habitually use their cellphones for calls, even when they sit at their desks. That leads eyeshade-wearing accountants to ask whether those employees really need the landline, which costs the company money every month.
Small and midsized companies are cutting landlines the fastest, said Dan Tully, an executive vice president at Conduit Systems, in an interview. "This conversation is loudest in smaller companies. They are the ones saying, let's just use cellphones," said Tully.
These companies often lack staff to oversee deployment of a fullscale PBX, and they frequently also lack the budget.
Companies see benefits from transitioning to cellphones. It reduces training costs. For many employees, a sophisticated modern office phone system is "just another system for users to learn. But they already know iOS or Android," Tully said.
Also, employees "bring their cellphone everywhere, anyway, and they consult it throughout the day," Tully said.
Marilyn Santiesteban, assistant director of Graduate and Alumni Career Services at Bentley University in Waltham, Mass., could be a poster child for this movement. In an email, she wrote: "My office phone lacks redial and many other functions my cell has -- it's a dinosaur and I truly hate to use it. I like to forward my desk phone to my cell. I always check my cell before my desk phone."
At Coalition Technologies, a website design firm in Los Angeles and Seattle, the 18 employees use just cellphones, CEO Joel Gross told me in an interview. The company can add a new employee to its system "in a few minutes," including provisioning them with a business phone number that simply forwards incoming calls to their personal cellphone.
"At first, some employees think this is odd," Gross admitted. But the company pays part of their cellphone bill so "most come to see it as a positive."
Gross acknowledged that "it's not perfect. Call quality on a cellphone sometimes is not that great." But, for him, the cost savings and ease of provisioning new hires with phones outweigh the occasional shortcoming.
Gross has homebrewed his phone number provisioning tools, but enough small companies are interested in cutting the landline that it's spawned a business specializing in the service.
Employees of the shopping blog SHEfinds use their cellphones for business, but the company buys forwarding numbers from Grasshopper, SHEfinds CEO Michelle Madhok told me in an email.
Grasshopper's raison d'etre is to "let you run your business using your cellphones," according to the website copy.
Use of the forwarding numbers from Grasshopper means that SHEfinds owns the numbers that employees use for business. "If someone leaves, we still receive their work calls," Madhock explained.
One complaint about exclusively using cellphones is that international calls tend to be wildly expensive, typically $1/minute and higher. A fix is to require employees to install Google Voice, and set it to dial international calls. Put $5 in the account and that will keep most workers chatting away. (Google's international rates start at a few pennies per minute.)
"Older phone systems are just a restrictive mindset. You can't win this battle," said Tully, who indicated that he expected the once universal desktop phone to vanish, just as the also once universal Rolodex has taken flight from most companies. "It's inevitable."
It's about a lot more than the phone you talk into. "It's about liberating your employees and letting them work in the way they feel most comfortable. For many today, that means cellphone only," Tully said.
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— Robert McGarvey has been online and writing about the Internet for nearly 25 years.