Around 9,000 BCE, in a fertile crescent of land to the east of the Mediterranean near Mesopotamia, human existence changed forever. There, we began to domesticate plants and animals, thereby gaining the ability to produce far more food than we could consume individually.

This meant that settlements could support more people and that those people did not need to be involved in hunting and gathering. Eventually this led to the creation of trade, art, cities, countries, empires, and civilisation as we know it. All this was based on new technology enabling better collaboration.

Fast forward 11,000 years or so and parallels can be drawn with the way current technology is enabling a shift in the way we collaborate. To illustrate this, ask yourself - when was the last time I picked up the phone at work?

At a recent people leader conversation we thought about how we like to be communicated with and I thought it was a good idea to ask my team. The results were interesting, some preferring zoom over email and others who just wanted a slack message.

No one shared my response which was: if you need to contact me please pick up the phone…I can’t be alone surely?

I’m not that old, but I'm old enough to remember the times of MSN Messenger, Yahoo chat and a time when no one owned a mobile phone. In fact, I thought I was the bee’s knees at school when I had a pager...not entirely sure why a 13/14 year old needed one of those on his hip at school!

I have never worked in a call centre or had to make sales over the phone but I have always preferred the telephone as a method of communication over anything else. My wife is totally different so perhaps it isn’t a generational thing.

Ask yourself - when was the last time I picked up the phone at work?

It’s good to talk…isn’t it?

Zoom is now a word synonymous with our daily lives and I can easily count the number of face to face meetings I have had over the past few months (remember my previous blog? Turns out I could still ‘ride’ the tube and the meeting was, all things considered, a success).

I saw a LinkedIn post from a Head of Software Engineering at a large telephony-based sales team recently and the person had commented ‘Slack is down’ and questioned what other methods of contact he could use. My response, rather tongue in cheek (as a telephone lover), was ‘just pick up the phone’. His response: I’ll save that for the sales agents. Why are we so tied to services like Slack these days and afraid to pick up the phone to have a conversation?

I mentioned MSN messenger earlier and I hope a number reading this will remember that service - certainly all of my friends used it a lot growing up. Isn’t Slack the newest (business) version of MSN?

Well, almost. Communication now isn’t the same as communication in years gone by. Yes, it’s all basically people talking to each other but the changes in the way we communicate are part of a wider change in the way we approach work.

Faster, higher, stronger, now with more thinking time

We’ve become much more collaborative - anthropologically speaking we’ve always been collaborative, see above - but at work we’ve only recently been able to express that spirit with anything approaching ease. It used to be that if you wanted to work on a sales deck with someone else, you had to hole up in a meeting room, huddled around a laptop for hours on end. Not particularly convenient for a global business. If you wanted an all hands meeting, it usually involved a two-day conference at a business park somewhere dreary. Tools like Slack, Zoom and Google docs have made all this rather redundant. Unfortunately (for me at least), this inexorable march of technology has made the humble telephone seem rather antiquated too. Why just hear someone’s voice when you can see them as well? Why just speak to one person when you can have everyone you need on a Zoom call? This simplification of collaboration means that we are more efficient, that our decisions are made with better information, and that the pace of progress is increased. This increased efficiency means we’re free to focus on things that do not necessarily directly affect the bottom line. Similarly, prehistoric hunter gatherers had little time to do anything other than hunt the next mammoth, buffalo or elephant. The increased efficiency of farming gave people more space to focus on things that improved lives and precipitated real change.

That’s the reason people don’t want to pick up the phone. It’s become too intimate

You may have seen a recent piece of PR discussing how we have collaborated with (often viewed as competitors) Twenty7Tec and Mortgage Brain to help dispel the myths around mortgage applications. We all have our own technology that we talk about in the market place and the message from brokers was “you all talk about what you have delivered and it is often quite confusing”. Whilst we were all pushing the same message, we did it in our own way and this was detrimental to what we were trying to achieve. We therefore collaborated and worked together to come up with a standard set of terms which we will all stick to. This collaboration has been key and has allowed our collective customers to help adopt the services we are discussing.

With all that said, we’ll not see the death of the telephone for some time yet. The telephone allows for something different. While collaboration is undoubtedly important, we - as humans - need something else: relationships. It’s only through one-to-one conversations that relationships can be formed. While society benefits from collaboration and efficiency, we only have a society in the first place because of relationships between people. And perhaps that’s the reason people don’t want to pick up the phone. It’s become too intimate - there’s no filter, no retyping a sentence to phrase it perfectly, or pausing for thought before replying. The phone is now for calling people you have a strong relationship with - friends, family - not work colleagues. Or perhaps, the only way to actually create intimacy is by talking to people.

In this age of collaboration it’s important not to underestimate the simple act of picking up the phone and speaking to someone.