Tuesday, April 22, 2008

I'm Too Important to Answer the Phone

In business, the telephone is probably one of the most common forms of communication. Sure there is email, text messaging, video conferencing – one could even make the argument that we don’t get up and simply walk over to our co-worker’s cubicles enough these days.

But the telephone is still the primary means of communication. It is cheaper than videoconferencing, easier than a text message, and more personal than an email.

Still, some people don’t get it – ever. They never answer their phone. I deal with many people at many levels at many different organizations. Most people answer their phones when they can.

Often I get voice-mail, which is understandable. We’re all busy and we simply aren’t tethered to our desks all day to answer every call. But when you call someone back several times throughout the day, and each time all you get is their voice-mail, it makes you wonder why that person even has a phone?

It may be that the individual is truly over-worked, and simply doesn’t have enough time to take phone calls. Or, it could be that the person thinks they are too important to answer the phone, and want to only talk to people when they call back on their time. Or, it could be the person wants you to think they are so high up in the corporate food chain, that they are unreachable.

Whatever the reason someone never answers their work phone, it indicates a severe problem within that person’s office, which is probably deep routed within that company’s corporate culture.

Ah, here we go again – talking about corporate culture.

Corporate culture is an important element in today’s business environment. All offices have their similarities – they all have desks, phones, computers, people – but the interactions of all things in the office – that’s corporate culture. And corporate culture can vary significantly from one office to another – even within the same company.

Corporate culture is the unwritten law of the land – all the things which people just do at the office, because everyone else does them. They can be good things, like being extremely anal about the quality of work turned out, to bad things, like abusing casual hours or dress.

In one office I worked, for example, one of the elements of the corporate culture was that people abused their casual work hours. There were no hard and fast rules written down that said you must be at the office at 9am and leave at 5pm. The only rule written was you must but in at least a standard eight-hour day. Many had made informal arrangements with their managers to come in early so that they can leave early. Some (usually the managers) would come in late to stay late (and avoid rush hour traffic).

Regardless of what their agreed upon hours were, no one really ever put in an eight-hour day. Those who arranged to come in early to leave early, often came in well past their agreed upon time – but they always left at their agreed upon time.

Managers would come in late, but instead of leaving late, they’d leave at the usual end of the working day.

This abusive nature was okay – because it was embedded into the company’s corporate culture. It actually isn’t okay, it indicates a problem at the executive levels within the organization when it comes to maintaining order and structure. But as the executives didn’t want to provide that much needed structure – it was accepted as just the way things work.

This brings us back to those people who never seem to answer their phones. It is probably accepted as their corporate culture goes, that people just don’t take the time to answer their phones. But at a higher level within the company, someone has obviously dropped the ball, because there is something missing from a leadership perspective, which has caused the corporate culture to allow for this poor use of a major form of business communications.

When I worked for that company where people abused the casual work hours, my biggest problems were all tied to it. It was nearly impossible to schedule meetings, as the key individuals were never all around at the same time. Deadlines would come and go without the necessary work being done, because people weren’t around. Projects would then be rushed, to catch up on all those missed deadlines. Getting information for projects and other work related tasks was also pretty hard, as people were never around.

People who don’t answer their phones are avoiding others – be it inside their office, or worse, people that depend on them but are outside of their office. This makes it extremely hard, if not impossible to work with these individuals, as they aren’t around – and don’t make themselves available to be around – for work.

Corporate culture isn’t all bad. It’s nice to be able to wear blue jeans on Fridays. It’s great when they order in cakes and sing you “happy birthday” on your birthday. It is even a great way to motivate and mentor people, when the corporate culture allows it.

But when corporate culture is bad, it is very bad – not just for the office which has the negative office behaviours, but for anyone that has the unfortunate need to work with that office.

I’ve turned down contracts, refused to work with some companies, and even terminated contracts with clients whose corporate culture is detrimental to the business work flow process.

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