Your office phone–it's so twentieth century!

How much do you use your office phone? Does anyone ever call you there? Do you call anyone from there? Do you have a cellphone? Do you need a distinctive Wayne State phone number?

These are questions Wayne State and other universities are starting to wrestle with as the landscape of telephone technology changes out from under us.

Like most large organizations, Wayne has a telephone system that operates over copper wire, sending analog signals that are routed via switching stations. Chances are the system in your home no longer works that way. You may have migrated your telephone service to VOIP (‘voice over IP’) where the telephone signal travels over the Internet, just like e-mail and web pages. If you have Comcast or AT&T phone service your home phone probably works this way now, and you probably didn’t notice much difference in voice quality (it probably is a little better with a digital connection).

C&IT, which is responsible for the phone system, has been throwing around the idea of switching to a VOIP system, at least in limited contexts. The advantage to VOIP phones is that they essentially work through a computer, so they can be configured to do much more interesting things than just ring. For example, VOIP systems come with an integrated voicemail facility. But the voicemail doesn’t just sit on a server somewhere. It can be configured to be turned into an e-mail message and sent to you as an attachment (usually a .wav file, for the technically inclined). Then you could check your e-mail, double-click on the attachment, and hear the message.

Another thing you could do would be to tell your phone account to forward any calls to your cellphone, or your home phone, or your Google phone number (if you have one–that’s another subject).

So, suppose we install such a system at Wayne. If you have a computer in your office you could get any messages as fast as e-mail can deliver them. Or you can have your calls routed to your cellphone and be able to pick up anywhere you happen to be. You could even configure the system in more fine-grained ways. You could have your ‘office’ number routed to your cellphone from 9-5, Monday to Friday, and routed to voicemail the rest of the time. Given all of this, do you still need a physical phone in your office? Currently you (or your chair, or your dean) pays a lot per month for a phone in your office, a phone which is silent almost all the time if it’s anything like the phone in my English office. So who needs it? What if you (or whoever’s responsible) were to pay a lot less for a ‘virtual phone’ like the one I described in the previous paragraph?

26 Replies to “Your office phone–it's so twentieth century!”

  1. I have two phones – one for my lab, one for my academic office – that are both mostly silent. I would love to get rid of them. Love the idea of VOIP.

  2. I’d love to see my work phone pick up the utility of my Google Voice number and I know all the folks around me would love to see the same happen.

  3. I was just talking to a colleague about this. I don’t know I would trust my cell phone (iPhone) to be very reliable when I had to take care of business over the phone. I primarily like to do business through email, but when I have to use the phone, I really don’t want to deal with dropped calls. I use my office phone all the time, but I’d be more open to this with a better cell phone. Our phones at WSU are pretty old school, though.

  4. Changing to a VOIP system is fine by me. C&IT has already rigged calls to my office phone to be routed to my cell phone. And I, too, receive and make very few calls using my office phone. But whatever you do, don’t turn it over to a faculty committee to decide.

  5. Our office phones are pretty out of date. We don’t tend to be leaders and I remember thinking our phones were out of date back when they were first installed (no directory, no list of callers, you can’t even correct a mis-entered number except by starting over). Sure, it would be great to have the functionality of my Google Voice number and the other pretty standard features that are out there.

  6. Hi folks. I’m approving comments as fast as I can, given that I’m learning the process as I go. I discovered I can use my Palm Pre to approve comments while having dinner in a local restaurant. It’s amazing how the world has changed.
    Thanks for your thoughts.

  7. Sounds great to me!!! Lots of flexibility with the VOIP system. Although, I agree with Eva that if you do not have a good cell phone service, you may drop important business calls that are forwarded through the system.

  8. I am all for a less expensive, more flexible way to do business. However if calls are routed to my cellphone then I am paying for this utility. Nice gig for WSU. I need a phone at my desk, thanks.

  9. Geoff,

    good to see the comments rolling in. One thing I noticed is that the timestamp shows you having dinner @ 2am … is the timezone setting correct?

    –Tom D

  10. I agree that my office phone is largely silent. I communicate with colleagues primarily through email or face to face. I fully support the idea of switching to a more up to date system, however, the primary concern would be cost. Would WSU be willing to offset the increased cost of my cellular service incurred by having my office calls routed to my cell phone? If not, I would be concerned that such a change might set a precedent for future reallocation of costs to its faculty and staff. We already have to pay a premium for parking, our health care insurance premiums have increased, what’s next? Finally, I’m quite familiar with the non-cell phone friendly policies of the university as a researcher who works in the community and requires a cell phone for my and my staff’s safety while in the field. Asking the university to cover any portion of a cell phone’s cost would require a major revision of university policies. However, it seems as though such a revision is long overdue.

  11. While I’ve always liked VOIP, it was my understanding that the University couldn’t afford it. I hope they are reconsidering VOIP as a viable option over our current system.

  12. As a chair I use my phone a great deal, including on speaker phone. I suppose that could be handled but I see two other problems. I get many telephone calls (I don’t know why university administators insist on telephoning instead of using email – perhaps to avoid an electronic paper-trail). So I wouldn’t want my cell phone going off all the time for all those calls from a reporter, a student, a Provost, someone from C&IT asking for advice, and so on). The other concern I have is – when you say it is- what happens when my computer is off (we need to save the environment), or busy doing those endless updates for programs, or crashes?). I worry that, like depending upon the cloud, that when I am without internet access (yes the bubble is not everywhere and I don’t want to pay for it in some hotels and so on) that I couldn’t access the system? These are questions not objections.

  13. Several people have raised the issue of Wayne’s policy against university-supplied cellphones. If you’ve only had contact with Wayne you may not realize that virtually all American universities have rules against providing cellphones because the IRS considers that to be ‘income’. The result is that the IRS requires that universities report it as such. In order to counteract this you would have to document exactly how many minutes of the university-supplied phone bill you used for university business and how many for personal purposes, then send that documentation to Payroll who would have to enter it into W-2 forms–a bureaucratic nightmare.

    However, last week President Obama signed the Mobile Cell Phone Act of 2009 so things may change. Stay tuned.

  14. I can see how the VOIP set up would benefit individuals with private offices. However, I am not sure how well it would work in regards to large offices that handle phone inquiries from students, staff, and vistors. Can you elaborate on that? Thanks!

  15. This will probably be an optional change, decided at the College or Departmental level. My guess is that department offices will probably choose to keep the physical phone, since they do get lots of phone calls. Probably chairs and other administrators will make the same choice.

  16. I’m all for changing over to VOIP. I get unlimited minutes on my cell phone, so office calls forwarded there would not be a big deal–except I don’t always get good signal in my office.

    I do not have VOIP at home so I don’t know much about how it works, but if I understand correctly, aren’t there desktop office phones that work with VOIP?

    If the university went to VOIP couldn’t individuals/offices get a “desktop” phone that works with VOIP? Is cost of buying those new phones the issue?

    1. That’s exactly it. The university would save money by not having to maintain a phone line and a phone in each office. At your house there is a conversion thingy (this isn’t my area of expertise, so I apologize for the imprecision) that changes the digital signal to an analog one so your existing copper wire-based phones can be used. There are also digital phones that don’t require the conversion (you plug them into your router or computer instead of into the phone jack) but they still cost money.

  17. Please, please make this change, the sooner the better! I actually tell students NOT to call my office phone because I’m in and out of here and I cannot stand the antiquated voice mail system (which has been old-fashioned since I joined the university in 97). I end up putting my home or cell phone number on my syllabus, which I’d rather not do. I really like the idea of being notified of my VMs over email, though it would also be nice if there were another (server-based?) form of visual voice mail we could access as well.

    But before I get my hopes up–what are the chances this will happen and what would be the timetable for installation?

  18. I would totally be for a VOIP option especially if it offers similar features as Google Voice. I am away from my desk a lot and email is by far the fastest way to get a hold of me. Email alerts, transcriptions and the ability to ring multiple places would save so much time!

    *Raises hand* if you need a test subject!

  19. I considered VoIP at home and decided against it. The problem is that it is tied to the electric power supply. If there is a power outage, VoIP won’t work and you will have no connection to the outside world. But the land lines have their own power source and work during a power outage. Suppose you had to call your spouse from your office to report whether you were O.K. after some catastrophe… I understand that cell phones might or might not work, depending on whether the cells have power, but when they lose charge, then what?

  20. I think moving over to a VOIP phone is a completely logical step to save the university money and give us a more complete system.

    I have Google voice and would love the possibility of picking up my voice mail via a web interface and have it forwarded to my phone. I don’t like the idea of relying on my own cell phone, however, during the work day. There are times that I’ve needed to have a more lengthy conversation and I don’t like the idea of faculty using their own minutes for university business; I already spend a good deal of my own money on my classwork.

    I would like an alert that is more permanent than what Google Voice provides on a cell phone. I liked having the text message with a (meager) transcription of the phone message, but found that I would forget to listen and, thus, call back the caller because I didn’t have a constant voice mail indicator in my phone. I actually found this true in my office as well. The red indicator light never worked when I received voice mail on my office so I wouldn’t check for several days to see if I had voice mail. Finally, I put my own handset in my office with an old fashioned answering machine that would pick up before the voice mail.

  21. I am a WSU employee, but phone system is VOIP through Karmanos. Didn’t know it could do all of the cool things that you claim. Would bet that there are blocks on our system to keep us from forwarding to a cell phone. We do get our voicemails delivered to our inbox, though, which is nice. Perhaps Wayne will be less restrictive.

  22. VOIP would be very cool….but who pays for you using your personal cell phone? What happens if you are someone who uses cell phone a lot and always pushed against the limit of minutes. If then business goes to your cell phone are you paying out of pocket to conduct business for WSU? Before we jump, WSU should address this issue of who pays for the 21st century

    1. These are all good questions, and are the answer to why we haven’t rushed to implement such a system. So we haven’t actually ‘jumped’. C&IT will probably run a small pilot study to see how and whether this works. It certainly wouldn’t make sense to implement a VOIP system that costs far more than the current copper-based one because in place of old-fashioned telephones the university has to buy everyone an iPhone or Droid.

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