Coca-Cola Disconnects Voice Mail at Headquarters as Workers Go Mobile

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By Duane D. Stanford

Dec. 22— Forget about leaving a voice mail at Coca-Cola Co.'s Atlanta headquarters. Send a text instead. Office voice mail at the world's largest soft-drink maker was shut down “to simplify the way we work and increase productivity,” according to an internal memo from Chief Information Officer Ed Steinike.

The change went into effect this month, and a standard outgoing message now throws up an electronic stiff arm, telling callers to try later or use “an alternative method” to contact the person.

Coca-Cola is one of the biggest companies yet to ditch its old-style voice mail, which requires users to push buttons to scroll through messages and listen to them one at a time. Landline voice mail is increasingly redundant now that smartphones are ubiquitous and texting is as routine as talking.

“Most people have it, but they don't end up using it,” said Vishy Gopalakrishnan, who manages AT&T Inc.'s unified communications unit. “There are ways to get around it.”

The Nov. 6 memo announcing the change at Coca-Cola created a stir among some employees, who assumed it was part of a program to cut $3 billion in annual expenses by 2019. That plan, which was announced in October in response to a global sales slump, has caused growing unease inside the company over the possibility of firings.

The savings from eliminating voice mail will be less than $100,000 a year, said Amanda Rosseter, a Coke spokeswoman. The decision had more to do with simplifying work than trimming costs, she said.

Younger Workers 

Techies have predicted the death of voice mail for years as smartphones co-opt much of the office work once performed by telephones and desktop computers. Younger employees who came of age texting while largely ignoring voice mail are bringing that habit into the workforce.

“People north of 40 are schizophrenic about voice mail,” said Michael Schrage, a research fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management's Center for Digital Business. “People under 35 scarcely ever use it.”

Coca-Cola, which so far has cut voice mail at its Atlanta office complex and a nearby technology center, allowed employees to keep it if they claimed a “business critical need.”

About 6 percent of workers opted to retain it, Rosseter said. Use of the office-based system had been declining, according to the memo.

“Many people in many corporations simply don't have the time or desire to spend 25 minutes plowing through a stack of 15 to 25 voice mails at the end or beginning of the day,” said Schrage, who wrote in a September 2013 Harvard Business Review article that it was “time to hang up on voice mail.”

Eliminating Overlap

Companies are increasingly combining telephone, e-mail, text and video systems into unified Internet-based systems that eliminate overlap, said AT&T's Gopalakrishnan.

Smartphones show a list of names next to voice mails, making it easier to choose which ones to ignore, and office phone calls can be easily transferred to those devices. Some can even convert voice-mail messages into texts that can then be sent via e-mail.

Companies may eventually choose to eliminate landlines altogether as the workforce becomes more mobile, said Craig Wigginton, who runs Deloitte & Touche's global telecommunications consulting practice.

Wigginton said he spends most of his work life traveling and only occasionally steps into his office in New York City. When his phone there rings, it goes to his computer, no matter where he is in the world.

“People can work remotely better and more flexibly than in the past,” he said. “Just like you have cord-cuttings at home, I would call this a little bit of a cord-cutting in the corporate environment as well.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Duane D. Stanford in Atlanta at dstanford2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Nick Turner at nturner7@bloomberg.net Kevin Orland

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