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Palo Alto ditches the desktop phone

The California city is experimenting with a program that allows office staff to replace desktop phones with laptops, cell phones, chat and email.

Jason Shueh
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Jason Shueh Tech Editor

Jason Shueh is a tech editor at StateScoop with a specialty for civic tech and smart city news. His articles and writing have covered numerous subj...

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In government, desktop phones are one of the last remaining relics of yesterday’s office. They are clunky, oversized and come with costs that often outweigh their usefulness compared to even the most basic smartphone.

That is why the city of Palo Alto, California, has decided to launch a pilot that does away with desktop phones in exchange for smartphones, chat and calls that can be routed directly through a laptop. Palo Alto Chief Information Officer Jonathan Reichental said the program hopes to gradually duplicate the office culture in the Silicon Valley where desktop phones have all but gone extinct.

“You have this question that if you are a mid-sized or large organization in a city — is it worth continuing to maintain or invest in an infrastructure that less and less people use and where there are preferred alternatives?” Reichental said.

In Palo Alto, staff are all given a laptop, smartphone and a desktop phone as soon as they are hired and Reichental said that functionally and financially the number of reasons to have a desktop phone have dwindled. For internal communications, he said, there is chat and email, which can be quicker than calls, and for outside communication, staff can use email, text messages and make voice calls through a laptop and or smartphone-connected headset.

The pilot's scope and start date have yet to be announced, but the city will soon experiment with getting rid of one of the office desk's treasured mainstays.

Cost represent one of the largest arguments against the desktop phone. Though seemingly cheap contraptions, desktop phones come with sizable purchase, replacement and maintenance costs. Reichental said that most of the financial burden is felt in maintenance since the city employs staff to maintain a backend system and update the phone software.

“We incur significant cost because of these phones and the analysis is beginning to show that they are an unnecessary infrastructure in the medium to long term,” Reichental said

Palo Alto has no citywide plan to throw out all of its desktop phones. There are some jobs that still require them and more than this, Reichental said that there is a need for a shift in thinking. Millennials working for the city might not even notice the transition, but older employees have grown attached to the phones.

“There is still a big piece of corporate culture, and organizational culture that needs to change,” Reichental said. “I think somebody who has spent most of their career with a desktop phone will struggle with just with the idea of not having them, let alone the implementation of transition away from them. I think you’d see intense push back if this transition were to happen all at once.”

Going forward, Reichental said the pilot will help the city build a well-documented case that shows why change must happen and how it can happen sustainably. His hope is that it will prepare the city to meet a changing and dynamic workplace that is becoming more mobile. According to research from the International Data Corporation (IDC), 75 percent of the U.S. workforce will be mobile, and Reichental said he sees this change affecting government much as it has the private sector.

“It’s a process. You have to educate on the topic, you’ve got to create champions in your organization, you’ve got to pilot it very gently and slowly increase adoption,” Reichental said. “But also, the reality is that we have to support workers for how they work in the 21st century and not how they work in the 20th century.”

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State & Local News, Careers & Elected Officials, Chief Information Officer (CIO), Tech News, Digital Services, IT Infrastructure, Modernization, Mobility, Devices, Mobile Management, Jonathan Reichental, Palo Alto, desktop phones, phones, office phones

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