The demise of the iconic red telephone box

June 4, 2020

When people think of the UK, they often cite Buckingham Palace, the Queen or the iconic red telephone box. The latter has become harder to find, while another type of telephone box has become popular in offices.


Close to 20 million people visit London each year (at least before Covid-19 hit). A common sight was tourists posing in front of the iconic red telephone box. The first such public telephone kiosk hit the streets in 1921. Since then, several different models were developed, ranging from K1 (the very first) to K8. By 1992, at their peak, there were over 92,000 telephone boxes in the UK. However, this figure has plummeted to only 10,000 telephone booths today. The trend is similar across the world. In Germany, for example, there were 165,000 telephone boxes in 1997. This has dropped to only 17,000 today.


image of run-down red telephone box

“I’ve seen better times”


This means that it has become more difficult for tourists visiting London to take a selfie in front of a telephone box for their Instagram account. It’s even harder to find one that is still in decent shape. Most telephone kiosks don’t function anymore. Their paint has faded and the glass panels are broken. Step inside and you’ll straight away notice a pungent smell of urine. Hence why the booths don’t even serve as a shelter to escape the British rain. If you’re lucky, you might still find a few near tourist hotspots which are still maintained well.


In contrast, phone booths set up in offices have become hugely popular. Over the past decade, several office phone booth manufacturers have sprung up across the globe such as MEAVO Büro Telefonzellen or Framery.


image of MEAVO phone booths

“MEAVO office phone booths”


A key reason is a trend towards open-plan layouts in offices where employees have little privacy to make calls. Building dedicated call rooms is expensive, plus if you move offices you can’t take these with you. Moreover, most landlords demand that the office is reverted into its original state so the expensive call rooms might even have to be demolished (which again bears more cost). Office phone booths, however, can be disassembled and moved to a new home.


COVID-19 may increase demand for such phone pods further as employees in offices will have to get on Zoom calls with colleagues working from home more than before. Moreover, given social distancing rules, fewer employees could now share a table leading to some meeting rooms being converted to desk space which in turn could further increase the need for space-saving phone booths and meeting pods.


At this point, it is unclear how the future of offices and remote working will look like exactly. One thing is certain, however. The days of the red telephone boxes in London’s streets are counted while their brethren in offices will continue to thrive.




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