April 2020

Is ‘The App That Chimes The Loudest’ Robbing Your Attention?

One of the first jobs I had was in an insurance broker’s office.  This was back in the day when (believe it or not) people used to buy home and motor insurance face-to-face or over the phone from a local broker.  I sat in front of a monochrome ‘green-screen’ monitor in an office full of folders, secure filing cabinets and a lot of physical paperwork.  Many of the “information systems” we used were entirely manual, including a ‘date file’ that was nothing more complex than an expanding folder with 31 pockets.  If you wanted to remind yourself to review a particular item on the 28th, you’d put it in the pocket marked ‘28’…

Image Credit: © stokkete — stock.adobe.com #297320833

A lot of my work was administrative and customer facing.  It was a small office, and work was triggered by information or requests arriving. When I started work, we didn’t have e-mail, so the primary ways that information got in or out of the office were by:

  • Post (delivered daily, batched and sent daily)
  • Fax
  • Phone call
  • Face-to-face
  • Occasional courier/urgent document delivery

Since many of the processes were manual, work was very tangible and visible.  Motor policies were applied for via a ‘Proposal Form’, at which point a handwritten ‘Cover Note’ was written. The proposal form was then sent to the insurance company by post. They then sent a ‘Certificate’ back a few days later.  I am aware of how frighteningly archaic this all sounds, but it really wasn’t that long ago…

This tangibility somehow meant that there was an inherent hierarchy of attention.  Let’s imagine it was first thing in the morning and I’ve sorted the post and I’m working through it (based on the urgency of the items).  The phone rings, I’ll pick that up because it requires an urgent response, it’s synchronous and somebody is there waiting for attention.  If somebody walks in, I certainly won’t hang up the phone, but I’d gesture to the person to take a seat so they know I’ll be with them as soon as I can.  If a fax came, or if a second bundle of mail arrived whilst I was on the phone or speaking face-to-face with someone, so what? It’s asynchronous, it can (probably) wait.  I certainly wouldn’t let a newly-arrived fax or letter interrupt a face-to-face conversation with a customer (unless there was a very, very good reason to do so).

Technology and Intangibility Disrupts the Perceived Hierarchy

Connection, Community and COVID-19

Wherever you are in the world, it is highly likely that your routine has been disrupted by restrictions on movement that have been implemented to slow down the spread of the COVID-19 virus.  There have been a whole range of significant changes thrown at citizens throughout the world, with relatively short notice.  I suspect it has been (and will continue to be) a period of adjustment for all of us.

I live in the UK, and like most of the population, I am pretty much confined to my home.  We are (currently) permitted to leave the house once per day for exercise, providing strict rules around physical distancing are observed.  I am someone who feels a lot better for exercising daily, so I’ve been leaving the house early (before most people are awake) and going for a brisk walk.   I’ve found myself falling into a routine—I tend to take the same route and around the same time each day.   Perhaps subconsciously I am finding comfort in the fact that this routine is something I can control… for now at least!

Canoe Lake
Image: Picture of Canoe Lake

After a few days of following the same route at the same time, I started to recognise the same people at certain points.  One person does aerobic exercises near a war memorial; another feeds the swans at Canoe lake (a constructed lake near the seafront).  There’s a person who jogs around Canoe lake, another that roller-blades, and there’s me who walks anti-clockwise around the lake five times before heading off.  At this time of the morning, everyone is acutely aware of the need to maintain a safe distance from each other.  New etiquette has emerged on crossing to the other side of the path to maintain at least 2 metres distance.

Emergent Connection and Community