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’…
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)
- Phone call
- 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).