Weeknotes S2 E7 2020

Time off, attention as a precious commodity, notifications on mute.

Having a week off

I’m just returning from a week off work. In Wales, lock down restrictions are being eased in a gradual manner, of which I’m grateful for despite the ways it might inconvenience us as a family.

Having time off when you’ve been rattling around the house for a while is a strange new experience. ‘Clocking out’ at the end of the week didn’t quite have the same vibe to it.

Although really the ultimate aim was to spend some time doing and thinking about something completely different for a break from the norm, or at least what passes as the norm at the moment. In that sense, mission accomplished.

Attention as a precious commodity

Jason Fried has been doing the promotional rounds on various podcasts following the launch of their ‘Hey’ platform, which is intended to make email better.

One of the things he talks about is that email has developed into an attention seeking medium. We don’t have any control over who can send us email, and so by default it becomes an on going battle to weed out what needs attention from that which does not.

This is all very true IMHO. I’ve never been a fan of ‘Inbox Zero’ because to me it perpetuates the cycle rather than breaks it. The way we’ll tame email is by sending less email, right?

I’m not sure email was ever envisaged to be used on a scale that we currently rely upon it. It’s an archaic bit of technology that still thrives because we haven’t found a better (or perhaps more ubiquitous) thing to replace it. This is just one of many weird workplace artefacts that have barely changed despite rapid technological progress elsewhere.

But I don’t think it’s fair to lay all the blame on email. I’ve heard people similarly rant about the tyranny of Slack and the constant stream of notifications that make focusing on task incredibly difficult.

This is partly about the technology and how it’s designed, but it’s also about how we choose to use these tools with one another and how we create and agree healthy boundaries.

An extended period of distributed working has sparked a debate about what value the workplace provides to knowledge workers. That’s definitely a worthy discussion to have before we slowly default back to the 9–5, but if we zoom (no pun intended) out a bit more we’re really talking about how we want to work together and how we might harmonise different working patterns or communication styles rather than trying to impose a one size fits all.[*1]

That latter part is the next great challenge IMHO. As workplaces begin to open and allow a reduced compliment of staff back, two differing workplace cultures will attempt to co-exist. Those that are physically in the office and those working at home. This isn’t a new tension. Some tech companies have been bouncing between distributed and office based in response to a culture that felt like it excluded one group or the other.

Sorry, I fear I’m going off topic. Back to the point (ironically) about attention.

I think the anti-problem game would be a fun to play here. I’ve used this previously in the context of digital transformation.

Imagine a workplace designed to leech all attention. How would you design a working environment to ensure that employees are engaged with a multitude of things vying for their attention for 100% of the working day? Bonus points for capturing attention outside of working hours as well to make them particularly frazzled.

Once you’ve painted a picture of what a workplace looks like for sapping attention, pick out the things that you’re inadvertently doing and figure out how to do the opposite.

Muting notifications

Speaking of attention as a precious commodity, one of the things I did as I embarked on leave was to mute notifications for Slack, Trello, Email, Calendar etc. on my phone.

In the grand scheme of things, I’m sure I don’t get that many notifications compared to some, but the absence of them did make me realise how even just the vague awareness of new notifications arriving was enough to put my brain into work mode when I should have been doing or thinking about something else.

It’s given me pause for thought about switching phone notifications back on. When I was travelling back and forth to the office, it was useful (Hmm.. was it? That deserves further thought) but perhaps I need more clearly defined boundaries to help me switch in and out of work mode.

I’m generally terrible at doing this mode switching anyway, but I’m feeling this more keenly now that work and life occur in broadly the same space every day with some mild variation.

The right kit for a new mode of work

At home I’ve been using a mechanical keyboard which has a pleasingly clicky key action for typing. However, the clickyness is quite loud and it’s proved to be less than ideal for the now fairly frequent instances where I’m tapping away during a video call.

I bought myself another keyboard with a different set of mechanical keys that have less travel and are dampened. Not quite silent, but far less clicky. (The rabbit hole for different types of mechanical keys is a deep one)

Being somewhat of a nerd/geek, I’m fortunate enough to have a fairly bonkers computer setup at home featuring multiple screens, a spacious desk, a headset and decent microphone. It’s strange that anyone who might be into streaming games from home has suddenly found themselves amply equipped with all the right kit of working with others at home.

Conversely, it’s weird that I’ve only just realised that most laptops are not really designed to be used as a video calling device AND typed on at the same time. Aside from the dull thud thud thud transmitted through the chassis whilst it’s being type on, sometimes the cameras are located in weird places.

I used to have a Dell XPS laptop which had a lovely thin bezel, but with the trade off that the camera was located near the hinge (bottom left of screen). This had the combined effect of 1. an unflattering up the nose view point which I could only negate by balancing on a stack of books and 2. reaching for the keyboard would make my hand look approximately 20 times bigger than my head.

Anyway, this seemingly suggests that the technology we use need to catch up and accommodate the different ways of working we’ve adopted now and whatever comes next.

Do I need a comfy setup at home so I can video call land work in comfort, but also need some way to take something lightweight with me so I can travel and meet with other people?

As much as people are celebrating the relative ease that most organisations have switched to distributed working, we’ve still got a ways to go from moving how we worked in the office to a virtual space.

Over the last few months I’ve learned loads about what works well in terms of remote collaboration, but the learning curve is pretty long. Some people have yet to discover that a headset and microphone are pretty essential if you want to hear and be heard.

Eventually (hopefully!?) we won’t all be stuck at home all of the time, but perhaps we won’t be in the office all of the time either.


*1 — We should not forget the customer/citizen/tenant/user in all this. What does service delivery need to look like now and in the future? Is it still 9–5? If you listen to what the thinktanks are saying (of all political persuasions) we’re on the brink of some fairly seismic societal changes.

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