Checking Phones for Work?

Watching the baby at home. Watching my phone too?

A cartoon of three Hasidic men , ech carrying an infant in a baby carrier that they wear around their shoulder. One carrier is pink, one green, one yellow
Men Pushing Baby Carriages or checking phones for work!? Source: The Forward.

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I manage a sales team and seldom take more than a day or two off from work. Since Covid began our office is all remote and I am checking the phones for work. This Fall I am taking a few weeks off to stay home with our new baby. In principle, I should not have to check my phone at all. But is that realistic? The people at work say they will respect my time out of the office, but I don’t want them to let them down either. Teo, Boulder

Dear Teo: Phones make it difficult to find that work-home balance and it has to be doubly difficult when babies or children demand our attention. Checking in with co-workers while you are off-duty seems innocuous, but it subtracts time and attention from your kids. During Covid, as you noted, phones became an office-on-demand. Now you have to retrain your sales team, and yourself, to use it more selectively, i.e. when to be checking phones for work.

It seems like the programmers of Silicon Valley have felt your pain! Or became new Moms and Dads. The newest iPhone operating system (i0S 15) has a feature called Focus. It lets you set time blocks when you are available, and for whom. Say you are driving in the car. The Focus setting disables all incoming calls and texts. It sends would-be callers or texters a stock message:  you are unavailable but will circle back.  When you are indoors and quietly reading a book, your phone can continue to screen callers, or allow rings from that sales team.

Focus is a suitable name for this new function. That said, it’s been available on phones with less bells and whistles as “Do Not Disturb.” Back then, you didn’t need to have i0S 15, or any software at all to enable the feature. Just a watch and alarm.

How to Focus:

Writers, scientists and graduate students use features like Focus all the time. They require activity blocks, without phones, for a period of deep concentration. They might be working on a laptop or desktop, and probably just one or two programs, like the terminal, a spreadsheet, or word processor. 

Meanwhile, the co-workers  trying to reach you are not going to know whether you are deep in concentration or changing a diaper, so Focus’ messaging helps. It lets them know when you are  checking in and will circle back. And, with practice, Focus will keep you from secretly picking up the phone to see if you missed something. You can always allow one phone, say from your boss, to override the settings.

Not ALways So Focused!:

Alas, at the other end of the spectrum, at home, it’s not so tidy.  Parents can’t easily set boundaries that young kids will adhere too. Infants demand attention on their own schedule and have an uncanny ability to sense when they getting any less than 100% of their parents’ attention. You might be tempted to put the kiddos in front of their own screen. Yet, The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time at all for kids until they’re 18 to 24 months old, except for video chatting. For children ages 2 to 5 their recommendation is an hour or less of screen time per day. Real parents know that it is hard to resist introducing screens when you need some downtime. So, if you turn to the screen, do it together and make it a shared activity.

Be aware that  it seems innocuous to sneak a call to the office when you are taking a stroll together, watching over the playground, or cleaning up the toy box. We don’t know how micro- moments add up, but there are hints that eye to eye contact and baby-talk time provide developmental boosts.

As you set your phone’s boundaries, with or without the help of I0S, remember that time and attention are your most precious resource. They are the only things  you give away, and cannot get back. Enjoy!

Digital Etiquette Phone Calls

An old style phone handset dangling by its cord, and a scissor about to cut that cord. The handset is red.
Digital etiquette for phone calls has changed as we cut the cord.

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I used to just pick up the phone and call my closest girlfriends and family members. Now it’s changed and I have to plan it in advance! First I send a text to find a time in common, then a calendar invite, and finally the phone call. I am finding this digital etiquette for phone calls to be exhausting. Sandy, Tiburon

Dear  Sandy: You are right, the etiquette around phone calls has changed. Not everyone uses the protocol you described, but it is becoming common. During Covid, I encouraged people to reach out and touch someone but I did not consider all the steps it would take!

There are a couple of reasons for the change in digital etiquette, and I am not sure you can fight them. First, there are everyday occasions when people shouldn’t be interrupted by a ringing phone. Mobile phones, by definition, are mobile. So, they might ring when we are at a PTA meeting, sitting in a church service, or taking a conference call on Zoom. The ringing phone will distract both us and the people nearby. You could turn off the ring-through settings on your phone, but that sort of defeats the purpose of getting a spontaneous call from a friend. 

Settle In:

If you send a text first, it is less obtrusive. And it allows both parties to be at a place and time where they can settle in and be ready to pay more attention to each other. 

The second reason things have gone silent is related to ‘volume control.’ It’s volume as in the number of messages and communications. Digital media makes increasing demands on our attention. “Alone Together….” by Sherry Turkle notes that we need to control how much time something is going to take and fit it into our schedule.  Sadly, controlling our relationships becomes a factor in this advanced (or backward) communications era. 

There are some calls that defy this digital etiquette. Emergency phone calls from a trusted source break through the scheduling. Likewise, phone calls on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day do too; we don’t typically arrange a time to talk with our parents unless we are on different time zones or continents. Most importantly, shut-ins and isolated older people need no text or calendar. They are happy for the daily check-in.

There isn’t a good way that I can think of to reset our phone habits although the Covid lockdown did bring change, many for the good. In the UK, the number of calls in early 2020 increased by about 50% and the call length increased significantly. The same source says that in the US, call lengths on Verizon increased by 33 percent. For sure, many of these calls used video options, like Facetime.

Car Talk:

Some final words: suppose you follow the protocol, first send a text to your friend, then a calendar invite, and when you finally connect they are driving in the car- hang up. Some people like to schedule calls during their travel trips. You don’t want to be responsible for their distracted driving.

There are three types of distractions: visual distraction, manual distraction, and cognitive distraction. Newer phone-in-car systems like Android Auto and  Apple CarPlay greatly minimize the first two. But, the third type, cognitive distraction, is vastly underrated. 

Here’s an example: how many times have you arrived someplace and been surprised you got there? The detail of the travel trip escapes you because you were  concentrating on a conversation, deep in your own thoughts, or just plain tired?  Some call this highway hypnosis, while others think of it as  zoning out.  Most of the time in the car we can do two things at once- talk and drive- but there are those split-second moments when the conversation diverts our attention from the road. You can’t wish that time back. So, if you are a true friend and you reach someone who is driving, just say ‘No’. Friends trust friends to call each other, and to keep them safe. 

Best of luck as you to sort out the new digital etiquette for phone calls, and hopefully it leads to good conversations after all.

Why are There So Many Phone Stores?

Downtown meets Digital. What is the future here?

Stock Alamy photo of TMobile, Verizon and AT&T stores in Jackson Heights, Queens, NY in Sept. 2016
Why are there so many Phone Stores? Photo : Alamy, Jackson Heights, NY, Sept. 2016

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I was visiting in my hometown and noticed that many mom-and- pop stores were closing. But, there seemed to be a lot of phone stores springing up, both the big guys and small shops that do phone repairs. I never go to these places and I renew my phone contract like once every three years. So why are there so many of them? Raven, New York.

Dear Raven: Labor Day weekend is a great time to ponder this since traditionally there were  Main Street parades and Labor Day sales. But, in  your hometown, like so many others, things are not the same. It’s not surprising that there’s a phone store now on every corner- along with a pizza joint. Statista estimates there will be 79 billion dollars in U.S. phones sales in 2021 but  ‘only’, 46.4 billion dollars in pizza sales. 

That said, phone stores are a relatively new concept. Before telco deregulation in the nineteen eighties, you had to lease ‘the instrument’ (a phone) and it was delivered by a technician who hard-wired it to the copper cable network. The Western Union backstory: non-Bell equipment could damage the network. 

Grab for Retail Space

With the advancement of fiber optics and wall jacks, consumers could plug in their own phones. But, it was really the growing market for cell service after 2000 that made retail explode. Now, instead of one or two phones per household, each person in the household (kids too!) wanted one.

That was before Internet commerce took off so it began the grab for good retail space. A first-class building  and choice location helped build consumer confidence, show and tell the product, and lock-in contracts. Other companies with brand new technology did the same- think Gateway Computer, Dell, and most recently Microsoft. With at least four major carrier telco choices (AT&T/Verizon/TMobile/Sprint) there was a store for each corner and customer.

The small stores you mention- they grew to serve a different need. Even today they are visited if you go month- to- month,  pay cash, or need repairs. They often resell access from the major carriers at a reduced cost. And, for many customers, the long-term contracts are complex, so it’s an opportunity to explain them better. 

But retailing evolves: In this decade the Gateway and Dell stores have closed. Earlier types of retail outlets, say banks, are downsizing into tiny ATMS,  and automobile dealerships are shrinking in number and size. It’s likely that phone stores will go this way, leaving new options for your hometown!

In Store, For How Long?

That said, about 63% of U.S. “full service” phone sales are still made in store, but if you follow this JD Power report, phone and online sales channels experienced their largest year -over- year growth. People who purchase in the phone store first engage in browsing online, using their old phone of course! By the time they visit the phone store they have shopped their new product and mainly want to hold and feel it. 

So, expect a growing interplay between digital and downtown. Forrester Research reported two years ago (cited in Forbes) that 53% of all purchase decisions are digitally influenced. Now, because the Covid pandemic forced stores (like Verizon, AT&T, etc. to close) consumers experienced the convenience of online purchasing online. Forrester now predicts that online shopping will grow to 27% of overall retail sales by 2023, from around ~18 percent today.

As a result of shopping online, in-store shoppers have different expectations: they want detailed product information, ratings and reviews, and access to the best price. In some markets you now need a phone to enter the store, and in other outlets, like an Amazon store, using the phone brings you the best specials and check out.  Unless the retail phone stores adapt, say to offer more in-person instruction like Apple does, and give choices for the sustainable recycling of trade-in phones, and present a more personalized experience, like Nike, it’s hard to imagine that they will thrive. Happy Labor Day as we figure out this next economy!