Are you there? There’s a good chance that you and I are not reading these words at the same time. We engage in a lot of asynchronous activity once we leave grade school activities like reading together. At work, we may tend towards synchronous activity and communications again because we’re all in the same place. It may not be all it’s cracked up to be but you can see if someone is there or not. When we are dispersed in our new hybrid law libraries, presence may be one of the biggest challenges to crack.

Presence is your potential availability. If I can look in your office and see you are sitting there, I know that you have the potential for availability. I may not be able to tell that:

  • you’re engaged in work that requires flow (like thinking) and would prefer not to be disturbed (I could shut my door but lots of people don’t have doors to shut)
  • you’re engaged in an interaction like a video call but with your sound muted or that you always wear a headset at your desk (for music and for interactions) or that you’re on hold, which people often missed even when we used handsets and not headsets.

I think it’s important to be clear about what presence is. We have presence indicators already but it would be wrong to confuse a green presence indicator with someone being available to meet your needs. Or else you’d be like the genie in Aladdin:

The genie explains to Aladdin what it’s like to have to continually appear, asking “What do you need?” and why it yearns to be free

The point being that just because someone is physically present doesn’t mean they are available. Being in a shared space just means we can see that there is potential availability when we can see that a person is physically present. And so far, there doesn’t seem to be a good way to show that potential using technology when we are dispersed.

This is not a new challenge. Businesses have had analog presence indicators for a long time, like the In/Out magnet board. The magnet represented the person’s potential availability because, even if someone was in, they weren’t necessarily actually available.

Green Means Woah

Here’s a really good example. Some people feel that synchronous communication is the most effective. They prefer a phone call over asynchronous communication like email. So, as one person in a Toronto Star article put it:

A 39-year-old flight safety investigator said, “In Microsoft Teams, if the status buttons shows green and active … I will hit the dial button.”

Remote work makes communication with co-workers harder. Can it be fixed?, The Toronto Star, August 21, 2021

This approach is just as much a crap shoot as any situation where you can’t see the person. The thing is, a green status button doesn’t reveal whether you are actually available or not. It merely reflects, for example:

  • you have set it to green to show that, generally, you have the potential for availability. It will not change to an alternate color unless Teams knows you are engaged or scheduled to be engaged with someone else. It will still show green when you’re on a Zoom call unless that Zoom call is in your Microsoft Outlook calendar on the same account as your Team account.
  • you may not have set your availability at all and so you are perpetually available (or, if you set it to unavailable, never available) and so people have to start a chat with you with “are you there?”

I have heard a number of times about people forgetting to update their presence. But we’ve been trained in the past to do daily voice mail messages (“Today’s Thursday and I’m in the office”) for presence. So learning a new presence habit is definitely within our reach.

Or it could be something completely unintentional. I use the Microsoft Teams app on my Windows 10 desktop. Even though I have disabled auto-start and on close, keep the application running, Teams often remains running in my system tray. This can mean that I appear potentially available 24 hours a day. It can have strange results.

A screenshot from Microsoft Teams showing someone trying to reach me on chat at the end of their day but I was already gone even though Teams showed me as available.

The disconnect between what a computer might think we’re doing and what we’re actually doing isn’t new. I covered time management tools back in 2009 and these were great at assessing which window was active but couldn’t tell when you’d disengaged from the PC entirely. We need to see presence similarly, as a partial solution.

It’s not a small issue. The other day, I was on an important video call that was not using my Teams app. So I was potentially available. But in fact, I needed to focus and listen and take notes. When people are in that situation, they may need to get into a habit of:

  • setting your availability, even if it means overriding the setting the app is using
  • closing any apps that have presence markers when you are not potentially available but are, in fact, unavailable.

Presence indication is just the first step, though. Now we have to think of others.

It’s Not All About You

I won’t rehash my recent post on manager control. Instead, I want to focus on what we can all do for each other. Because I think that we have to be a bit more honest about how presence worked in the office.

That Toronto Star article was a motherlode of examples of what people thought were the benefits of in-person and were, frankly, examples of what I think is pretty selfish behavior:

  • one employee had to go to mandatory meetings, which his two managers scheduled at 530am and 530pm and which, because they were mandatory, only took into account the manager’s schedule, not the employee’s
  • “It’s a lot easier to discuss things when you’re at an office, because you just walk over to their desk”, which ignores whether the person is actually available
  • meetings force participation, so “if I’ve got 15 people to get answers from, I hate to say it but holding them hostage physically does work better — I usually can get more answers”

All of those examples sound like they’re great for the decision maker or the interrupter but not necessarily great for the people impacted. They ignore whether availability is potential or active and just assume that it’s active. It reflects a lack of concern on the part of managers and co-workers, a failure to value colleague’s time as much as their own.

I’ve mentioned getting meeting requests from people who don’t understand how Outlook working hours work. We need to understand how our tools work so that we can take a moment to assess whether an empty calendar means potentially available. And we also need to understand that a green icon doesn’t mean actually available.

It’s Not the Same, It’s Different

One perspective I have that is being reinforced with each new look at our approach to office work is that we are trying to map old things in a new and perhaps incompatible environment. The assumption is that, if our managers were constantly checking in on us before (which may or may not have been efficient or courteous to the checked-upon employees), they need a way to do that now.

I look at my manager’s calendar, he has daily one-on-ones with each member of our team. A lot of those were never a thing before. And it’s just because he doesn’t have the opportunities to come poke in the office and say: ‘Hey what are you working on today? Do you need anything?

Remote work makes communication with co-workers harder. Can it be fixed?, The Toronto Star, August 21, 2021

One mistake may be to use terms like new normal. Or even thinking we are going back to work. The workplace we left in March 2020 doesn’t exist any longer; it’s not something we can return to or achieve a new version of. We are in a completely different place, and so it isn’t enough – or necessary – to just take old management approaches and, with technology and control, attempt to do the same thing differently.

If anything, I feel more confident now that trying to create new simulacra of our old ways isn’t necessary. I wrote about how I did virtual office hours and how they weren’t impactful. That’s because I was thinking about the purpose wrong and focusing on the action. Staff need to know they can reach me when they need to. But it doesn’t need to be face-to-face and, if that’s preferred, we can get there differently. For example:

  • I now have a chat window open for one of the teams I manage. We’ve discussed and now use the Teams mention function so that they can tag me when they need me. We don’t need a synchronous meeting space. We can address it asynchronously.
  • We can engage in low cost availability checks, like when someone sent me a chat message (which, because it’s one-to-one and not a group, notifies me) asking if I was available for a quick call (yes or no, and if my presence indicator is wrong, no major loss)

We still have the other tools we had before. If it needs to be a meeting, then let it be a meeting. Send a meeting request, let the other person counter the time (even if you’re their manager), have an agenda.

I know a manager who has a team of a half-dozen or so library staff. One of those staff has a regular meeting scheduled but the staff person scheduled it with their manager, not the other way around. I think this is a better approach than the manager creating standing meetings with each staff person, without considering that they may not all need the same thing in order to be successful.

But how do we crack presence? How do we get better at knowing potential availability? Some ideas:

  • we use a simple reference schedule. It’s on SharePoint so everyone can see and edit it. Each day of the week is a column and there is one row for “Off” so everyone can see when someone is not available for the entire day (vacation, whatever).
A table with 5 columns for week days and scheduling down the left hand column (morning, afternoon, in-library (physical presence), and “off” (actual availability))
  • we could consider using Microsoft Outlook’s calendar overlay feature. When I was first thinking about a shared calendar, I was thinking of a group calendar. But you can use the calendar overlay feature to show all of your staff calendars which means no-one has to keep a separate calendar. Staff could mark their reference time but it would also show potential availability. The benefit of this approach is that staff will record on their calendar the things that are important to them (vacation, doctor’s appointments) so that, while no-one else knows what makes them unavailable, everyone is aware that they are unavailable.
  • choose one. Decide on what presence indicator everyone is going to use, like the In/Out magnet board, and use that. Over time, people will become more conscientious about setting their status as it becomes a habit. There are plenty of tools within Teams that show a group status so then the challenge is to ensure that the status shown is as accurate as possible.
  • Use a whiteboard function in Teams or Google Workspace and recreate the old magnet board. It’s simple and disconnect from any automation.

There will still be some uncertainty. If we allow people to work when they are most productive, it may mean that a green status button really means the person is potentially available at 10pm. Or it could just mean that someone forgot to update their status. Either way, the first reaction shouldn’t be to assume potential = actual availability.

The challenge really is around our expectations. It may be that, going forward, asynchronous communication should be the preferred first attempt rather than defaulting to synchronous. For example, rather than assuming that someone’s potential availability means they’re actually available and making a synchronous interaction (phone call, stop by the person’s work space), perhaps use email or a chat message. This shifts the assumption from “you seem available so I can disturb you” to “I’d like to interact with you, can you let me know when you can be disturbed?”

This is not to say that e-mail or chat is better than face to face as a communication method. What I am saying, however, is that if availability is in doubt – is just potential – that an asynchronous approach can be more courteous than assuming actual availability and initiating a synchronous contact.

One complaint that I’ve read in a number of places is that asynchronous communication can take too long. That’s not a problem with the communication, though. That’s a failure to set expectations around response times – whether within your team or with people who rely on your team – so that communications can take into account actual availability. You can solve that in lots of ways:

  • set specific turn around times or customer response service level agreements (SLAs), which would appeal to a control approach to management
  • delegate more decision-making to the person needing the information or signoff so that they can move forward if they need to do so without needing to have tight deadlines

I realize some of this may not work in some work contexts. But the typical law library does not have the complications of a lot of commercial environments. We can find ways to address presence so that, as our staff show us their potential availability, we enable them to do their best work and leverage only their actual availability.