Presence & comms for virtual work

As we’re forced to go fully virtual during the COVID-19 global pandemic, questions arise about how to virtualize those we take for granted as routine & normal when we’re in the office. For instance, what does it mean to be present? How do we organize our attention? What level of fidelity of communications is good? Do we really need to have the camera on all the time for all meetings? And so on…

Let’s start with the matter of knowing others’ (and relaying your own) presence. In a real-life office context, we have a pretty good sense for the presence of others around us, through a nearly subconscious noting of subtle cues — others’ physical motions & postures, facial expressions, sounds of chatter, laughing, talking (including tonal shifts, suddenly going sharp or soft). And general movements as well, including shadows and scents as people pass by. Even objects like headphones, empty coffee cups. Pushed aside chairs, with amorphous figures clustered in a conference room, with lights dimmed, watching a demo. You have a feel for what’s going on, and who’s around.

Detection of such audio-visual clues offer some reasonably accurate inferences, and grounding you in the present moment, affecting your reactions and decisions whether to interrupt someone or defer until later, whether to send an email or quick Slack message. All it takes are some sly glances, peering around the corner, gentle nod of your head, lifting your eyes, to notice this range of cues — which become cues for others to notice you! 

But how do you do that when everyone is isolated at home in their own zones, where it seems the only way to check if someone is available is glancing at their online status icon — which itself is quite variable and inaccurate. Such icons are often an indication of interaction with the online messaging app itself, not that users are inattentive or busy, necessarily. 

MS Teams (by connecting with MS Outlook) shows your status via known calendar events — but often (and I do this too) a “busy indicator” can be just me blocking out time for work as a defense against meeting invites from others, so I’m still interruptible (for the right person or request ;-) It’s a bit tricky, resulting in the inevitable “yt?” quickly typed in, and awaiting a reply, which might not come. And then you’re away logging into your next Zoom meeting, as that person messages back to you, and you’re sharing your screen, prompting some mild embarrassment, etc, etc…

So, modes of presence is something for us to consider as we’re all distributed & virtualized, and how to convey that presence to others. Maybe this is an area for re-thinking now that it’s happening en masse all at once. Seems we need more nuanced, verbose status indicators, that’s more like emoji with facial/gestural cues. I’m thinking of those new Animoji in the latest iPhones which can have headphones, and other signals… Adding richness of hinting to others. Or do we actually type out “Stuck in a boring meeting, please ping me” or “In a very tense discussion, don’t bother me.” Maybe some combination…?

Now let’s consider the range of fidelity of communications. One of the first guiding points from HR was “turn on your camera”, to enable an in-person style of comms & engagement. This is certainly true for workshop events that are heavily facilitated and depend upon high fidelity, real-time discussion and reactions.

But we’re running into a couple of issues:

  • Households with multiple people on video calls all at once, thus impacting the quality of connections, such that it’s actually better to turn off the camera to enable other people’s calls to continue. This implies a need to be “bandwidth responsible” with polite, prudent awareness of others’ needs in the house. 
  • If it’s not a workshop activity, does having high fidelity video communications really matter as much? Maybe for those who are in the “C” or “I” of DACI role structure (driver / approver / contributor / informed) can be in listen-only, muted/camera off until a key question or decision is raised? Maybe simply quick chat messages or gestures like “hand raise” are only needed. 

There’s no one solution fits all, but being aware of the nuances of what we’re missing and how we could possibly support them via modulating our presence and fidelity of communications could start to shape up, in a sense, a new rhetorical model of being socially engaged, that’s situational and appropriate for the context. In the end, regardless of tool (Slack, Zoom) or tactic (status icons, camera on) what matters most is ensuring a persistence of the trust, respect, and professional camaraderie that keeps a team feeling involved and valued. 

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