Presence is the wrong problem

Every year my employer requires employees who telework — which is increasingly everyone — to legally agree that when we are working we will be “available” via our enterprise chat client. There are other parts to the document, but this is the kicker. In short, we must promise to share our presence with our employer (and customers). Why? To prove that we are working, of course.

This. Is. Patently. Silly.

It’s not silly that our employer wants to be sure that we are working. It is in their interest to be sure that the investment made by paying us is a smart one. And so, the thinking goes that if they have some signal that indicates we are working — not watching Game of Thrones, perusing Instagram, playing with our kid, or catching up on sleep — then they have a way to do this.

Problem is, it’s the wrong problem.

Providing a digital indicator that supposedly verifies our current status in terms of how available we are at that moment to discuss business is not the solution to the real problem. It only provides a solution to the problem of figuring out how employees can indicate their status using a simple, small visual indicator that may not work on all platforms or devices and requires consistent internet connectivity.

Many of these presence indication systems can be automated to alter the reported status depending on OS status. If the OS is locked, the status changes, etc. The user can also manually modify status.

But, it starts failing pretty fast when we use it on a phone that is always with us. If my screen locks or I’m using another app will my status change to unavailable or offline? But I haven’t gone anywhere! What about when I change from wifi to cellular service and my connection changes? What about when I hit the bathroom but my phone has no clue (and I forget to constantly make manual changes)?

On the whole, it looks like the use of presence monitoring becomes increasingly unviable when anything aside from a sit-down-at-my-desk situation arises…which is less and less the norm for people teleworking. We work while riding the Uber. We work on the commuter train. We work sitting on a park bench. We work wherever we are, with more frequent interruptions that do not necessarily equate with less or less valuable work product.

So, if presence indicators don’t accurately tell us whether we are actually available or working, how do we find that out?

I think it all comes down to trust and production. If worker A is teleworking and appears to be available all the time, yet is very delayed in responding and seems to make little progress on work while teleworking, then it might merit a closer examination of the work actual being done. However, even if work B appears far less available, yet does respond quickly and is clearly getting things done, then what does it matter?

The whole presence thing is simply no longer very useful for anything. In fact, it leads to false assumptions, that workers are working or not because of a colored dot or whatever. This is stupid.

Today, we work everywhere, at any time, in many contexts, using different devices, in different ways, with different types of connectivity, and in different patterns. Presence tools asssume the opposite.

Let’s move past this and focus on that trust and production. In fact, if we produce I should think the trust part would be taken care of.

By the way, I am currently available.

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