On Being Present: Being There Even When You Are Not

On Being Present: Being There Even When You Are Not

Staying present when working remotely takes work, it doesn’t come for free as when you are co-located with the rest of your team.  This is quick summary of what we’ve learned to be there for you team even when you are not physically there with them.

This was an internal document but we felt it was worth sharing it with others who may be in a similar situation.  The text is aimed at a person working in our Hermosillo office, but the tips and techniques will still apply if you replace it with your location.

Two kids speaking through cans on a string. One asks the other how to send text messages.

Time Alignment

One of the key business advantages Nearsoft has is the fact that we are aligned in time with our clients.  The fact that we can work side-by-side with our clients gives us a great edge.

However, we have to put some effort in order to make this physical and time proximity work for us and our clients.

Where Are You Guys?

When people work physically together in an office, everyone “just knows” when others are “around” and available to them.  Their physical presence is enough to communicate this.  When people work remotely, it is not obvious when they are around or if they are there at all.

When you walk into our Hermosillo office, it is not obvious to you if your teammates in the US are really “there” and available to you.  As far as you’re concerned, they are not present.

Maybe they are taking the day off.  Or maybe they went off to celebrate somebody’s birthday (and you didn’t hear about it because the conversation happened offline, in the lobby of their building in San Francisco).

The exact same thing happens at the other end.  You are not present to your US teammates by default.  Showing up to the office is not enough to create that presence.  People on both sides need to do more to make themselves present.

Doing More

So, what can you do to make yourself present?

Note: throughout this doc, “Skype” really stands for “whatever your team uses to connect online.”

Log in and Stay Logged In

If you are not logged in to Skype then you are not there.  This is true for your remote team.  But it is true even for people in your office.

[7/31/12 10:16:02 AM] Matt: Can we go over the proposal now?

[7/31/12 10:17:32 AM] Julio: No, I don’t see Mary online

[7/31/12 10:17:40 AM] Julio: Oh, wait, I see her at his desk :)

[7/31/12 10:17:49 AM] Julio: I’ll ask her to log in

[7/31/12 10:17:52 AM] Matt: [email protected]#)(*&

… 10 minutes later …

[7/31/12 10:27:03 AM] Mary: I am ready!

If you can’t be found, people will go about their business without you.

Log in and stay logged in.  Be present.

Lurkers Are Invisible

To remain present in a group chat (text or voice), you must participate and not just lurk.  If you haven’t posted or said something for a few seconds, you are forgotten (at least, temporarily).

This is also true even in meetings where everybody is physically present.  The quiet people who never say anything, are … not there!  It is not surprising to hear, “Oh, was such-and-such at the meeting?” or “I am not sure if she was at the meeting … was she?”

It takes time for the human brain to build a memory, even a short-term memory.  It is easier to establish a memory if the stimulus is extended in time and/or has a high emotional component.  That’s why it is easier to remember the loud-mouth-who-won’t-stop talking types and to sometimes forget the quiet, soft-spoken people in the room.

This is not an invitation for you to become a loud-mouth-won’t-stop-talking kind of person.  The point is to strike a balance so other people in the (virtual) room note and remember your presence.

Don’t Mess with the Skype Status

When you are logged in to Skype, it keeps track of whether you are Online or Away (after a few minutes of inactivity).  So, don’t mess with it.  You won’t remember to put it back and you will forever show up as Away, or worse, you’ll set it to Invisible and you won’t show up at all.

Some people insist on setting their status to Do Not Disturb because it prevents Skype from making noises when somebody posts on some group chat.  That’s understandable.  But then, you have to remember to put it back to Online or else, you will appear as Do Not Disturb forever on after.

It is really annoying and counterproductive to keep waiting for somebody because their status is Away or Do Not Disturb only to find out that they were “there” all the time.

[5/31/12 11:36:46 AM] Hugo: ok, let’s wait for Mary. She’s not online.

[5/31/12 11:36:48 AM] Mary: I am here!

[5/31/12 11:37:02 AM] Matt: [email protected]#)(*&

If you really don’t want to be interrupted, then log out of Skype.  Leave the building.  Get away. Otherwise, make yourself present.

Low Latency (Chat)

The ideal is to respond immediately to a post directed at you or a question that you can answer.  Obviously, it is impossible to do this all the time.  But if you do it often enough, and people in your team think of you as responsive, then you’ve accomplished the ultimate goal because they will reach out to you when they need a quick response.  You are “there” for them.

Low Latency (Email)

Respond to emails right away.  If you respond to an email as soon as you receive it, the quick response will make it clear to all recipients that “she is there now.”

Even if it is to say, “got your email, will respond in detail later,” the quick response will make you present in the mind of the sender.

I suspect that a purist would say that “email is an asynchronous communication medium and not for this sort of thing.”  And she’d be technically correct.  And invisible.

Ask and You Shall Be Present

If you have a question, ask.  Preferably in a group chat, where anybody can jump in and help you. And everybody sees you.

If you hear the-little-voice-in-your-head saying, “that’s a stupid question,” ignore it.  In fact, turn it to your advantage and treat it as an indication that it is time to do the opposite: ask and ask “in public.”

It is preferable to be present than to try to not “look bad” by not asking and getting stuck or, worse, end up reinventing the wheel.

Yes, there’s the people at the other extreme who constantly ask the most inane questions. “Do chickens have lips?”  You don’t want to be at that end of the spectrum, either.  The key is to strike a balance.  But for the most part, technical folks tend to “try to figure it out myself.” Unfortunately, while you are figuring things out, and not interacting with your team, you are practically invisible.

[8/03/12 04:02:33 PM] Isaac: Is Mary OK?  I haven’t heard from her in a while

[8/03/12 04:03:13 PM] Paul: She’s probably stuck and trying to reinvent the wheel by herself

[8/03/12 04:03:15 PM] Paul: She does that sometimes :(

So, not only are you invisible but you are not looking so good, either.

Where Do You Live?

Our bodies, brains included, are wired to react to threats by pulling away from the source of the threat.  the-little-voice-in-your-head is there to warn you about threats.  This is generally a good thing.

Where things get messed up is when we perceive that taking a particular action will be damaging to us.  As in “asking a stupid question.”  This would make you look stupid.  And you don’t want to be the stupid person in your tribe.  The others would shun you and leave you behind to die in the forest.

So the-little-voice-in-your-head is a good thing if you live among people who are known to leave members behind to die in the forest when they ask stupid questions.  BUT THAT IS NOT WHERE YOU LIVE.  It’s just that our bodies don’t quite know this and we still behave as if we were battling it out in the plains of pre-historic Africa (or in High School).

The general culture doesn’t help, either, and as kids we are encouraged to “be quiet.”  Or we are even told “don’t ask stupid questions.”

It is up to you, as a responsible adult, to consciously reframe participation in your mind as a “good” thing and not a “risk.”  The benefit of asking the darn question far outweighs any imagined “risk.”  By asking and fully participating, you’ll be present to your team.  And you might actually learn something.

This is a long way of saying that the only truly stupid question (and the one that makes you invisible) is the question not asked.

Keep a Predictable Schedule

If you always start to work at around 10 am, then people will learn that you’ll be there for them starting at 10 am.  On the other hand, if there’s no way to know when you are going to be “there,” then people won’t know when they can count on you.

Having predictable hours adds to your being present for your team.  This is true for you local teammates, but it is essential for your remote teammates.

It is also important that your teammates know when you are not available.  As in, when you take off for lunch.

The more predictable you can make your day, the easier it will be for your teammates to learn, implicitly, when they can expect you to be there for them and when you won’t,

[8/04/12 01:12:03 PM] Isaac: I am looking for Mary but she is “away”

[8/04/12 01:12:08 PM] Paul: It’s after 1 pm and she’s probably at lunch

[8/04/12 01:12:09 PM] Paul: She eats late

[8/04/12 01:12:11 PM] Paul: Look for her again at around 2 pm, she’ll be there for sure

Long-Term Presence, One Way

Beyond being present online, you can make yourself present to your teammates for the long-term by sharing your story with them.

We all have a story of who we are, our family, our friends, circumstances, likes, dislikes.  The more of this story you let out, the higher that the emotional “resolution” of your connection to your teammate will be.

Of course, the-little-voice-in-your-head will mess with you in this case, too.  “Why would she care?” says the-little-voice-in-your-head, why would anybody care what happened to you in third grade or when you lived in Finland or … you get the point.

As always, the-little-voice-in-your-head is trying to “protect” you from making yourself vulnerable. What if she recoils from you once she gets to really know you?  or worse, what if she makes fun of your story?

What the overprotective little-voice-in-your-head doesn’t know is that in this day and age what’s worse than all that is for two people to work with each other for days, weeks, or years and not know anything about each other.

Long-Term Presence, the Other Way

By the same token, find out more about your teammates.  What’s their story?  Does she have brothers or sisters?  Where is she originally from?  Why did she get into this racket?  What are her passions?

As far as the-little-voice-in-your-head is concerned, this is being noisy.  “That’s none of your business.”  Say “thanks” to the-little-voice-in-your-head and ask away.  Get to learn all you can about the people you spend most of your day “next” to, even the ones who are thousands of miles away.

Use “Like”

Writing and replying to posts is great to make yourself present.

You can also “Like” posts as a very quick way to let your teammates know that you’ve read their post, and that they are present to you.

If your team does not use Yammer or some other “virtual water cooler,” then start an account and invite everybody in your team to it.  A community needs a hangout, and a distributed community needs a virtual hangout.

Blog Posts, Videos, Artwork

Let your teammates know when you publish a blog post.  Or upload a
video or artwork that you made.  These show them another angle of who
you are.  They add depth to their perception of you as a whole person.
And it contributes to your long-term presence with the team
(I wonder what the-little-voice-in-your-head would say, “don’t be a show off” :)

Would these Work on You?

If a teammate of yours followed these practices, would it make it easier for you to feel her presence more readily?

If you knew about her family, the funny thing that happened to her in
third grade, and the fact that she is nuts about motorcycle racing,
would this make her more present, more real to you?

If you know that she is always there at certain times of the day, and
she’s pretty responsive, would you feel that she is somebody you can
count on?  somebody who’s there for you even if not at this very moment?

What Else Could We Do?

Obviously, this list is not a complete list of all the possible things you could do to be present for your teammates.

What else do you already do along these lines?  Do you have tips or
advice that the rest of us can use to make ourselves present?

Please, add those here, in the comments below (and make yourself present to us, the readers :).

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