Beyond the Green Dot


My most recent post on LinkedIn cross-posted here.

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Ding! JohnSlayer17 has come online. Those old enough to remember that distinctive chime from AOL Instant Messenger likely have it emblazoned in memory. Little did we know that this simple notification sound and visual presence indicator would be the beginnings of a new way to work for decades to come.

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AIM and ICQ started it with status updates, such as Online, Away, Do Not Disturb, and more. Skype later introduced mobile, allowing you to be online while on the road. Then Slack brought emoji, allowing users to manually express themselves when setting a status. Despite the tech advancements made the last two decades, status has mostly remained stagnant. The green dot indicating availability hasn’t evolved, and it’s often manually set if set at all.

Now, for many, this didn’t matter. Most workers worked side-by-side with colleagues. Their physical presence provided more status than any digital manifestation ever could. It was obvious when their colleague was getting up for lunch, focused on a document, talking to someone else, or even in a joyful mood.

Then the world enters a pandemic. Suddenly, physical status is gone, and teams are solely relying upon that green dot while working from home. Colleagues have no idea who is around, when it’s best to connect without interrupting, or what’s happening outside of their core team. The lack of status and connection caused the number of meetings and scheduled discussions to skyrocket, while timely, ad-hoc collaboration and communications dissipated. And now, with many organizations returning to the office with hybrid work models, the green dot has become even more insufficient as it does little to indicate who is even at the office on any given day.

Recognizing this opportunity, an entire category of virtual office companies emerged. They created virtual maps with avatar-like heads for teammates to help colleagues visualize and replicate office presence in lieu of status indicators in workplace communication tools like Slack or Microsoft Teams. Unfortunately, these tools have mostly fallen flat because they were yet another messaging service to engage with when companies were increasingly entrenched with their existing communication tools.

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Meanwhile, organizations knew they had a problem. Remote work has led to Zoom fatigue, reduced motivation, impact on team morale, trust, empathy, loneliness, inability to unplug, time zone management, decreased innovation, and much more. Team metrics were plunging, and burnout was rampant. A survey by Monster.com found 69% of employees feeling exasperated while a survey by Indeed found 67% of workers believe burnout has worsened during the pandemic.

In an attempt to address these challenges, some teams went fully asynchronous, abandoning status and meetings altogether. Others created a hodgepodge of custom workflows to improve awareness around availability, implementing strategies like using shared spreadsheets to enter vacations, work schedules, and in-office days or setting open calendar blocks to indicate periods during the day when team members were available for interruption. Our workdays, however, are unpredictable, and constantly updating spreadsheets, messaging channels, and calendars to reflect our current status is cumbersome, inefficient, and frequently an inaccurate indication of our availability.

Today, for example, I got up to go eat lunch; stepped out to pick up my kids from school; decided to take a work meeting from my phone; blocked two hours for a meeting that ended an hour early; and put ‘focus time’ in my shared calendar to write this article hoping that nobody would interrupt me. In each and every instance, my green dot does not reflect my true intent, but there are signals and tech to figure this out automatically.

Enter Pulse – Automatic Status

Status is more than just a snippet of text; it is a form of expression and a way to communicate intent and foster empathy. Status, in many ways, is that meta-layer for remote work that organizations have been seeking and attempting to solve but in roundabout ways.

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Automatic status can be rich and informative. It does not mean that when you’re zoning out of a meeting or deciding to cheat on your diet, everyone knows. Rather, it means that when you want the team to know you’re deep in focus designing, the tech will figure that out and update your status for you. When you want to tell your team subtly to go easy on you this evening because you are leaving for vacation tomorrow, it’ll figure that out and softly convey this in your status.

Automatic status also creates empathy. It sets expectations. It communicates your intent. When you are that lone person working from Anguilla and it’s a holiday, it’ll let your team know in status that it’s a holiday in your country today. When you are working on a shared document and you want to signal that you are available to collaborate, it’ll share, in status, that you’re in that document and invite participation. It makes every workplace experience collaborative and multi-player while reducing interruptions, increasing flow time, and making you feel more in control of your day.

Additionally, it’s transforming the digital workspace from a stale set of green dots to something more lively, as if we are working side-by-side with our colleagues. Automatic status is completely changing how we work, and the best part about this is that the tech is there to make this all happen. Amongst APIs, laptops, mobile devices, and the tools we use, the signals to determine intent are available.

I believe Pulse’s automatic status is the next step. It is the evolution of the green dot we’ve been waiting for.

In Defense of Synchronous Work

My post on Wrkfrce cross-posted here.

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In 2012, Invision launched and was a popular tool in startup circles. If you wanted to test your product flows, you’d prototype and build with Invision. But aside from the company’s product, what many didn’t realize was that Invision was the beginning of a major remote work success story. Its rapid growth to more than 1,000 employees and its global distribution represented a stark contrast with Silicon Valley’s in-office culture.

At the same time, other distributed and remote team success stories emerged—including the likes of Gitlab, AngelList, Buffer, and Doist. While many of these companies were smaller, they too helped pave the way to a remote work revolution by publishing playbooks with remote work best practices and evangelizing into a small but fervent and fast-growing community adopting distributed work.

When COVID arrived, these early distributed-team playbooks were what companies leaned on for remote work answers, particularly in the area of communication—a significant struggle of many who began working from home during the COVID-19 crisis.

Fortunately, there was no shortage of content to guide people through this new normal. Resources such as Gitlab and Automattic CEO Matt Mullenweg have published valuable content on work, communication tools, and culture for globally distributed teams.

Matt’s oft-referenced “Distributed Work’s Five Levels of Autonomy” explains the evolution of a company through five phases of remote work. In the first phase, the company effectively maintains its in-office workflows and culture while staying distributed. In the intermediate phases, it begins to adopt new tools and workflows. In the final phases, true remote work culture is achieved as the organization communicates asynchronously.

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In this aspirational and dogmatic model, the role of synchronous communication is purported only for team building as required and when otherwise necessary, but all day-to-day workflows happen asynchronously. The advantages of this model are numerous: It supports those who value true work-life flexibility, it doesn’t punish those in different time zones, and it assures that most communications are written and documented, and thus transparent.

The COVID-First Remote Team

Unlike early remote-first teams, COVID-first teams are not necessarily globally distributed. These companies often comprise thousands, if not tens of thousands, of employees who were hired in an office, worked together in an office, and often enjoyed the perks of the office. These are not the old guard of remote work teams but rather a new segment, one that is scrambling to determine how best to adapt to this new way of working with circumstances that differ those of from remote-first, globally distributed teams.

In July 2020, early into the COVID lockdown, Microsoft published research analyzing its employees’ calendars pre- and post-COVID. What the company found was that people were scheduling more short-duration meetings. This didn’t surprise anyone, as these workers tried to replace the missing hallway chats, side-by-side shoulder taps, and social interactions that a physical office affords as team members collaborate throughout their days.

However, six months after Microsoft’s initial research and even longer after lockdown began, this trend hasn’t changed. We are certainly seeing more processes codified and other tools adopted, as well as employees finding their right work-life balance, but synchronous communication has remained a significant part of the work experience. Why?

New Remote Work Best Practices Are Emerging

COVID has created a once-in-a-lifetime scenario seeing Fortune 2000 doing remote at a massive scale. The problems and remote solutions of one globally distributed company with hundreds of employees are vastly different from those of a company with staff numbering in the thousands. In addition, most post-COVID teams started and were hired into an office environment. Even among Google’s own employee surveys, the majority of employees prefer to continue working full-time in their office and/or want to come in to the office two to three days per week. Only 10 percent surveyed wanted to work remotely full-time—a noteworthy contrast with much of the pre-COVID remote workforce. Not to mention that most of these teams are near offices and in similar time zones.

The end result is that the remote work transformation has happened but it’s different than what we expected. The old playbooks have many nuggets of wisdom but in part are also deprecated as guidance for COVID-first distributed teams. We don’t know what the next 5 to 10 years will look like, but a remote work vanguard is now writing new playbooks, which prioritize synchronous communication to bring the best parts of the office into the remote work world.