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Conveying Presence/Availability During Remote Work

My day job is Business Systems Architect at Princeton University Press. As a precautionary measure to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus, all staff in the Princeton office have been asked to work from home for the next month.

The team I work with at the Press consists of programers, analysts and project managers. The Press has a robust infrastructure built up around Zoom to support remote meetings and many of us regularly work from home. That said, a month away from face-to-face interaction with my colleagues is going to be a different kind of experience, for sure. As such I’m documenting here the friction points, possible solutions, tips/hacks, etc. that we discover during this month-long exercise.

User Presence

I believe that once you get the various communication infrastructure established for remote meetings, remote file access, etc (of which I’ll write more as the days go on here), one of the challenges of working remotely is conveying presence/availability while working at home.

It is easy to walk by a colleague’s desk at work and get a sense if you can comfortably interrupt with a question or comment, much harder to do so when working remotely. There are many tools that could be used for this. Many programming shops use Slack, others Skype. At the Press, all staff are on Zoom and some are regular users of Microsoft Teams.

So I am looking here primarily at conveying user presence in Zoom vs Teams:

Both Teams and Zoom offer a “chat” section in their applications where you can set your availability and view whether or not your co-workers are available, away, busy, etc.

Zoom Status Guide

Zoom’s status options don’t synchronize well across devices. Meaning, if you set your Desktop Zoom application to “away” and then close Zoom on your desktop because you are expecting to use your mobile device, co-workers will continue to see you as “away” until you re-open your desktop Zoom app and change your status to “available.”

Meaning, your availability on your mobile device is not conveyed to your other co-workers.

The best way to think about Zoom status is: whatever your Desktop status is set to (or was last set to when you closed the app) is how your co-workers will likely see your status appear in the Chat section of Zoom.

Teams Status Documentation

Team’s status is the hands-down winner here. It almost-instantly synchronizes across all devices (mobile/desktop) when you change it (using the Desktop app you change your status by clicking your initials in the upper right corner of the application).

Also, the Teams iPhone application seems to be much better at providing chat notifications when the app is in the background then Zoom. Zoom chat alerts on the iPhone are pretty inconsistent in my experience.

Likewise Teams offers a very handy “Set status message” that you can fill out so that if someone messages you in the Teams chat area, they will get an auto-response to their message.  Meaning you could set your status message to “letting the dog out, back at 1:55pm” and if someone chats with you they’ll get that message as a reply automatically. Much more useful than a generic away/available status icon.

I have spent an equal amount of time using the chat function on Teams as I have on Zoom. They both have their benefits but clearly when it comes to conveying user-presence, Teams is superior. This opens up questions such as:

  • Do we standardize on one tool for chat even though multiple staff regularly use Zoom for chat?
  • Or, do we maintain user-presence/status in two apps and hope that we remember to set them both correctly?

We’re only on Day 1 here, so I don’t have a clear answer yet but, stay tuned.

Disclaimer: I’m writing about my experience of mandatory remote work at Princeton University Press during the COVID-19 pandemic, any comments and opinions here are entirely my own.