We need to talk about workplace presence – specifically, our weird socialized need to be “visible” and immediately available at work. We call it the presence problem.
The thirst for workplace visibility
We all suffer from the presence problem to varying degrees. You feel it when you receive an email from your boss, work off-site during office hours or travel during work time. It compels you to announce your presence and prove you’re actively engaged in work – often in desperate ways, like sending an insanely early email just to show you’re awake when working from home.
If you work remotely long-term, you’ll eventually conquer the presence problem, but it can still be an uncomfortable and anxious process. Even then, you’ll feel residual urges to answer Slack messages immediately, so people don’t assume you’re slacking off (while we’re on the subject…).
Workplace presence problem implications
The presence problem is a tragic indicator of institutionalized monitoring, which basically boils down to one hell of a trust issue.
If you’ve employed proactive, responsible people, you shouldn’t need to physically observe them to know they’re working. Office workers shouldn’t be suspicious when your chair is empty. Remote workers shouldn’t need to offer regular evidence of progress for the sake of bridging their physical absence.
Beyond harming employee relationships, the presence problem severely limits your ability to do your best work. By answering messages as they come in and engineering pointless visibility emails, you break focus and interrupt productive deep work.
Overcoming trust issues
Overcoming the presence problem means revisiting company culture – the attitudes and expectations everyone promotes. But it also requires you to hack your hardcoded social reflexes too.
Becoming intentionally unavailable is hard when you want to be seen as a dependable and reliable colleague, so establish a communications process with your team around response times and urgent requests.
Realize you don’t need to know exactly what your colleagues are up to. You just need to provide a respectful, mature environment where people can organize their work as trusted, fully-formed professionals.