Prepping Remote Workers for the Presence of Presence - InformationWeek
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Melanie Turek
Melanie Turek

Prepping Remote Workers for the Presence of Presence

Recently I was chatting with a colleague, and he asked whether I thought the trend toward telecommuters and other so-called "virtual workers" (employees who work away from their bosses or co-workers) was fleeting or here to stay.

I think it’s here to stay for a number of reasons, running the gamut from high gas prices, to the ever-growing desire for employees to balance work and home life, to the increasing globalization of the business world. But there’s another reason, too: New technology is allowing virtual workers to act and be treated like office-based ones.

Presence is a leading driver when it comes to these new communications tools, because it allows far-flung employees to literally see where their co-workers are, and how to get in touch with them. In this way, presence essentially takes us back 10 or 15 years, before there were any remote workers at all in most corporate environments. Those days, you always knew where your boss, co-workers and employees were because you could see them down the hall or in the office next door. The presence that’s being embedded in the next-gen communications tools, starting with IM but quickly expanding to voice calls, conferencing and even applications, apes that experience, so that remote workers can act and feel as though they’re in the office. But there’s a problem with the new tools—they threaten the independence many remote workers have learned to love.

Indeed, many remote workers will tell you that that independence is what makes being a virtual worker so great. I’ve been telecommuting from my home in Colorado for more than 10 years, for various companies and in various capacities, and one of the things I like best about the gig is that I’m less accountable for my whereabouts. That’s not to say I’m not available during normal business hours—I am—but I’m also able to work from my deck on sunny days, throw in a load of laundry when I need a 5-minute mental break, or go for a bike ride at 10am instead of eating lunch at noon. I’m used to not having anyone “watching” me and how I spend my time; I’ve grown accustomed to being judged on the work I produce, rather than the time I spend producing it.

That’s as it should be, if you ask me, but presence threatens to take some of the fun out of it. Suddenly, I’m expected to be “at my desk” during regular business hours (and, increasingly, beyond those so-called regular hours)—not just working, but clearly visible to the world. Now, presence gurus will tell you that the value of presence-driven unified communications tools like Microsoft’s Communicator and Nortel’s MCS 5100 is that users don’t have to be available 24/7—that’s the point, really. You can set your presence state to indicate that you’re away from your desk or otherwise occupied, and the world will leave you alone.

But we all know how well that works. Just as many of us have come to expect people to answer their cell phones whenever we call, we also expect co-workers to be on IM during the day, if not the evening, too. When they’re not, we start to wonder what they’re doing—much more than we did before we had IM (because back then, we didn’t have any reason to think they weren’t at their desk).

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I’m a big fan of presence—I believe it and the applications it drives will literally change the way people work. But employers need to be aware of the cultural and management issues that accompany presence technologies in the workplace. Here are some quick tips:

•    Set expectations for when remote workers should be “online” and available for contact. If your headquarters is on the east coast, do telecommuters in California need to start their day at 6am? If they do, can they finish at 2pm? If they don’t, when do you expect them to be online?

•    Be flexible with those expectations. For instance, you might decide to require that employees be available to their colleagues and customers 8 hours a day, without specifying which 8 hours—or by sunsetting those hours much in the way contact centers do with their customer service reps.

•    Recognize that sometimes people need downtime, and they almost always need uptime away from interruption. Employees should be free to “close their door” by setting presence states as “not available.” Not all employees will do this, and most won’t do it all the time, but a little privacy can go a long way.

•    Judge knowledge workers on their productivity, not on the hours they work—or appear to work, based on their presence states. If an employee routinely gets her work done on time and on budget, is available to support co-workers and clients as needed, and ranks high in overall quality, it really shouldn’t matter how and when she’s available. On the other hand, some remote employees are lousy time managers—they’ll benefit from regular monitoring to reach their potential.

•    Discuss and describe how employees should and shouldn’t set presence states—one of the most common complaints about presence tools is that people don’t use them correctly. They won’t help anyone if your employees don’t know how to use them.

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