The Perception of Presence in Remote Teams

3 minute read

I often get many kinds of questions regarding remote work, often from an organizational and structural perspective. Recently however I’ve been asked a different one: “I’m a freelance about to start working remotely for a remote company, do you have any advice for me?”.

On the surface it looks like a simple question, with the usual pragmatic answers: have a good introductory chat, understand what tools they are using, make sure to participate in the discussions, try to find overlap in timezones, make your day flexible, be clear on deliverables, and so on. On reflection, I realized what was in common to all these more tactical elements: they were all meant to create presence in the digital space.

While it’s true that the end goal is to build trust, communicate well and reach the goals, all of these need to be built on stable ground. When we look closely, the processes and tools used by local teams and remote teams aren’t that different in businesses that are more in the digital realm, especially large businesses where offices in different locations need to coordinate. Presence is the main differentiating factor.

Presence in remote teams requires to actively answer the question: “How can I make my team perceive me as present?”.

A hint of this was already present in the early communications tools: ICQ used to have green flowers when someone was online, and red flowers when someone was offline. Snapchat today shows a little avatar if the person you are talking to is actively using the app in that moment, and the avatar pops up even more prominently if you are both on the same chat screen.

These however are just technical details, and as any user of ICQ and later messenger tools noticed, most of the people often set “Away” or “Do not Disturb” or other statuses, and never updated them. Presence is more subtle, and it’s hard to automate in that way. Skype tried to help by showing a notification every time someone came online, but most people stopped even checking, as it quickly became annoying. Slack almost doesn’t even try anymore, and while supported, it’s way more subtle.

Presence can’t be automated that easily, as a status notification is similar to someone walking in and sitting at a desk across the office in the morning. Sure, the person is there, but do we feel their presence? Not really. Presence isn’t a physical or digital status, it’s a perception.

In remote teams, presence can thus take different forms. It can be a quick chat a couple times each day with the other people in the team, it can be a more process-oriented standup, it can be exchanging ideas around a project even if maybe there’s already a summary written somewhere.

Some days might already be fairly packed with activities and interactions with other people, making you already perceived as present. Other days, the work might feel very detached and you may need to explicitly make yourself visible.

This idea sometimes might get pushback from utilitarian people, who argue that “it’s not work related”, or “this is off topic”, or any equivalent comment. While this of course sometimes could be true, it’s important to evaluate it also against the presence criteria: sure, the content may seems whimsical, but does it help fulfill the minimum socialization for the day for this team? Does it lighten the mood?

For example, one might try to avoid jokes during a technical discussion, but when that’s sorted, or if it’s getting too long, an exchange on another subject could be very healthy.

In addition, for such lighthearted comments, we should avoid sending messages that will trigger an explicit notification, as that should be reserved for high-priority content.

Our own personal style should also be taken into account. Maybe we are the kind of person who would start the day with a quick chat, and we find someone like us. Maybe we like to joke, or maybe we like to talk about the latest book we read. For some people typing an explicit “I agree” feels more human that clicking “Like”, others prefer writing some long post that the team can read when they have time.

It doesn’t matter how, we should try to identify what’s the best strategy for presence that combines the style of the individual and the culture of the company. You may find out it’s not much work and it feels very natural.