The presence prison

Are you chained to the green dot? Turn it off and break free.

As a general rule, nobody at Basecamp really knows where anyone else is at any given moment. Are they working? Dunno. Are they taking a break? Dunno. Are they at lunch? Dunno. Are they picking up their kid from school? Dunno. Don’t care.

The vast majority of the time, it just doesn’t matter. What matters is letting people design their own schedule around when they can do their best work.

This is not nearly as hard as it sounds. But it does require a shift in mindset. Away from “I have to call Jeff into a meeting now to get his take on this new feature idea” to “I’ll write up my feature idea for Jeff to check-out whenever he has some free time, and then, maybe, we can have a chat about it live later, if needed”.

If you’re constantly pulling people into things, then yeah, where they are right now matters. But if you prefer to let people consider something fully, and get back to you when when they’re ready, then it doesn’t matter where they are right now. We choose the latter.

We’ve always worked like this at Basecamp. Since we’ve always been a remote company with people spread out all over the world, we’ve been forced to work this way. We learned to appreciate the benefits of working asynchronously quickly as we collaborated over seven time zones right from the start.

But it wasn’t until we gave up on Presence that we really got to embrace the complete sense of calm that comes from not caring about when someone is working (or not) or where someone is (or isn’t) at this very moment.

Presence is a feature of many modern communication work tools. It’s generally represented by a green, red, or yellow dot. If there’s a green dot next to someone’s name it means they’re available. Yellow or red means they’re away. This is how many companies get a read on who’s working when.

For years we used an internal instant messaging system that broadcasted everyone’s real-time status. It seemed cool, it seemed useful. It seemed like something that would be good to know. But it turned out to be TMI: Too Much Information.

Because, really, what does “available” and “away” really mean? Official definitions don’t matter, because here’s what they actually mean: “Available to be bothered” and “I’m running away and hiding because I can’t get any fucking work done around here.”

Away, in particular, can be seen as bad form. Stay “away” (which most often actually means you’re working, but don’t want to be bothered) and people begin to question if you’re at work at all. Leave “away” on too long and you’re seen as unreliable. If you’ve got presence on your work tools, you’ve probably lived this very thing. What a joke, right?

And “available” is usually just an invitation to be interrupted. Try being available for 3 hours, and then try being away for 3 hours. Bet you get more work done when you’re marked away.

Truth is, there are hardly any good reasons to know if someone’s available or away at any given moment. If you truly need something from someone, ask them. If they respond, then you have what you needed. If they don’t, it’s not because they’re ignoring you — it’s because they’re busy. Respect that! Assume people are focused on their own work.

Are there exceptions? Of course. It might be good to know who’s around in a true emergency, but 1% occasions like that shouldn’t drive policy 99% of the time. And there are times where certain teams need to make sure someone’s around so there are no gaps in customer service coverage, but those are specialized cases best handled by communication, not an ambiguous colored dot next to someone’s name.

These days at Basecamp we eschew status, we reject presence, we avoid abstraction. In fact, when designing the latest version of Basecamp, we deliberately decided to keep status and presence out of the product. We had it early on during the design process, but then we turned it off and we never missed it. The moment it was gone, a burden was lifted and things calmed down around here.

So take a step towards calm, and relieve people from needing to broadcast their status. They’ve got enough work to do — managing how they’re presenting their availability to the company at large is an unnecessary burden. Everyone’s status should be implicit: I’m trying to do my job, please respect my time and attention.

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