The Office Door Effect

This post originally appeared on appendTo’s blog on September 11th, 2014.  I’ve cross-posted it here for posterity.

Here at appendTo, we are a fully distributed company. We all work from home offices across the country and world, rarely connecting with one another in a physical space during the normal course of our work day.

The key to making this a success has been our perspective of translating the normal human interactions we are accustomed to in a physical office into the virtual environment.

One of the simplest habits we train every employee on is the Office Door Effect. When you work in a physical office, depending on the layout, humans observe when others enter or exit the building.

We replicate this by asking everyone to drop a message into a chat room when they arrive for work, when they leave, or when they briefly step away.  We’ve tried accomplishing this through chat status notifications, but it is never quite the same.

This creates a chat room with many small comments of, “Good Morning” or “Stepping away for a moment” which may seem like noise, but has had an incredibly positive impact on our culture.

It brings everyone together because it demonstrates commitment to our jobs by indicating whether we are focused on work at any given time or doing something else in front of our computers. It provides an easy and asynchronous way to discover where people are when they don’t immediately respond to a chat message.

The other important thing dropping a message into a room conveys is the duration of absence.  If you say, “Out for a few hours”, we know when to expect your return. If someone needs to connect with you, they can then decide whether to wait or proceed with other tasks until you return. If a client contacts us and needs access to a particular developer, it can also help us mitigate their need by giving them a specific availability time frame, or offering the services of a developer who’s immediately available.

We have a special “heads down” status that typically means someone is online for “emergency” purposes, but otherwise should not be disturbed because they are concentrating on a particular task or problem.

We use Slack as our platform to communicate all of the above, and love using it as our chat system. However, Slack is currently set up so that we have to manually type status messages into the chats. Adding an automated feature that would do this for us would make communicating on Slack a more seamless process. That said, we’ve recently submitted a feature request to Slack, to which they’ve been responsive and all around awesome.

How do you indicate presence in your organization?

Two challenges facing the human race.

I see two challenges facing the human race.

Water shortages

The current potable water crisis in California is a foreshadowing of the unforeseen consequences of climate change and population explosion. Simple conservation will not be enough. Our planet’s natural water cycle is struggling under the burden humans have placed upon it in their unflinching quest for water. We can survive without oil but we cannot survive without water.

Short-Term Thinking

The second is more subtle, but I believe Western society has discarded and forgotten the importance of the softer attributes of what it means to be human. Our quest for progress has pushed aside anything that does not immediately contribute to short term goals and profit. We esteem this pursuit in the media and the “have-nots” are left with two choices. They either resign their drive to succeed and “coast” through the rest of their life, or consciously object and pursue a life at the edge of traditional society through other means.

This is catching up to us as the current trend of press around “Why aren’t millennials <fill in the blank>”. I’m a millennial myself (born in 1982, so at the top end) but see this distinction clearly between my social group.

Society will be forced to repay and repair the rips to our social fabric that have been created. Humans aren’t ready to face this, but I believe I will see the pendulum swing back during my lifetime.

How much of the world will software eat?

I stepped into a fun riff on Twitter where Marc Andreessen published a 15-part tweet-blog on his thoughts on the limits of AI and Robots and their effect on society.

The concept captures my imagination because the media is quick jump to the inevitable end depicted in the Matrix where our machines come alive and Human beings become biological battery power in a post-apocalyptic world.  Once singularity is achieved, humans fall to the dark side of evolution as we slowly welcome the ascension of our new robot overlords.

While that makes for a good Hollywood screenplay, it doesn’t work for two reasons.

First, computers systems will never replace Humans because they lack judgement. Machines can easily distinguish between good and bad options, but they cannot predict taste and style.  Judgement is the result of a lifetime’s experience of constantly making choices, choices where there are multiple positive outcomes. This doesn’t translate to the world of machines where basic rules and logic make up a computers brain.

Second, artificial intelligence falls far short in creativity. They cannot “muster up” the next Mona Lisa or replicate Shakespeare through an digital force of will.  Creativity is the ability to transcend tradition, moving beyond the known into the unknown. If a human programs a machine by transferring its “known” knowledge into instructions, how can the machine ever move beyond it’s own reality into the unknown? The answer? It can’t.

So how much of the world will software eat?

Machines are making a monumental impact in every area of society and as the generations pass by, they will become more and more accepted as a sub-class of steward, albeit more intelligently with each iteration. I believe the impact of this shift won’t be a replacement of what it means to be human, but an amplification of the amount of time we have to focus and spend on the things that truly make us human.

The inevitable end is not the singularity of machines, but the self-actualization of human beings in a beautiful chorus of individual creativity and art.

Optimistic? Maybe. But, that end would be much more interesting then the drab and hopeless background of the Matrix, even if you could learn Kung-Fu in 5 seconds.