The Office Door Effect

Posted on September 11, 2014

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?

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