Be it Slack or Discord, Microsoft Teams or Google Chat, your office is now basically a bunch of text channels — the digital equivalent of an open space and a meeting room combined.
In these tools, your status probably provides the closest illusion of presence. You can set status messages for more context, some of which can even happen automatically thanks to some ingenious add-ons and extensions. The problem is that none of it matches the elegance and simplicity of actually seeing a person (whether they’re at the desk or on the phone or looking at memes), plus keeping your status up-to-date requires enormous discipline, plus it requires that everyone follows the same intricate system of rules and agreements — because if like 60 people do it and the other 30 don’t, then the whole thing becomes complete useless.
All of which is to say: There’s no way of knowing whether you’ll get a response to your 👋 in five seconds or in five hours. There’s no agreed-upon etiquette (although calling someone up on Zoom without checking with them prior is probably, definitely 100% a universal faux pas). All these rules are rarely articulated explicitly, because it’s all a bit too complex and there’s more important things to do and talk about, always, and so everyone just goes with their habits and gut feeling — which is not a bad thing per se, but can potentially lead to mess and chaos and more misunderstanding, unless properly moderated.
Another way to describe the online office is Constant Uncertainty (which might have been a title for this newsletter, probably). You don’t know if the other person is there or not. You don’t know if they’re not responding because they’re busy with something urgent, or because they’re AWK, or because your message somehow came across badly and/or offended them and/or made them uncomfortable — or even because they simply missed your messages among dozens of other notifications.
Instead of ignoring this problem (not even a problem, really, just a fact of life) and letting everyone figure it out on their own, pretending that it’s all quote-unquote common knowledge, companies should explicitly address it. Admit that talking online is hard. Agree to invest time in the meta conversation about “how we work.” Provide guidelines. Clarify expectations. Make things easy for everyone. Reduce confusion and uncertainty.
Listen, until the rules are set in place, no one has the right to judge you for posting cat GIFs in #general (with @channel, of course) every fifteen minutes.