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Our ability to work deeply is diminishing. We face an increasing number of interruptions in a constantly connected world. Some interruptions are within our power to manage. Others are unavoidable due to our role and our environment. As the world grows to accept the need for more remote work, it becomes more important to manage our availability while we work.
Those of us who have the choice to work from home used to do so to create more focus time and reduce interruptions. Being out of the office means we aren’t available to visit at our desks, and be interrupted when we’ve just managed to get in a deep work flow-state. But now that more of us have to work remotely, we see two behaviours developing.
We get a lot of work done but we become isolated. When we need connection with our team members, we find it difficult to make connection. We have less indicators of when someone is available, or don’t trust those indicators whey they constantly show ‘Busy’. The time we spend connecting with people is more deliberate and needs to be scheduled. When squished between scheduled work, it can feel rushed and insufficient.
We are frequently interrupted because people want to connect but can’t or won’t respect our availability. We can’t trust availability indicators when they appear to constantly show as ‘Busy’. Whether due to urgency of a task, or a self-focused drive to complete a task, availability is ignored and we send a chat message or make a call. When this culture is prevalent, people become reactive in their work and planned work is laid aside.
Both isolation and interruption impact productivity. Isolation affects morale, feeling disconnected from the team and leads to disengaged team members. Interruption’s impact on morale is through feeling less productive, tasks take longer to complete or are left unfinished.
Managing our availability has positive impacts to our productivity, sense of connection and engagement with our team. We can achieve more through planned periods of deep work when concentration is required. We can plan time to be available to connect, when we need to collaborate or just be available in the moment, when someone wants to connect with us.
The principles I’ll outline in this post will be helpful in any modern workplace environment. While I’ll use Microsoft Teams and other Microsoft 365 services to discuss practical ways to manage availability, the principles can be applied to tools from other productivity platforms.
Define your availability
Set the expectation and let people know about your working style and how to determine your availability. If I can communicate how best to reach me, when it’s best to collaborate with me, the times of day that I work, I’m giving your a better chance at connecting with me, and I give myself a greater opportunity to work deeply on a task.
Write an overview of your availability and publish it where team members and people across your organisation can find it, and where you can reference it.
What do we have available in Microsoft 365 for doing this?
What is your role at work? Does it require you to be available to help and communicate with others for most of the day, such as a service desk role? Are you a people manager who needs to check-in with your team, guide and direct?
Your role will affect how much time you should be available. A manager who say’s “my door’s always open” also needs to consider how to leave room for those opportunities in a remote work setting.
What do the different online statuses mean for engaging with you?
Your online status is the most effective way to show your availability right now. I’ll discuss future and planned availability later in this post. Microsoft Teams offers a few online statuses and by the name of their label, the meaning appears to be clear. But how many times is your status showing “Busy” or “In a Meeting”, and you’re actually available? You probably have your preferences for how you want to be contacted. Your definition of urgent and important are more specific to the way you work and your role.
State your communication preferences, so that when people need to contact you while you status is “Busy”, “Away”, or “Do Not Disturb”, they know how to reach you.
I’m available and you can talk to me now about anything
I’m busy, but available to talk about the project I’m working on. (However, I have my exceptions. Ask me.)
I’m away. Send me a message, include the level of importance and I’ll respond as soon as I can.
Please Do Not Disturb. I’m working on something and need complete focus to make progress. (I will be available later. Leave me a message.)
Define what urgency means to you, the factors that would allow someone to interrupt your focus.)
How many people it impacts
The value of the task in relation to it’s urgency
Is there anyone else in your team that can help if you’re unavailable right now? Share those details so your contacts can still get help and their queries answered when they’re urgent.
Plan your availability
Your availability is directly related to the tasks you’re working on and the activities you’re engaged in. We can plan our time out in detail to complete tasks, make a simple plan to get a few things done, or go through our day with no plan. Some where in that range is a balance that suits your role, your working style and aides your ability to focus. I encourage you to plan your availability and make time for those tasks that you need to complete, leaving room for meetings and “office hours” for opportunistic collaboration and for people to can connect.
But there’s another benefit to planning your availability and scheduling time for tasks in your calendar. Microsoft Teams will change your online availability automatically, letting others know if you can be contacted now and letting you focus on work. It sounds simple, but when you automate changes in your availability, you’re more likely to get quality focus time. However, it also relies on keeping your appointments with yourself – the scheduled time to complete tasks.
If you’re using a Microsoft 365 or Office 365 plan that includes MyAnalytics Insights, take a look at the Focus Plan. This simple service schedules 2 hours of “Do Not Disturb” time called “Focus Time” into your calendar for the day. During that time, your online status is changed to “Focusing” and behaves like “Do Not Disturb”, preventing messages, @mention notifications and calls from being received. If you have set exceptions to this and listed people who can interrupt DND, Focus Time will follow the same exceptions.
I use Focus Time to make sure I get 2 hours of uninterrupted time each day. I slide it to different positions in my day as I plan my tasks around meetings and other exceptions. Then I schedule time for tasks as a seperate appointment, alongside the Focus Time. This gives me a reminder of how I plan to use my Focus Time.
I choose to share more than just my free/busy information in my calendar with the whole organisation. I share the subject of my appointments and meetings. When someone in my org wants to schedule time with me and they use the Scheduling Assistant in Outlook or Microsoft Teams, they can see the subject of my scheduled time. It’s clear to them where I have scheduled Focus Time. It doesn’t prevent them from scheduling a meeting when I plan to focus, but it provides more information to negotiate my time with me.
Remember, someone can send you a meeting invite and ignore (or fail to check) scheduled time for tasks and focus. But it’s your calendar. Suggest another time if you need to. Keep the appointments you’ve made with yourself and make exceptions only when necessary.
Out of office: what does it really mean?
As I schedule time for activities out of the office, such as visiting a customer for half a day, I have another option while setting my meeting. Outlook defaults to show the time as “busy” and that will change my presence in Microsoft Teams at the time of the meeting. But I can also choose to show as “Out of office”, which will change my presence to show Out of office. This has the effect that in Microsoft Teams, my presence can appear to be “Available, Out of office” or “On a call, Out of office”. Team members can see that I’m available but only for a while. Once I go offline, my presence will show as “Out off office”, much like the auto-reply you set in Outlook when you take annual leave.
As more of us work remotely, the concept of “In office” changes to include our remote place of work. It might be quite acceptable to set customer visits to “Out of office”. Another option while creating the meeting or appointment is to show as “Working elsewhere”, but this doesn’t appear to have any effect on automatically changing your presence.
Change your availability
Plans change and so does your planned availability. Something happens and requires you to stop and change your priorities. So take a moment to change your availability in Microsoft Teams.
If you’ve finished a meeting early, change yourself to busy if you’re making time for follow-up tasks. Or change to available if you wan’t to let your team know they can contact you. Your contacts can tag you for status changes. They may be waiting for your meeting to finish before sending a chat or calling you. Changing your status manually from “In a meeting” to “Available” will send a pop-up notification letting your contact know you’re free to talk.
Conversely, you might be working in the office on some simple procedural tasks and have your presence set to “Available”. A team member walks over to talk with you about a problem they need help with. Take a moment to change your presence to “Do no disturb” to give your team member full attention. Though remember to change it back once your conversation has concluded, or you might have an unusually quite day receiving no notifications.
I’m in the habit of locking my computer every time I step away. A quick Windows key + L will lock and Microsoft Teams will set my status to away. However, when I’m stepping out for lunch, I’ll use “Be right back” and set a status message… which leads me to my last topic.
Tell me more about your availability
“Be right back” is a clear message. It suggests I’ll be back soon. But how long is soon? When I step out to lunch, I’ll take a moment to set a status message. “Grabbing some lunch”. Going one step further, I set the message to show for about an hour. Microsoft Teams removes my status message automatically.
When we leave a status message, even if it’s short message, we provide more information for a team member to decide how they will contact you when you are available. Or they may use another method, send the message and leave it up to you to reply.
Other way’s to use the status message in Microsoft Teams
If you’re working in the office for the day, add it to a status message and set it to show for the full day.
If you need to work in a long period using “Do not disturb”, use a status message to tell people how you want to be contacted, how to reach you if the matter is urgent, and any team member that could help with the query while you’re unavailable.
When you’ve blocked half a day in your calendar to work on site with a customer, set a status message so your team and organisation know why you’re not as responsive as you might usually be. This will help you focus on your customer’s needs and help to reduce the interruptions
I mentioned early in “Plan your availability” that I set my calendar permissions to share the subject of my meetings. This information tells my team and organisation more about my availability.
Reading the signs
I’ll finish by changing perspective to our team members, our organisation and our contacts. Our availability and presence indicators are becoming more important as remote work increases. But their effectiveness relies almost entirely on us taking the time to read the indicators and making considerate decisions.
When I want to start a chat with a contact to ask a question, I glance at their presence. If it show’s a red light, that could mean a number of things. I discussed earlier that some of our contacts appear to be “Busy” all the time. So I could send my question in chat and leave it up to them to reply when they can. But if I look closer at the presence, or hover over their name to show the contact card, I might see they are “In a meeting” or “On a call”. Will it help my team member to receive a message during their meeting or call? It will distract the momentarily. Sure, my contact could just ignore the message and get back to me later. But I might not be the only person sending chat messages to them during their meeting or call. It’s a conscious decision to be considerate, consider the signs, the presence indicator and any additional info before interrupting a meeting or call.
On the other hand, a culture has developed in many organisations that Microsoft Teams Chat is like email. I send a private message just like I send an email. Whether you’re available at the time to answer is not my concern. You can ignore it and answer after your call or meeting. It’s up to them to manage their presence and if the meeting or call requires more focus, to change their status to “Do not disturb”. However, I’m sure you’ll have reservations sending a chat to your CEO when they are in a meeting, interrupting their focus.
I encourage you to read the signs before sending a chat message or calling. Use the information that’s available. Consider whether you will just send the message and leave it up to the receiver to manage the interruption, or tag them for a status change and get in touch when they are available. Or use another method to send a message they can deal with later.
I’ve heard email has a good track record for that sort of thing.
Originally published at https://modernworkplacescenarios.com on July 12, 2020.
Brought to you by Dr. Ware, Microsoft Office 365 Silver Partner, Charleston SC.