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Skype For Business–Is Presence Irrelevant?

When talking with customers new to unified communications, I ask them what they think is the most important feature deploying a unified communications solution will provide their business. 10 out of 10 customers will say the word presence within the first three items they list. To me this is significant, as human psychology shows, we tend to list things in order at which they are most important to us. When the CTO explains their objectives and goals, you need to take note of the order in which these are conveyed. These form not only the basis of the business requirements, but also the ones you need to pay particular attention to. Experience has taught me that businesses have on average 12 critical objectives that the solution must meet. These critical objectives are non-negotiable with the customer. Present a solution that does not meet all of these objectives, you might as well save yourself all the trouble of scope of work, high level design document(s) and reply with a “no bid” e-mail. It is that simple. After about 12, you and the solution have a bit more leeway and the customer is more open to suggestions, modifications, reasoning and guidance. Usually these are based on a “nice to have” or “budget dependent” criteria. Presence is never on this list!

Presence is the centre principle of real time communications. The idea of being able to see a persons availability to make informed choices of the best method of communication is the fundamental concept on which every unified communications platform is built. Yet, it appears that this core concept is now becoming increasingly irrelevant. I thought it was only me, but a comment on twitter (i forget by who) prompted me to think this is a much wider issue.

How can a critical business requirement suddenly become irrelevant?

The answer to this question, is human perceptive behaviour. For instance, the perception of receiving a phone call is that you must answer it even if you may be tied up in unrelated paperwork. The perception of receiving a knock at the door, is to answer it, even if you are on the phone. Therefore, the perception of receiving an Instant Message is to reply instantly, even if you are busy! It is just human nature derived from what we understand to be normal and what we perceive to be expected of us.

So how do we create collaborative tools to help people through these perceptions in order to achieve consistent expectation? Answer, presence states.

In Skype for Business we have four primary presence states. Each presence state comes with an Expected Average Response Time Handling or EARTH and a Perception Expected As Client Engages or PEACE (not an official terms, I just made it up).

The benefit of EARTH is that it can be set by business expectation. There is no official chart for EARTH timings, but it is an average amount of time a person is willing to wait for a response based on the presence state set. If they have not been trained on what EARTH the business has set for each presence state, then an individual’s patience is the measurement of EARTH.

PEACE is the message you are subliminary sending to the client as they attempt to engage communication with you. You need to maintain PEACE in line with EARTH to enforce effective presence.

This can lead to a multitude of problems and contributes directly to the irrelevancy of presence as a whole. The following table shows the four primary presence states, their PEACE and EARTH value.

Presence State PEACE EARTH
Available “Hi, I am online and at work. I will reply to you promptly” 1 minute
Busy “Hi, I am online, but my workload is heavy at the moment, It may take me some time to respond. Please do not expect an immediate answer” 10 minutes
Do Not Disturb “Hi, I am seriously busy and cannot afford any interruptions, please send an email and i will get back to you as soon as I can” 1 Day
Away “I have not been at my desk for a while and may not respond until i return” 1 hour (unless outside of business hours)

These states are meant to help people to decide the best person to contact and by what method in order to obtain the information required in line with the urgency of the request. On average the expectations for a response of a person who has a presence state of available is no more than 1-minute for an initial response to a greeting. A person with a presence state of busy, the expectation of a reply should not be “expected” by the initiator. On average a person with a busy state will reply within 10 minutes, though the reply may not be to answer the initiator question, but to inform them that they are unable to continue with the conversation at this time. Therefore, the initiator should use the information given by the busy state in order to seek out alternative contacts, or alter expectations on a response to their question. Skype for Business does its best to field the Do Not Disturb state for the user.  It prevents all contact that is not initiated by the user (incoming IM and calls).

Adhering to the principles of presence, combined with effective EARTH values still make presence a critical objective and an important business ethos.

However, what happens when people ignore the states of presence?

Firstly, there are three people responsible for the upholding of proper presence ettiquette. These are:

  • The initiator – The person looking up a user presence state with the intention to initiate communication
  • The receiver – The person who has set their presence state and the intented contact of the initiator
  • The company – Responsible for enforcing PEACE & EARTH

As the initiator, you are responsible of making informed choices based on the information given to you. If you choose not to use this information to better your communication needs, then as a result you should not be suprised if you do not receive the response from the receiver in the time, or manner of which you antcipated. It is the initator’s responsibility to adhere to simple presence ettiquette. Skype for Business provides initator’s with enhanced presence capabilities that allow you to predict the future availablility of a receiver by using Exchange calendar free/busy information. It also provides enhanced search capability to find other people with a similar skill set or within the same department as the primary choice of receiver by utilising AD attributes (work, department, job title) and SharePoint Skill Search. As the initiator, you should use them to their full potential and not place an expected reliance on a single person in order to make a business decision or collaborate with, or you run the risk of slowing business process unnecessarily.

As the receiver, you are responsible for upholding the presence state that you have set. If you have set a presence state of available, then you should do your best to communicate with the initiator in accordance to EARTH. If you are busy, and have forgotten to change state, you should still respond to the initiator within the available state EARTH informing them that you are busy and that the presence state is not accurate and update your state accordingly.

It is not considered good practice to ignore a communication from an initator when your presence state is available, this can be interpretted as bad manners. Similarly, when your presence state is set to busy, you give yourself a better EARTH in order to respond.

If you ignore EARTH and respond quickly in a busy state to an initator, the initiator will quickly learn that they can reliably contact you in this state. The problem is compounded if the receiver continually fails to adopt busy EARTH on multiple communications. What the receiver is doing here, is redefining the intiator’s perception of the busy state. The initator will simply continue to communicate with the receiver in this state with the expectation that responses are expected within the same EARTH as an available state.

Once the initiator has had their expectation altered, the receiver is no longer able to utilise the busy state in the manner it was designed for. If the receiver attempts to revert back to original EARTH, this can be perceived as rude or arrogant by the intiator. The effects of this can be far reaching for the receiver and could lead to fractured relationships, unjust performance related indictments and false perception (back stabbing). From a team perspective it can be disruptive, reduce productivity and ultimately affect business process.

As a result, the receiver’s default psychie is not to cause conflict, so they now over use the Do not Disturb (DND) presence state, reducing their effective presence states to available or do not contact me. This also can have a negative effect on the perception the receiver is portraying to prospective intiators e.g. “John is always on DND, he is not helpful”. In doing so, the receiver has effectively changed the meanings of the presence states based on their behviour to:

Presence State PEACE EARTH
Available “Hi, I am online and at work. I will reply to you promptly” 1 minute
Busy “Hi, It says busy, but I am really available. I will reply to you promptly” 1 minute
Do Not Disturb “Please just leave me alone” 1 Day
Away “I have not been at my desk for a while and may not respond until I am available, or busy…..” 1 hour (in business hours)

Furthermore, DND is not a replacement to the busy state. Albeit with good intentions, applying the DND state effectively prevents any communication with the receiver. Some of this can be overcome by utilising the workgroup relationship, whereby people in your workgroup may contact you under the “urgent interruptions only” presence sub-state of DND. But consider users configured with enterprise voice. While in DND, calls will not be accepted from the PSTN, or P2P and customers will be presented with your voicemail (if you have one), or simply the receiver’s DID will be engaged. So over using the DND state can significantly impact the receiver’s ability to perform their job. Therefore, the receiver’s effective presence state list is now reduced to one, available.

The same bad habits can be extended into sub-state presence, such as “In a Call”, “In a Meeting”, “In a Conference Call” etc. These are all sub-states of the busy presence state. If the intiator has come to understand that the receiver will respond to communication when in these states they are also equally ineffective.

Some people have tried to overcome their mistakes for allowing the boundaries between available and busy to disappear by updating their presence note with some success. But these too will get ineffective if the receiver does not change their habit.

Receivers don’t want to use the “Appear Away” presence state because it portrays the illusion to their managers that they may not be at work and therefore, this presence state is largely overlooked. Though, aside from this perception, this will provide the receiver with some rest bite during busy periods. As long as this is not over used, it can be an effective mitigation for receivers to give themselves some breathing space.

As a company, you are responsible for maintaining internal awareness of unified communications ettiquette through repeatative training and communication. This should not be a measurable statistic to use in performance reviews, or even disciplinaries, but more informational. It is better described as a company ethos or way of working and can be communicated subtly and directly through internal memoradums and training material. It is not safe to assume that once said, it will be adhered to as people naturally fall back to what is easiest, rather than what is right. As an employer, you have the responsibility for employee wellbeing and communicating an effective presence policy helps towards lower employee stress levels.

Often this gets overlooked or perhaps, it has yet to be properly recognised, but receivers who find themselves in the situation where they have one effective presence state tend to feel stress more than those who stick to EARTH. Simply because of the expectation they have placed upon themselves through bad habits perceived as being helpful.

I have fallen into this trap numerous times before whereby I think I am being helpful towards my colleagues, only for it to come and hit me during times where I am busy and over run with IM requests demanding answers while in a busy presence state. Take it from someone who has felt the pressure, it is very real and it can have a negative mental impact and reduce output. I came up with the concept of PEACE & EARTH to help me personally and remind me of the importance of proper presence management. It has helped me significantly, and I urge everyone to adopt their own.

Now that there is only one effective presence state, is there any point to presence?

This behaviour by both initiator and receiver (if I had to aportion blame – 50% receiver, 30% initiator, 20% company) devalues the importance of presence to the point where it becomes less of a business critical objective (Top 12) right down to the list of features you “just get” with a unified communications platform. In effect, presence is devalued to no more than vanity and actually reverts back to the old MSN Messenger days whereby users where either “Online” or “Offline”. This is not productive for anyone, least the business in which the users work.

Presence, when used properly, is a crucial and effective feature to any business and individual. It can improve and speed up business decision making and help promote a strong collaborative working ethos. Both are absolutely critical to the success of modern companies. However, we should not overlook the natural bad habits that users fall in to in order for presence to remain an effective tool in unified communications. This can only be achieved through effective and repeated adoption strategies lead by the company and adhered to by everyone.

What about Custom Presence States?

Custom presence states allow users to have a small list of presence states built on the traffic light signal principle. Essentially these are sub-states of available, busy and away. These can be configured in order to better describe the receiver’s availability. Experience shows that these have short term success. Measured over the long term habits, many people revert back to their default behaviour and these also become increasingly ineffective.

Can this be overcome?

We can all play a part in overcoming this trend. I believe that in order to effect change, this must be driven by the company, but enforced by the receiver. If these work together to change the perception of presence back to the intended use, the initiator will adapt and change their expectations without any fall out. Ultimately, every receiver is an initiator and vice versa so a global and mutual understanding in this instance is easy to convey. There will be some who remain impatient and demand answers when presence is set to busy, but stick to your EARTH value or risk falling back into the same old routine.

1 Comment

  1. I completely agree with your point of view, that companies (first of all the management) are responsible for maintaining internal awareness of unified communications and the use of employees presence state. After my opinion succes depends on recognizing that individuals, one at a time, no matter how well they adapt the solution, make little dent on the problem if the rest of their office mates are unaware of or indifferent to their efforts.
    Particually in open office environments we see a lot of problems with distractions and interruptions. My company, Plenom.com, has developed a solution, Busylight, that works perfectly with Skype for Business.
    It is a communication traffic light that visually conveys when you are busy on the phone, you do not want to be disturbed, are gone but nearby and so forth. But still: It is necessary for the employees in an open-plan office to understand, acknowledge and respect the solution. That is just a matter of management and corporate culture. – Best regards Jonny Carstensen, Plenom.com

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