Why the Status Indicator is Bad

When you try to help people be more effective, being positive is necessary. You can’t just focus on the things that don’t work. Many people already have a sense of what is not working well, and those who don’t probably have a good reason to ignore the problem or put it on hold. And yet…

When I encounter a practice or a habit that is deeply rooted on the one hand and has a devastating impact on our effectiveness on the other, I don’t see any point in walking around it. Sometimes, there is value in explicitly hearing that something is bad for us. 

So, welcome to “This is bad for you” week. We’ll leave positivity aside for a minute and focus on some communication habits we’d better eliminate as soon as possible — and now is as good a time as any. One of these practices is using the infamous status indicator. 

As the term implies, the status indicator was designed to tell the world your status. No, I am not talking about your relationship status or your place in an imaginary social hierarchy. The status indicator was designed to tell the world you are open to interruptions. 

Let’s start at the beginning. In a modern organization, communication is only partly preplanned or thoughtfully designed. You might run the perfect meetings and write the best emails but still use chat-based communication most of the time. Many knowledge workers do not work solely from a predefined list of tasks. Many of us should be ready on-call to provide a service or information, answer a question, or support someone else in the organization. Even in a team, working together means being available for others on top of what is explicitly expected from you. 

None of that is inherently flawed. Not everything can be preplanned or formally assigned to a team member. Sharing knowledge or being available to help your colleagues is desired. The question is how to manage this part of our job, and the status indicator is a very poor choice. 

Most of us don’t manually set our status. The status is red when we are in a meeting or a prescheduled time block or green if we are not. For the rest of the world, a green status means we are available. It signals that we can be interrupted. It won’t even be considered an interruption because, obviously, we are not doing anything important at the moment. We’re “green!”

Of course, most of us don’t sit idly when “we are green,” waiting for someone to text us a question. When “green,” we typically do the actual work we are set to do. We could change our status to “Busy,” but this is just another thing we should remember to do. And so it happens that the time when we need to focus most is the time the rest of the world believes is the best time to interrupt us.

In his book A World Without Email, Cal Newport proposed a simple yet radical idea. Instead of defaulting to “I am available for interruptions,” set some predefined office hours. Communicate to your colleagues that you can answer their questions or call for help at that time. The rest of your time is yours to manage. This solution is based on the fact that the problem is not necessarily with the number of incoming requests but their timing. Arbitrary interruptions throughout the day significantly diminish your effectiveness. If they are all concentrated in a predefined time that you find convenient, they become manageable. 

Emails could also be an effective solution, although Cal Newport might disagree. When managed correctly, emails are less intrusive than chats and instant messages. We don’t have to attend to them the minute they arrive. Setting a couple of hours a week to address incoming requests instead of responding to them in real-time is a significant step forward. 

This is to say that nobody should care if I am in the middle of a call or allegedly available. A status indicator sends the wrong message nine out of ten times. Not being engaged in a conversation does not mean we are available unless our only task is to answer calls. Our colleagues and our managers should respect that most of the time, we will not be available to answer them in real time. We just need to agree that we should all appear “offline.”

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