Challenge Your Status Quo

It’s easy to recognize some of the stressful events in our lives – they are big & brash and can stop you in your tracks. However, it’s the really quiet inconspicuous events that we hardly notice that can have some of the biggest impacts over time.

Recently, I’ve been trying to understand a bit better some of the behaviours, events & beliefs that have been causing my blood pressure to rise. Thankfully, it wasn’t serious enough to require urgent care but I still needed to work with my doctor to better understand my health from all angles.

Persistent, low-level stress can cause a lot of damage physically & emotionally over time. If you are in need of care, or are concerned about your health, please contact your physician and get checked out.

In reviewing my own situation, there were a number of things for me to review from the behaviour side of things. I’ve written about a number of these things before, but I do the best that I can and understand that some days may be better than others. This in of itself was important to remember, but I came across a trigger in my work environment that I hadn’t looked at deeply until now.

As many of you, I work in a primarily online world now with my colleagues. Many people have noted the fatigue that we experience being online and interacting with others only through screens – “Zoom fatigue”. There’s one small feature of these collaboration tools that I’ve found has been one of those quiet, seemingly innocuous triggers for me – my status indicator.

I hadn’t really noticed how I had trained myself over the years of using these tools to become so aware of my own status and that of others. At first, it was a matter of respect for other people’s availability and boundaries. I wouldn’t disturb someone who obviously looked “busy” or “in a call” and I expected the same consideration from others with my own status.

From that perspective, the status indicator tries to serve a valuable function in a work environment. Perhaps when we worked together in physical spaces, it was easier to combine what we saw via a person’s status indicator and how they appeared at their desk to understand their availability and whether it was possible to interact with them.

These days, however, the status indicator has become one of our only windows into someone’s availability. And these days, I mostly see my co-workers’ status set to “red”. What I started to notice in my own behaviour was how their status seemed to trigger me in unexpected ways.

I consider myself to be fairly well organized and motivated, while still succumbing to occasional bouts of procrastination. While there may be meetings that fill up my schedule, most other times I will show as “available”. I started to notice that I was beginning to compare my status indicator with others, feeling as though I wasn’t as “busy” compared to others. This was a subtle message that I interpreted as “I need to work harder or longer, just in case!”.

I need to remember that technology is still pretty dumb (and I work in technology!) and that the status indicator is a one-dimensional shallow interpretation of your current work state – nothing more, nothing less. “Busyness” and “presenteeism” can be symptoms of insecurity and issues with self-worth. As a result, it can be easy to misinterpret status indicators from your own perspective and overcompensate with behaviours that are not needed.

Technology also tries to be helpful, with sometimes mixed results. Depending on the application you use, you may notice that your status will change automatically if you haven’t interacted with your device or machine for a few minutes. In my case, I would see my status change to “inactive” or “away”. Something about those status changes began to trigger me over the years, and I would try to avoid showing either of those statuses unintentionally. Even if I was immersed in a training session or watching a video for research, I would make sure my status never changed to “inactive” or “away”. I had established a kind of digital “presenteeism”, just to give the perception that I was really working and not slacking off. Even the phrase “inactive” was something I began to associate with “unresponsive” and then to the next level – “irresponsible” – which I never wanted to be perceived as. I believe that was how I viewed others in the past and now I has started to view myself through the same lens. I would judge myself.

I’m really glad to have made these realizations so that I can change my stories & behaviours. So how can we take back control and take a healthier approach?

First off, we need compassion, self-love and understanding of our own needs and those around us. Knowing that everyone is doing the best they can and giving people the benefit of the doubt is a great place to start.

Status indicators are also pretty coarse and really can’t convey the full spectrum of our actual “state”. What does “busy” actually mean? In these cases, I supplement the colour indicator with a text message that can convey more context to my co-workers. “Working on a proposal – available at 2pm” is an example of some additional information that can be helpful to others. Most of my co-workers know the effort that can go into a proposal, and giving them an indication of when I may become available again is beneficial.

I’m also not shy about blocking my time when I need to focus. Always showing as available is the digital equivalent of saying “yes” to others but “no” to yourself. It’s totally fine to establish & set boundaries that allow you to focus and you can encourage others to do the same. Taken further, setting an “auto-reply” message and going offline is also an effective approach. In the vast majority of cases, things will be just fine if you’re not available for a period of time. And, in most cases as well, if you’re really needed, people will find another way to contact you.

We are still navigating this new work environment but we can be better for ourselves and take control of the technology to assist us instead of triggering us. We can also change our own perceptions of what it means to be an effective, valued and contributing team member, and encourage others to do the same.

I thank you for the time you’ve taken to read this article and I hope it has resonated with you in some way.