Availability Protocols

5 minutes, 5 links


Updated March 23, 2023

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It might be good to know who’s around in a true emergency, but 1% occasions like that shouldn’t drive policy 99% of the time.Jason Fried, co-founder and CEO, Basecamp*

Availability protocols are a part of a team agreement that clarify how people communicate what times they are present and available to respond in communication tools like email, chat, and calendaring apps.

If a team is skilled at working asynchronously, presence becomes secondary to getting work done. When everyone defaults to “on track” and has thorough documentation available about best practices, they shouldn’t need to interrupt anyone to get things done. But sometimes, someone on the team will be stuck without the information they need, or something may be truly urgent. In those cases, it helps to know who is available when, the best ways to contact them, and what to do in the case of emergency.

Interruptions or Support Availability

Remote teams need to be more explicit about conveying availability, because everyone can’t just look over a wall or into a room to see if someone is in deep focus mode or a meeting.

Google Calendar allows people to define working hours and set predetermined appointment blocks. For a company with time zone overlap, this allows people to check someone’s calendar and know first if their working hours are in effect, and second if they can snag a predetermined time on their calendar for a quick question or meeting.

importantChats allow people to set “away” or “available” statuses, but these methods can lead to leaning on presence too much by setting the expectation that when you’re “available” you’re de facto interruptible. Tying your availability to chat reduces your ability to do asynchronous work because the presence indicator means you’re “at work” and people may send chat messages your way instead of more asynchronous methods like email or a message in the project management tool that someone can respond to when they have time.

Some teams combat presumed availability in chat apps like Slack by having an agreed-upon protocol, such as using a specific emoji paired with the term “Focus mode” when they are technically “available” but do not want to be interrupted.

Time Off or Sick Days

Broadcasting to peers and managers should be sufficient to let people know when life intervenes, unless it’s a prolonged absence like medical leave, which would typically involve HR as well. Auto replies on email can fill the gap for people who don’t directly depend on the individual or people outside the company—Dharmarajan Ramadoss shares seven examples of email auto replies that you can use for various purposes. Whatever your team deems appropriate—a quick chat message, an email, or an update on your calendar—document this as well in your team agreement.

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In Case of Emergency

It is useful to know how to reach someone in case of a true emergency. It’s best to agree ahead of time on a specific channel or method to be used for emergencies only; this can help people rapidly understand that a situation is genuinely urgent. Otherwise, a team—especially one with support or mission-critical functions like keeping the website running—may develop alert exhaustion, which makes people less likely to respond to instant message notifications or other means that are overused for non-urgent requests.

For example, the team can agree that a text or phone call signals urgency, and will be used only for such cases.

Response Frequency

Letting the team know how often someone reviews time-specific items like expense approval or responds to blocking issues helps people plan accordingly. You may wish to consider adding to your email signature a one-line response service-level agreement (SLA), like: “I review my email twice daily, at 10am and 6pm ET; and skim for emails prefixed with [important] every couple of hours during that period.”

story “I set aside specific focus periods during my day to ‘Do Slack,’ and for the rest of the day I have my Slack status turned off. It’s not set to ‘away’—my presence indicator shows that I’m absent. This enables me to focus on the tasks at hand, reduces interruptions, and builds a norm that at Buffer, Slack is considered semi-asynchronous: people will respond at some point during their work day, but not immediately.” —Katie Wilde, VP of Engineering, Buffer

Response Protocols

The benefit and curse of many modern communication tools is that they can be used in a variety of ways. (See Determining Your Communication Architecture for more.) When Slack first arrived on the scene, many people were thrilled with an easy, instantaneous way to communicate with colleagues that could keep conversations out of dreaded email threads. Joy often turned to despair as the same people realized they now had an easy, instantaneous way for their colleagues to communicate with them, and suddenly everyone was drowning in Slack messages constantly screaming for their attention.

Not knowing when help will come can be a source of frustration and isolation for remote workers, and will also impact the speed and quality of their work. If there’s an established rhythm with associated protocols, then remote and office workers can structure themselves around it. Establishing the timeframe within which members of your team respond to communication across the channels you use can reduce people’s anxieties about their questions getting answered, and let people get back to work knowing that they will eventually get a reply.

For example, a software engineer may need someone’s eyes for a code review. Common requests like this needn’t be considered urgent, but rather can rely on a cadence of feedback and review, supported by appropriate tools. A software team may use a process like Pull Reminders to manage the pipeline of work moving forward, independent of time, which on top of a source-control tool like GitHub, GitLab, or Bitbucket, enables work to continue without requiring frequent interruptions. A marketing team might use Trello to move tasks through stages of work or to assign tasks to people asynchronously.

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