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Matthew Parsons
19 Apr 2017

Being present without being present

I live with 6 MA students, in a large rented house full of tacky paintings belonging to the owner, on the fringes of a scuzzy, drunken, strip-club laden area called Paceville on the Mediterranean island of Malta.

But I work in London, here at Outlandish, sort of.

It’s called remote working, but often the first thing I think about is, “how do I make myself less remote today?”

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I try to address this question both from within myself, and from the perspective of the organisation: how do I make myself feel more present at Outlandish, and how do I make Outlandish feel less like I’m not there?

For me, that means trying to stay highly connected, even when working on something that doesn’t require me to communicate much with others. It’s not so much a general tactic to enhance sociability – I have people around me here most of the time – but it’s about staying connected to the evolving story of the place where I work. Outlandish changes continuously; on most days imperceptibly, but on others noticeably, and it’s easier when remote to miss out on that.

When you’re remote, you need to project your presence as best you can, but also to accept that often much of your ability to do this is in the hands of your non-remote co-workers and in the quality of the technology you use to communicate with.

Take meetings. Even with videoconferencing, meetings can be desperate affairs when you’re the only remote person, especially large meetings – some of the most common difficulties I encounter are:

  • You just can’t hear what people are saying. Perhaps because they’re far away from the mic, they have a quiet voice, or because your audio feed went “TTZZZZRRRKKKX” for a few seconds just as they said that really important thing.
  • Being skipped over. Going round the table e.g. with a question, the remote person accidentally gets skipped. A bit like the buses here in Malta, which – if you’re not waving both hands and basically risking death by standing in the road – will just drive right past.
  • Losing the thread. This is related to the first point, but it also comes from being unable to read body language, and to see where everyone’s eyes are pointing.

If, like at Outlandish, remote workers are a very small minority so investing in conferencing infrastructure is an unjustifiable expense, other methods are needed. Even with the best videoconferencing setup in the world, the following might help anyway.

Be the scribe

If you volunteer to be responsible for taking minutes in a meeting, then you’re instantly increasing your relevance in that meeting. You’re also giving yourself the licence to ask for clarifications and to ask people to summarise their thoughts – this makes you feel more connected, and keeps you more present.

Make Slack your friend

Everyone uses it, but for me Slack is invaluable. You can’t knock on the door of the room I work in, and I can’t walk up to your desk; we can’t meet in the kitchen, and we can’t eat lunch together. Instead, all the spontaneity and connection in my work day has to be rolled up into the dozens of personal chats and channel threads that spark and ramble throughout the day. I rely not so much on Slack itself, but on the willingness with and extent to which other people use Slack.

Education

Develop some processes in how to handle remote working, and then work these into an easy learning process for both the physically present workers and the remote workers. Facilitation skills are a great thing to develop anyway, and they drive people towards having higher degrees of presence and awareness – both of these things can help a remote worker immensely in the meeting context. Simple things like periodically asking the remote worker/s “what do you think about X”, where the contents of X are less important than the fact of the question itself, can help immensely. For the remote worker, it could be training them to be less inhibited to interrupt than they might normally feel comfortable with.

Be hyper-available on comms

This is the flipside of not being able to be disturbed when you don’t want to be; the more available you are, the less frustrating it is for the people who don’t have the option of walking up to you and waving their hands in your face to remind you that you didn’t do that thing you really should have done by now.

I’ve tried to implement all of these to varying degrees at different times, and some days it works better than others. Living 100, or 1,000 miles away from where you work might not always feel so great, but then neither does living 1 mile away – it’s just a different experience.