Working across distance – Amy’s view

Sean in Middlebury this week! Hooray!

This may not seem like a big deal to you, but to Sonja and me, it’s so important. You see, Sean works remotely from Oregon. While his working remotely is going really well, it can be hard on him and on the team. Working across geographic distance brings a host of challenges that require attention and intentional work to overcome.

No one sat me down and taught me how to manage a remote employee, and there are few training opportunities for people who want to improve their remote collaboration skills. A cursory Google search for “managing remote employees” yields your typical management articles on how to keep track of what employees are doing when you can’t monitor them physically, or how to set clear goals for remote employees’ work. Ok, that’s important. But there are also deeper issues at play—remoteness requires dealing with psychological, social, and cultural issues that go beyond whether or not a remote person meets certain goals. It’s too easy to fixate on the things we can measure (e.g., did that person meet goals this week?) and ignore the other perhaps more important aspects of remote work (e.g., does that person feel that they are a valued part of the team?).

As our team has reflected on what working across distance means, and how to make it work for us, we recognized that 1) this is not an issue that only we face at Middlebury, 2) this is an ongoing learning process for us, and 3) we can draw many lessons from our experiences of and research about online teaching. Over the next few months, we will be reflecting publicly, here on the blog, about what we are learning. We hope that you will follow along and build on our reflections.

Here are some areas of interest, beyond goal-setting, that our team has been experimenting with to deal better with our work across distance:

Presence

There’s a real danger of the out-of-sight-out-of-mind problem with working at a distance. We equate physical co-presence with the kind of intimacy and immediacy needed for trusting relationships. Presence is perhaps the most obvious issue to address when working at a distance, but it’s not always the simplest to address. Sean goes above and beyond in his efforts to be present at work—everything from checking in every morning, to Slack conversations throughout the day, to copying me on emails that help me to know he is “on” something. These are all important, but I had the realization recently that Sean needs me to be present as much as I need him to be present. I’m still trying to figure that last part out, but keep reading to learn about a new idea we are trying to help address the presence question.

Fun note: Sean’s morning check-ins have led to a funny side effect. I started using Sean’s check in as a reminder to make tea for myself and now, at his normal check in time (whether or not he is checking in that day), I start craving tea. Paging Dr. Pavlov.

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Embodiment

Questions of embodiment have interested me since I began teaching and working in online spaces. Writing about embodiment in digital teaching (in the context of the beautiful messiness and not-yetness of education), Jen Ross and I write: “It might seem as though this [embodiment] role disappears in the digital teaching space—and indeed an ‘incorporeal fallacy’ (Land, 2004, p. 532) has permeated notions of cyberspace since its inception, fostering beliefs that the body is left behind when we go online. However, in both literal and metaphorical ways, digital embodiment transforms rather than erases (Bell, 2002).” Donna Haraway reimagines embodiment when she asks, “why should our bodies end at the skin?” Unfortunately, how we are embodied in the technologies we use to connect across distance is rarely considered or, worse, seen (uncritically) as unrelated to the ways we connect. The technologies we use, these digital “extensions” of our body, certainly impact how our connections across distance take shape.

Embodiment should be acknowledged whenever someone is participating or working remotely. I have been proud to see Sheila Cameron take embodiment seriously enough to do practice sessions before virtual meetings, to make sure the room and bodies were staged as appropriately as possible. In my office, I have taken steps to improve our team meetings, by putting the webcam at eye-level height and re-orienting the furniture in my office so that Sonja and I are oriented toward Sean and so that we are close enough that he can see our faces. These actions may seem trivial, but they can make a world of difference in how virtual interactions feel, especially to a person connecting remotely.

De-centering

We privilege the voices in the room. It’s not always a malicious act (though it can be), but we should be aware of the fact that we are likely to privilege who is in the room and their voices above those people who are not physically in the room. I have witnessed meetings with 20 people in a physical room and one person attending virtually and I have seen how easily the organic and rapid pace of conversation begins to shut out virtual participants’ contributions. That’s one of the reasons I am a big fan of Virtually Connecting. With their tireless effort to connect people who are physically attending a conference with people who are not physically present, we are reminded that there are voices outside of the room who can and should be heard.  We have to be willing to de-center the physical space and explore ways to make the participation opportunities more evenly distributed to everyone attending a meeting or event.

Trust

It will never be perfect. You’ll mess up. You’ll schedule that meeting at 5am for the remote participants. You’ll not realize that the virtual attendee has not be able to speak up in a conversation. You’ll miss Slack messages. It will never be perfect. Trust is essential to successfully working across distance. I need Sean and Sonja to tell me what they need from me, and I need to be willing to listen and accept when they tell me things that are not easy to hear. I need to trust my team, and they need to trust me. Working across distance will not work without trust. And listening. Wow, it is important to listen. Sometimes my team just needs me to hear them. Not to fix the issues they come up against, but to listen. To sometimes give them feedback and ask if they want my help. I have to make time in my day to make those opportunities available to people on my team, whether they are physically on campus or not.

Serendipity

It’s hard to bump into someone who works remotely. Bob Cole, director of the Digital Learning Commons at MIIS, and I used to joke that we wish we could bump into each other on the way to the coffee shop, as might happen if we worked on the same campus. But as Sean says, when you work remotely, everything is scheduled. Serendipity is less likely when you are not co-present. How can we create more serendipity in remote work? We’re still working on that question, but I’d like to share an idea that my brilliant team came up with.

We use a web meeting tool called appear.in for many of our meetings. We like it because it’s very easy to set up and it has a nice interface and (small) set of easy to use tools (e.g., chat window). Starting this week, we are going to use appear.in to make it easier for people to “drop by” our offices, even when we are not on campus. We’re going to have virtual office hours. Each of us has claimed an appear.in room (buttons below) and during certain hours we will keep those rooms live for anyone to drop in and talk to us. Want to give it a try? Don’t worry—if we aren’t in the virtual room, you can still poke around and learn more about appear.in.

Visit Sean's virtual office Visit Amy's virtual office Visit Sonja's virtual office

We are also pleased to announce that, in November, we will be co-hosting a Community-initiated Conversation on Remote Work and Geographically Dispersed Collaboration, along with colleagues from the Digital Learning Commons (MIIS), the Academic Cyberinfrastructure Technology Team, Media Services, and the Office of Development. We will have more information about the meeting soon, but if you are a member of the Middlebury community and interested in this topic, please send an email to our office and we’ll be sure to keep you updated.

Note about language: I realize that every time I use words like “remote” and “distance,” I am triggering assumptions, beliefs, and contradictions. Online learning was once called distance learning, until people realized that many people who take online/distance courses are not necessarily distant from the campus. I welcome conversations about the language we use when talking about co-present and not-co-present (yep, I went there) collaboration.


Featured image Walking Distance by JP, CC BY 2.0

Amy Collier

2 Responses to “Working across distance – Amy’s view

  • Thanks for this post. I discovered it (serendipitously!) the day before I had an interview for a job I can only take if I can convince the organisation to let me work remotely. Your summary of the key issues here really helped me get my thoughts together in a logical way ahead of the interview. Thank you!

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