Postcards from Portland: Work and Collaboration at a Distance

Tea time is at 10:00 AM. Closing time is around 6:00 PM. I have lunch meetings at 3:00, and breakfast meetings at 10:00. I’ve been invited to 8:00 AM meetings, but even my dogs don’t get up that early.

I work remotely from Portland, Oregon for the Office of Digital Learning. By virtue of the earth’s rotation, I’m always a bit out of sync with my colleagues on the ground in Vermont, but I do my best to keep up. Starting my work day at 7:00 AM Pacific time is one way. Staying “meta” about my circumstance is another.

Working remotely requires a different kind of effort than does reporting to an office each day. During my recent five days on-ground in Middlebury, Amy and Sonja could simply stop by my office to see that I was there. I had the pleasure of running into people at the Grille during lunch. And I took a meeting with Joe Antonioli over a creemee at Sama’s Cafe. Working alongside people in this way was effortless. Actual bodies make things easier.

From Portland, I stay in touch through platforms and apps, windows on my computer screen, and a polite, if insistent, will to do so. I rely on Slack for casual messaging and discussing quick work-related concerns and ideas; I use e-mail for more formal communication with groups and about projects; I keep regular office hours online using, and hold meetings using Google Hangouts, Polycom, and Skype; and I keep in touch with my extended network on Twitter. Rushing from one meeting to another is often just a matter of opening a new window on my screen.

I’ve been working from home in one capacity or another for almost sixteen years, so I’m accustomed to defending against the inevitable onslaught of distractions (from dogs that need walking to dishes that need washing). But the last three years have seen a different quality to working from home, as I’ve been separated from my teammates by thousands of miles.

Two years ago, I worked for the Service Employees International Union in Washington DC, almost exclusively meeting via conference call. In 2015, I worked at Instructure (the makers of Middlebury’s Canvas learning management system), where I met with my team using Blue Jeans, and chatting throughout the day using Google’s chat feature. In both of those working situations, the technology we used to connect was a key ingredient on how integrated I was into the team.

We can’t underestimate the value of the visual. The conference call is an alienating experience for those who are not in the room. To volunteer to become a disembodied voice emanating from a crackly speaker in the middle of the conference room table has never been anyone’s career aspiration. But simply plugging into a video interface (like Skype, Blue Jeans, WebEx, and the rest) isn’t a perfect solution either. More than once during a Blue Jeans meeting at Instructure, my space on the monitor was sacrificed to a screen share, a spreadsheet, or a project management software. I’d watch while my colleagues’ eyes glazed over, knowing they were no longer looking at me at all, and that I’d been usurped by something equally two-dimensional (but made for two dimensions).

The visual must be honored, preserved, given space. If you can’t see me, I can’t communicate with you. But it’s more than that. The visual is a first step toward presence. When you see me, you can watch my face for cues, you can see my expression when I speak. But even when I’m silent, I’m still present. And presence is vital, because while I may not be in the same room as my colleagues, I am yet in the conversation. I am more than the screen. I may not be flesh in blood in the room, but I am flesh and blood somewhere.

Perhaps the secret to understanding remote work and distance collaboration is to recognize that last point. We who occupy screens can have our physicality diminished by the ability to resize our faces, overlay us with other programs, minimize our window… and by the strength of the broadband connection, the quality of the speakers, the smudge on the camera. When I attend a meeting digitally, I—my self, my presence—can be conflated with the technology that makes the broadcast possible. It’s not that I am on the screen, it’s that I am the screen, and subject to all the features and lack of nuance other objects on the screen are subject to.

Middlebury is working its way toward the digital. Middlebury College has deep roots, and finds its strength in the earth on which it’s built. The Middlebury Institute for International Studies in Monterey also (though to a slightly lesser degree) locates itself within its physical boundaries—its buildings, its offices, its proximity to the sea. But the real power Middlebury has is in its network, in the diversity its peripherals bring to the table, and not simply in the gravity of its weight upon the earth.

If we can begin to look past the walls, and then past the screens at the colleagues we don’t see in hallways, at lunch, or eating creemees, we could uncover some really rich collaborations, some equally deep roots in far-flung places, and an even greater strength for the Middlebury system. Because in truth, Middlebury is just about everywhere.

Photo by Janine, CC BY 2.0.

Sean Morris

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