Space vs. place in remote work

October 29, 2020

Some of my recent reading on adaptive design reminded me of the existence of Paul Dourish’s Where the Action Is, so I’ve been re-reading it. Dourish was an advisor of mine back when I was at UCI, and his book was required reading for an HCI course I can’t remember the name of, but focused mostly on phenomenology and embodiment as grounding theory for software design. It’s been more than 10 years since I touched the material, and it’s been fun to revisit.

There’s a chapter (ch. 3) where Dourish elucidates the ways various sociological methods have had an impact on the design of collaborative software systems, and in one particular part where draws the important distinction between thinking about “space” versus “place” in design:

… space refers to the physical organization of the environment, “place” refers to the way that social understandings convey an appropriate behavioral framing for an environment.

He goes on to describe Geraldine Fitzpatrick’s “Locales Framework” as an exemplar for thinking about the “social organization of activity” and taking such organization into account when designing new systems. The word “locale” here serves as a kind of synonym for place, meaning a setting for social actions. Quoting Fitzpatrick:

For interaction to happen in a locale, there are basic requirements for presence and awareness. First, the potential interactants need some form of representation or way of making themselves (or being made) present in the locale. Secondly, the potential interactants need some way of being aware of the other’s presence.

This emphasis on presence and awareness really struck me. As someone who works with a globally-distributed team scattered across four continents and six time zones, I often think about the tools we use to collaborate, communicate, and maintain a sense of cohesion while working separated by great distances, spatially and temporally. Mostly I think about how limited these tools are, how we have Slack channels and Zoom meetings and Phabricator code reviews, but absolutely no singular sense of “workplace” as you might have in an office. The mediums and channels we use to convey and receive presence and awareness information are so limited, so low-bandwidth. Initiating a casual chat is always forced, scheduled, overt, intentional. We know if a fellow coworker is online or offline, but that’s usually about all we know. Courtesy of COVID-19, every office worker unused to regular remote work is likely now feeling this awkwardness.

Going deeper down this rabbit hole, a random tweet reminded me about Matt Webb’s Glancing. Glancing is this interesting experimental app for initiating virtual eye contact with remote colleagues via the macOS status bar, but in a subtle, semi-ambiguous way:

The model for Glancing is people sitting at work, focused on their own stuff. Every so often, somebody looks up to rest their eyes or because they're thinking, maybe actually to look at someone else. Maybe they catch someone's eye and that person nods back. And then they all get on with their work.

Or maybe they start a chat. A few years ago, when I was working in the office at Adobe, my desk was adjacent the primary corridor on the way to the kitchen. Whenever my colleagues would take a break for coffee or tea, they inevitably had to walk by my desk, usually inviting me along, sometimes with a simple “Tea?” but usually with nothing more than a nod or sideways glance. The very act of getting tea was the invitation.

It’s subtle, but worth repeating: The act of getting tea was the invitation. Drawing from Alfred Schütz, it was my own lived experience in the everyday, mundane world of the office environment — being in the space, regularly engaging in the ritual of tea-getting — that allowed me to zero-in on these ambient cues.

This kind of thing is easier to come by when you have a sense of place, when you have the ambient cues that come from being embedded and embodied in a space with other humans. And it’s incredibly important for mental health too. Consider the human need for positive reinforcement. Leisa Reichelt recently shared this idea about “ambient reassurance”:

Ambient reassurance is the experience of small, unplanned moments of interaction with colleagues that provide reassurance that you’re on the right track. They provide encouragement and they help us to maintain self belief in those moments where we are liable to lapse into unproductive self doubt or imposter syndrome.

In hindsight I realise, these moments flowed naturally in an office environment.

Sometimes we seek them out in an ad hoc way – a conversation in the hallway about the thing you’re working on right now, a request for someone to quickly look at something and give a tiny bit of feedback, a tiny moan about something you’re struggling with.

Sometimes they are completely unintended – someone looks over your shoulder at something you’re working on, or gives you a few encouraging words as you enter or leave a tough meeting, or just happens to comment positively on something they saw you do recently.

This is not something one easily does over Slack. There is no richness of presence nor awareness beyond text status and emojis.

I often find myself wondering about my colleagues, not in a micromanagement type of way, but rather more out of genuine curiosity and desire to help. Are they working too much? Are they tired? Are they riding a “brainwave?” What’s the weather like where they live? What does the light and space feel like? I’d like to know, but remote work is different: there’s a weird line to walk here between expected boundaries of increased privacy and the need for place and connection. We have a lot to still figure out.