A while back, I wrote an article about place. Nevertheless, let’s recap.
I work remotely, from a smallholding in South Africa. Because of this, my experience of place is sharply binary — both tethered and amorphous. On one hand, I am strongly connected to the landscape; I drink milk that came from a cow who lives across the road and I’m only able to have a shower when the property’s water tanks have been filled with rain. This connection to the landscape fosters a strong, tangible connection to place.
This strong connection to place doesn’t manifest in my work life, though. I work remotely just like the majority of my colleagues. So, by definition, my work is not tied to a specific place. Which is great; I mean, I can work from anywhere with an internet connection, who doesn’t want that? And, up until recently, I had never met my colleagues in person.
But we just had our annual company retreat. All of us, from all over the world, met up in Bogotá and hung out, in-person, for about a week.
So, what did I, a remote team member, learn from being in the same physical place as my colleagues?
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People, people everywhere.
I like talking to people and hearing their stories. Even so, though, I’m an introvert. This trait seems to be common among people who work remotely. So, while it was wonderful to meet my colleagues in person, it was at times a shock. After all, living on a remote farm means that I don’t interact with large groups of people on a regular basis. To suddenly be in a major city, interacting with so many people and so much noise… it was at times a bit surreal. Enjoyable, definitely, but surreal.
Surreal, I think because in-person communication is different than online communication. Even through, say, a video call. Meeting people in person means getting to know them better and that was very valuable, even though, as an introvert, it’s not something that comes easily. When we all get together, we’re a large group (66 people!).
Your own experience may vary, of course, but for me, this time together taught me about the importance of in-person communication. You can get to know people well online, yes, but talking face-to-face once a year or so solidifies professional relationships. Your work colleagues, and you, become more fully-formed.
Another thing that surprised me upon getting to Bogotá, was recognizing the place. While consciously I may have thought of my workplace as an amorphous internet non-place, my subconscious had clearly absorbed my colleagues’ physical location. Just through the background of video calls with my Colombian colleagues — the view out their windows, their comments about the weather — I had built enough of a physical landscape of Bogotá in my mind to recognize it when I saw it in real life. The mountains around the city looked familiar, for example, but so much bigger in real life.
I suspect that I might have made mental maps of more places where my colleagues live, too. I know what the street scene of Pune sounds like, for example, as a colleague lives there, despite my having never been to India.
That recognition was surprising but, in a way, comforting. I was expecting a wilderness, I think, the unknown, a place that I didn’t recognize. Instead, the recognition made Bogotá “known” — partially, but definitely not fully.
So, in some ways, my “remote workspace” was a place all along, at least for me. It’s the landscape I subconsciously made in my head of the view outside of everyone’s window. A view which, at least for now, is mostly a view of Bogotá.
That’s not to say that I know Bogotá. Of course, I don’t, that would probably take a lifetime for a city so large. But what I did have is a recognition of the place, despite having never previously been there myself. And that was surprising.
I had a group video call this morning, for a meeting that happens at the same time every week. And it felt different this time around.
Nothing, on the surface, had changed. Same meeting, same agenda, same format, same people from all over the world. But, still, it felt different to me. Like I knew my colleagues better like I knew a bit more about how they inhabit and interact with the world. And like they knew a bit more about me, too.
So, the “remote workspace”, the “Internet where I do my job”, the “landscape in my head” had changed. Like a place does.
Eh, probably not much on the surface. I’ll be back in South Africa soon, working in a different time zone, still writing, still on the smallholding, still waking up with the roosters. Still connected to the landscape. But now, the tie to my colleagues and to my work seems stronger somehow. Like it’s drawn in ink rather than pencil.
It’s perhaps fitting that my place of work can only be described through metaphors — a group of people getting together, a view through a window, a change in feeling, a line drawn in ink. The internet, and a remote workspace, is only a place through metaphor.
That doesn’t lessen its impact, though. If anything, remote working is an experiment in building bridges between physical places. Build those bridges strong enough, and keep communication channels open, and we’re all stronger together. Which sounds cheesy and contrite, but it’s true.
At Bunny Studio, we may not have the same physical workplace, and there’s always room for improvement, but we’ve built some pretty strong bridges. Like the one that currently stretches from rural South Africa to metropolitan Bogotá.
What does place mean to you? Let us know in the comments.
Oh, and guess what? We’re hiring! Want to work remotely, too? Check out our newest openings.
Please note this blog is a copy of the original published in Medium by Emmy Tither.