The Distributed Workplace

Mark Frein

I’m Mark, and I work at InVision, one of the largest all-remote/distributed workplaces in the world. In the last few years, remote organizations have sprung up across the startup technology landscape. When I joined InVision just over 2 years ago, “all remote” or “officeless” workplaces still raised eyebrows. Some of my peers were skeptical about the ability to grow a healthy organization at scale without a physical plant of some kind. Now, companies such as InVision, Automattic, Gitlab, HashiCorp, Zapier and others are growing and thriving all or largely remote. A workplace experiment that very recently was met with intense skepticism is quickly becoming trendy and attractive for increasing numbers of workers.

At InVision, we consider ourselves a “pure” distributed organization in that almost 1000 human beings (InVisioners) work from their homes or temporary work spaces. There is something powerful about the cultural fact that everyone, from CEO to newest and most junior team member has both the opportunity and challenge of choosing and designing their best place to work. Through most of the average workday, we are peering into each other’s homes.

Photo by Steve Halama on Unsplash

I’m asked to help founders of new startups contemplate how to make all-remote effective. The first caveat I note is that everyone is still figuring this out. There is no playbook. The word sensei is useful here in its literal translation of “one who comes before”. To the extent we at InVision can teach anything useful about embarking on an all-remote workplace journey, it is simply because we have walked the path longer and in many ways, found the potholes by stepping in them first and making mistakes.

The tips I give include appropriate use of technology, emphasis on relational communication skills and empathy/EQ for leaders, and attitudes for how people show up with one another on a daily basis. Essentially, all of these are the personal practices of remote work. Some powerful technology platforms (e.g., Zoom, Slack) are both enabling remote’s rise and also rising with the increasing use of remote work. We are still adapting to using these tools efficiently and effectively.

What I’ve come to see, recently, is that the best way to understand how to be successful in remote work is to understand its history and antecedents. What appears as something very new to the work world (at least in its current forms and expressions) is perhaps not as new as we might think on first blush. In some areas of life — in addition to work — we’ve been developing the personal practices of “remote” for some time. There are deep clues to mine in how people have adapted to a wide range of remote behaviors. After all, we were learning to be remote with the buzz of the modem connecting us to AOL.com.

When I think about my own remote work/life journey, I think of a number of key episodes over the years I’ve been working, living, and playing. There is more than meets the first glance on what sorts of life experiences equip one for remote work (I want to thank Kevin Fishner from HashiCorp for helping me see this).

In grad school, in the mid 90s, I was the teaching assistant for an ethics course offered by a major university in Canada for a group of public school teachers in a rural town many hours drive away. The town was often socked-in with snowfall in the winter and flying or driving often impractical. We used very early video technology to cast into a room at the local school on what must then have been comparably low bandwidth by today’s standards. My job was to do group and 1:1 meetings with the students between the bi-weekly video courses and moderate a discussion board. I can remember focusing on the other person’s voice, across the telephone lines, trying to help them tease through the always-tough practical and moral issues involved in schooling children. Listening. Resonating. Asking questions. Occasionally, offering points of view. We learned together. Sometimes I was teacher, sometimes student.

Photo by Lorenzo Herrera on Unsplash

In the early 2000s, I jumped into the MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing) gaming world. I had been a computer gamer since the Commodore 64 and Atari and a pen-and-paper gamer since first edition Dungeons and Dragons. World of Warcraft and other early games were thrilling (and additive!). I met other players and even made friends with people that I never knew beyond screen names such as “Urk” or “Bladesong”. We played together and solved problems together. That meant doing things together like exploring dungeons and strategizing how to defeat monsters. It also meant just talking (typing) about a wide variety of things from the craft of the game itself to personal lives. Yet, it was real collaborative work at-a-distance.

Five years ago, I was working for a startup headquartered in NYC. That company had multiple physical sites. We were just experimenting and getting used to — sometimes flailing with — the myriad of options for video-based meetings and work chat. Slack was still being born out of a tool for online gaming. I remember things being hard. Frustrating at times. It was the dawn of the now powerful remote platforms available with a largely inadequate porting of personal/consumer-based approaches combined with exceptionally hardware intensive and expensive solutions for enterprises. We struggled together and laughed about the technical problems and inconsistencies (which, to be fair, we still do about our better platforms from time-to-time).

Around the same time, I began a music project with a few friends that would result in the composition of an album, all done remote. We created the songs using Soundcloud and largely worked asynchronously until meeting in NYC one day for a first rehearsal of our material. After almost a year of “remote” collaboration, it was a glorious and enlivening moment to play through the song list live for a first time. Later, we recorded the songs into an album. We created together.

Now, equipped with increasingly advanced tools for remote work, in the late 20teens, things feel very different and yet the same. Opportunities to play together online are technologically marvelous, and online gaming has become a serious spectator sport (players on screens with other players on screens being watched through screens).

One can use technology to mediate all stages of an employment journey, and the fidelity of that technology (especially video) and our comfort with it has become second nature. What has not changed despite the sophistication of tools to collaborate at-a-distance is the fact that it is not the technology but the behaviors that create meaningful work/play experiences.

It is said that the distributed workplace is impersonal. It is hard to imagine a more awkward adjective than “personal” to describe the standard office building of the last 50 years. We took great pains to experiment within the confines of the “office” — knocking down walls for open offices, adding design flair, creating play-spaces and break rooms. Yet, while design can greatly inform the experience of a space, an impersonal human environment is impersonal by virtue of human interactions. Some of the most personal and lived-in feeling office environments I’ve walked into in my career were not at all well-designed for work. And some of the most appealing physical workplaces have left me feeling empty.

Ultimately, what personalizes any workplace is “humanness”. It is as simple as one of my direct reports reminding me to say “good morning” when I Slack her for the first time in a day. ☕

Distributed workplaces will not be an “answer” to workplace woes. There will be dreary and sad distributed workplaces and engaged and alive ones, all due to the cultural experience of those virtual communities. The key to unlocking great distributed work is, quite simply, the key to unlocking great human relationships — struggling together in positive ways, learning together, playing together, experiencing together, creating together, being emotional together, and solving problems together. We’ve actually been experimenting with all these forms of life remote for at least 20 years at massive scales.

I still play D&D and use a technology platform to game with friends across the United States and Canada. We enjoy playing the game, but the game is fundamentally an occasion and vehicle to stay friends at-a-distance. When a number of us got together in person recently — which happens maybe once or twice a year — it was a different and wonderful experience and we commented as such. Perhaps at some point, distributed work and play will fully replace the human need for physicality. Not yet, maybe not as long as we have bodies.

Having an HD-video experience with my family members is significantly better than it was 10 years ago (and significantly more emotionally fulfilling). It is an entire step-function better than a phone call. But a phone call was always good if the conversation was good. I grew up on phone calls with my teenage friends. Whether the awkward intimacy of early dating or just staying in touch with a friend that moved away, it was fine for what it was. And, when I reflect on it, maybe I was often more connected because maybe I had to listen more intentionally.

The rise of distributed work still feels new. There will be breakthrough success stories of distributed companies that are noted to be “in spite of” the model or overcoming it. There will be distributed companies that struggle and fail and the fingers will point to the model.

Distributed work was inevitable given the internet. It is a wave that is building now and will continue to build in the coming years. It is not a fad. Just like “surfing the web” was never a fad … could never have been a fad even some thought it was at the time. Our tools change us and in some cases create permanent changes in who we are, as human beings. I will guess that in 20 years, more people in technology-intensive industries will be working at least partially if not wholly distributed than working in traditional office buildings. We will be more used to these realities, but we will still encounter the same troubles. There will be a darkly comic movie called Virtual Work Space or NoWhereWork that lampoons all the norms of the distributed workplace and ends with the same scene as that of Office Space — someone happy just to be doing something meaningful with people s/he enjoys. Our generation has its physical office satires, and the distributed workspace will get its own (probably sooner than later).

The mega-corporation is a common trope in science fiction. Up until very recently it is most often represented as physical — embodied and typically implicity indicted as authoritarian — in massive buildings, arcologies. Science fiction authors have tended to anchor on this physical representation of the evolution of workplaces: bigger, impersonal, tomblike and imprisoning. That was the future-fear of imaginations of the present workplace. The mega-corporations of the future will be shown with images of everyone in a particular coffee shop or everyone at some lovely beachfront resort typing away, working for the same virtual behemoth organization.

The internet has unlocked many things for us as a species. For some it is Pandora’s Box, holding the promise of everything but when opened, it is full of curses. Technology can oppress, alienate, and distance. It can also allow me to live my life with greater freedom. In remote workplaces, we joke about the attractiveness of not having to commute. I actually like to drive and find it relaxing in the right circumstances. But that’s when I’m going someplace I want to be or exploring. The long commute is often symbolic of pointlessness, isolation and frustration. Which, in turn, is really about the experience people have in many workplace environments, on account of inhuman and depersonalized cultures.

Remote work, when it is good, allows us to connect more deeply because, ironically, there is less in the way. There is quite literally enhanced opportunity to be truly connected, despite the physical distances. But we have to work hard at it. Everyone who works remote is still learning the skills and personal practices. I would argue that the most important skills are, and will continue to be, the practices of being together with other people.

Mark Frein, Working the Connected Virtuality

Thanks to Kendra Ferraro

Mark Frein

Written by

Failed Philosopher, Musician, HR/Startup Executive, Game Enthusiast, Imaginarian

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade