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Radically Remote: Physical Places in Digital Spaces 🏔️

Published: Sunday, May 24, 2020
Updated: Tuesday, May 26, 2020

This blog originally appeared here (with images): https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/radically-remote-physical-places-digital-spaces-joshua-%25EC%25A1%25B0%25EC%258A%2588%25EC%2595%2584-davies/?trackingId=qsYLqfvzQ7at1LmT34a3WA%3D%3D

We should be platform agnostic right? That’s what we’re supposed to say at least— that if we put learners at the center we can make any platform work.

That’s a lie we tell clients and tell ourselves. 

To be clear, good facilitators can maximize the potential of whatever ingredients you give them and deliver an experience that engages learners, but to pretend that all ingredients are the same is comparing the output of a 4-star chef with access to a full kitchen and support, to that same chef trying to make a meal out of refrigerator leftovers, They’ll probably make something edible, but it’s just not the same.

You can have great teachers in underpaid environments with crumbling infrastructure, and mediocre teachers given all the benefits of facilities and tech, but the latter is starting so much closer to the finish line than the former.

1. Why one tweak can change everything: how we went from marvelous to meh.


I had the chance to experiment with this: the same topic (persuasive presentations), the same demographics, the same client I have worked with for years, the same workshop flow.

In the first, the energy of the virtual room was palpable. 

In the second? It was, well, ok. But not the same— the platform constraints shaped whom learners allowed themselves to be in the space, and how they let themselves to show up and interact.

The difference? With the first we used Zoom, and the second (after security concerns at the client), was using WebEx Training, which is the virtual equivalent of a terribly run-down classroom. Participants could not see everyone (as there is no true gallery view), audio quality was spotty, breakout rooms were audio-only (encouraging attentional drift/multitasking), and half the time we lost sound when learners went to breakouts. My producer went to one breakout room and was amused to find his audio had stayed in the main room. Yes really.

Suffice it to say, the way we set up our learning space matters, a lot.

In-person communication resembles video conferencing about as much as a real blueberry muffin resembles a packaged blueberry muffin that contains not a single blueberry but artificial flavors, textures, and preservatives. You eat too many and you’re not going to feel very good. 
— Sheryl Brahnam

How can we stop bringing bad muffins? TL; DR: my overly prescriptive advice—

  1. Many of the video platforms currently being used don’t cut it. Your communication platform is not only the face of your brand to your clients and employees, but it also deeply, deeply impacts what is possible in the learning space. WebEx Training or Skype for Business won’t cut it: they don't allow facilitators to shape a space that maximizes psychological safety and collaboration. They. Just. Don't.
  2. Stop using security as an excuse: your WebEx isn’t secure either, and with version 5.0 Zoom is right up there with the best (or feel free to use Jitsi/BlueJeans). Get a better platform, or stop pretending to care about education. Fighting words, I know. 🔐
  3. While not strictly necessary (depending on what your training topic is), if you haven’t at least experimented with leveraging a virtual canvas like Miro or Mural (not the sub-par whiteboards all the platforms have built-in, though they can be used for short exercises), then you haven’t really begun to explore what is possible in a creating a space for real learning (FWIW: Zoom will soon be doing deep integrations with Miro— I'm super excited about this).
  4. Want to skip right to our experimental Miro canvas demo? Go right ahead (although it makes a whole lot more sense if you read to the bottom).

2. Why the spaces we shape virtually matter


“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” —Winston Churchill

Churchill was prescient: classroom studies have found that up to “75% of the variation in pupil performance can be explained by the built environment,” with the difference between “the best- and worst-designed classrooms” equaling a “full year’s worth of academic progress.” This thinking continues in corporate spaces with Baksaas, Telenor’s CEO, thinking of its offices “not as real estate but as a communication tool.” The learning spaces we shape influence and even to some extent define the kinds of conversations that take place in them. When are spaces encourage learners to be explorers, they explore: our virtual architecture defines a grammar of choice.

This is not too surprising: we've all experienced the difference in how a conversation changes when we are face to face, or walking side by side. The conversation takes on the character of the available interpersonal dynamics. A wall of eyes staring at us on the Zoom stage may not always be conducive to tracking meaning. Pictured above, a study by Steelcase on the impact of classroom shape on learner engagement.

So what does this mean in the virtual space? In his work, In Search of Architecture in Virtual Space, Or Ettlinger begins with a painting Breugel did of the Tower of Babel, and asks us: “Where is the Tower?”

He then goes on to expand on a number of possibilities, all equally valid in some way:

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  • It is in the picture.
  • It is in our head.
  • It is in Breugel’s imagination.

Ultimately, he concludes that as the “illusion of art is the perception of virtual space,” then "The Tower of Babel is in Virtual Space." Likewise, the virtual classroom is both in our head, on the screen, and in the imagination of our learners: together all three co-create a space. This is a complex and roundabout way for me to say, as we are creating virtual classroom spaces painted on 2-D computer monitors, we must contend with a myriad of spacial and mental factors to get our experiences to flow well, as virtual architecture is just as much a shaper of conversations as its physical counterpart. Ettlinger cites Gombrich (inn his book Art and Illusion), who wrote that "To make a painting is to make a possible visible world."

That's it then: to make a virtual learning space is to make a possible visible world. Let's do it right. Pictured below, more from a study by Steelcase on the impact of classroom shape on learner engagementChange the space, change the conversation.

3. Why we need to go beyond basic Zooming


Close your eyes and visualize your favorite place outside your home, one you can’t visit now. Yes, I know, odd to close your eyes while reading an article, but give it a go, just for a minute. Fill your brain with all those sensory details, and the emotions they connect to, and then come back here, to this small screen, to our window these days into the world. It's not quite the same to see the world through our glowing rectangles, and in some ways relying on Zoom alone makes it worse. To change the window, we need to break the window.

A. Screen fatigue is real but can be managed

Video can get quite tiring if we stick to its basic interactions even when using breakouts judiciously. This isn’t shocking: our brains weren’t meant to constantly be staring at so many, “having to engage in a “constant gaze” makes us uncomfortable — and tired (pro tip courtesy of Daniel Stillman— at a minimum turn off your self-view so you're not distracted by...you).” Writing in National Geographic, Julia Sklar concurs, noting,

Gallery view—where all meeting participants appear Brady Bunch-style—challenges the brain’s central vision, forcing it to decode so many people at once that no one comes through meaningfully, not even the speaker.

This is not to say it must be exhausting. Connie Malamed writes, “Our brain extends to the tools we use. We are inseparably linked to the experiences of having a body located in a 3D world.” When the only spaces on the screen are the ones offered by most platforms, the projection we create extended into it is easily tired. But if we instead shape a much different environment, the world into which we can project ourselves becomes very different. Likewise, we as facilitators need to consciously become so comfortable with our platforms and tools that they act as easy extensions of our own ideas in the moment: if the tech is stressing us out than it is hard for us to maintain the illusion of a seamless learning space. The world breaks down when we are uncomfortable navigating its waters.

B. We bring many assumptions to video conferencing

What do you carry with you into the Zoom? In addition to everything else going on in their lives, our learners carry what is likely years of experience having meetings via video conference. They carry a mental model that sees our workshops as “yet another meeting” or even worse, “yet another webinar.” Living in Seoul I always felt bad when visitors’ only experience of Korean food was at the bland tourist restaurants that line the shopping streets of Myeong-dong. So much better is possible, but it is up to us to break their expectations and prior experiences.

When you open the door to a space, does it give you permission to act differently other than to be behaviorally conditioned to ‘sit and sit’ or ‘stand and deliver’? If the space doesn’t give permission to change, then it’s too easy to revert back to what we know.
—Lennie Scott-Webber

4. What better virtual spaces can do

Think about what you want the learner experience to be and ask yourself:

  • How can we use the space to shape conversations?
  • How can we shape the space to build momentum
  • How can we use the space to give people permission to play?
  • How can we design for collaborative work and relationship building?

Virtual space brings possibilities, enabling us to:


  1. Shape behavior: as Jeremy Bailenson writes with regards to virtual games, “The Proteus effect, describes the phenomenon where people will change their in-game behavior based on how they think others expect them to behave.” A good friend of mine shared how her company's Friday cocktails were transformed in the move to virtual— previously people had cliqued up along predictable lines, but the shifting structure of breakouts created leveled the discussions, allowing for new social dynamics to come into play, and new relations to form. In a similar vein, a more introverted participant in a virtual design sprint shared that the digital shift made her finally feel able to gain voice share with her more extroverted colleagues.
  2. Create "opportunities for spontaneous conversation:" HBR's write up on Workplaces that Move People, looks at how a variety of structures in physical offices can impact interaction, and Rajiv Ayyangar (of Tandem) writes of similar intentionality with virtual space creation, that "To build psychological safety in remote teams, engineer opportunities for spontaneous conversation.” Below, HBR's space model.

 Seung Jin similarily echoes this in her research, extolling that we should,


Maximize the probability of chance encounters. The feelings of presence and flow are integral to users’ immersive and optimal experience in virtual environments. This helps generate the buzz that makes spaces come alive.

5. Suggested starting points

Getting started with going beyond basic can seem daunting. In my book Radically Remote, I wrote that “replication is just the beginning.” Steve Glaveski, in his model of remote work, classifies replication as level 2, and it’s the equivalent of traveling to a new country and placing yourself entirely in an expat enclave: only eating the food from where you came from, only speaking to people from where you came from, and never going out and seeing what new wonders exist, what new potential collaborations and experiences can be cooked up in this entirely new landscape. Much more is possible. Here are a few to start with (the first bullet point does not involve Miro/Mural, all the others are leveraging either of those platforms):

  • Explore other platform tools: this is not even necessarily to adopt them, but to explore how other systems and thoughts on virtual interaction work. A few examples include Wurkr/Sococo (two takes on the digital office place), Remo (where learners can move from table to table- see above) and Circles (where learners form a true listening circle):
  • Consciously give ownership to learners: the more you shift learner conversations to a virtual canvas, the more you reduce fatigue, focus ownership, and make visible the thinking. The temporary whiteboards built into platforms are small and with limited functionality. By using the larger space of a Miro/Mural canvas, we create a larger persistent space that allows learners to chart progress, as well as letting us peer into the working of many groups at the same time to provide just-in-time feedback. There is an incredible positive power of getting to see ideas form on the page. See below, sample structured Miro speech canvas, where learners build speeches piece by piece.
  • Be careful with transitions and structure: you're not bound to linear virtual rooms, but having some degree of order can help. As Erica Brett writes, "Forms and materials may no longer have the same functionality in virtual reality space, but they may still express certain behaviors and qualities through reference to their physical analogs." Make it simple to move, and for learners to know where they can go next. Smooth transitions are the difference between awkward and awesome— always anchor where you are going next to where you are coming from. The simplest example of this would be creating clickable links between different parts of your virtual canvas. See below how Isman Tanuri links each section back to a central "workshop table" agenda (the red box in the corner). Notice he also has the instructions for the activity listed to the side. Do this. :)
  • More is less is more: hunh? What I mean by this is, you'll lose learners when you introduce more tools and logins. The good news— canvas platforms do not require a login and allow you to embed tools with no extra login as well. Want to have a survey embedded to evaluate pair speeches? You can. No secondary logins, meaning it feels from the learners' view that they have only two tools— Zoom, and Miro/Mural.
  • Follow their footsteps: I met with a fellow facilitator today who said, "I loved your session...but there was definitely a moment where it felt like having how a VCR works explained to an alien." The learner journey is never as simple as the one who laid the paving stones believes it to be. Step back, and follow that path. How can you make it simpler? Ok, now make it 5X simpler than that. In Miro (or Mural) link everything. Let learners try a sample play canvas before getting into the session. That alone will save hours of frustration. Our goal: use everything we need in terms of tech to shape the space, but only what we need. No tech for tech's sake, but also not shying away from tech if it genuinely opens the conversation in meaningful ways. Ultimately, from the learners' view, we want to make the tech disappear— the less they feel the tech barrier, the more they feel the conversation.
  • Invite them to leave distractions behind: there are few worse things than going on a trip only to spend the whole time on the beach checking emails and sending messages. If you're going to be there, then be there. Going to a learning space is a journey we choose to take together, but to do so well, we need to know what to pack, what baggage to carry. This is not to say all distractions are bad— I'm all for the authenticity and humanity of the occasional interrupting pets and kids that announce "I'm human." But if we're multitasking in session, we've never really fully stepped into the space. A conscious, verbalized choice needs to be made by both facilitator and learners on how they want to show up, where they want to get to, and what they'll bring with them to make that happen. Pack light. Prepare for change.
  • Consider what kind of interactions you want to create: do you want to timebox everything and carefully structure each engagement (as would be great in some activities like a sprint), or do you want to let leaders move freely from learning station to learning station for a time? The latter can be accomplished by either leveraging the Zoom co-host trick introduced by Maljkovic in Fearless Experimentation, whereby learners can move freely from breakout to breakout. Alternatively, you can embed links to Jitsi rooms in a virtual canvas and let people move into them as they move through the learning space. Vary your breakouts at a minimum, as always doing the same groups of four does little to equalize voice share, as "each participant is using one audio stream and is aware of all the other voices, parallel conversations are impossible." What do you want public (visible to all learners) and what do you want private (visible just to the learner or their breakout group)? Quick tip: you can easily embed an AWW whiteboard in Miro, allowing a private space within a public space.
  • Design for the feeling you want to create: What sort of room do you want? Serious, playful? Do you want imagery or quotes on the wall? It's up to you. You can even check engagement continuously on a canvas as Sandy Lam does (see above) where learners are free to check-in and adjust the feeling any time. Sapna, et al, write
Work in psychology and education has demonstrated the importance of environmental features that we term the symbolic classroom. These symbols include wall décor and objects that are displayed in classrooms
  • Get away from the monitor: All my best ideas come in the shower, or on runs. I'm not suggesting you have delegates do either during a session, but find a way to get them away from the screen that goes beyond bio breaks.
  • Strategically turn the camera off: related to the last, recognize that while the camera is awesome, sometimes it is great to not be eye to eye. We'll at times ask partners to sit side by side in-camera, rather than face to face, or when doing fishbowl in plenary have non-actor learners turn off their cameras for a brief while. In our free moving breakout sessions, we'll even have a quiet room breakout if learners need a space to take a break (albeit not usually in a 90-minute session).

6. Bringing it all together: an example Miro Canvas


Let's meet here: https://miro.com/app/board/o9J_ksssOkw=/   Click to visit the sample canvas below. Note that editing is turned off, so some features are not available, but you can still visit rooms, including Jitsi video rooms.

So what do we have here? An experimental space to show just a tiny sample of the possible interactions one can create in a Miro campus, from structured dialogues to viewing rooms, and even collective dance parties. All rooms have their own video using Jitsi video pop-ups, but I could have also done the same by using the co-host trick. One advantage of doing it the cohost way: you can easily do a broadcast to all rooms or close them to bring them back. Also, the video quality is higher than Jitsi. One advantage of Jitsi: everything embedded in one place, and the real feeling of moving from space to space, because you need to click in each space to move into its video. Both are good options. I'll let you explore it on your own, but to share just a few of the features:

  • Shared and private space: The negotiation room has a mixture of spaces, allowing teams to break into separate video rooms to prepare and whiteboard (via embedded pop-up whiteboards) before coming together in a main video room.
  • Shared learning stations: The viewing rooms are an example of a shared learning station for learners to gather around content and discuss at their own pace.
  • And much more. Go play. 🧐

When looking at cities we often speak of the ‘genius loci,’ the spirit of the place, named after the literal Roman concept of a protective guardian spirit of a place, but in modern times more often used to refer to a location's distinct character. My question, and my challenge to you, is, what is the spirit of the place you are creating? We can take our tools for granted, getting by with the bare minimum and blaming shortfalls on tech. Or we can experiment, iterate, and explore, together.

I think we owe it to those in this moment to do something more, and I believe we have been handed the unique ability to do exactly that.

Let's.

Thanks for reading— Stay healthy & stay awesome. What's next? Come join us when we speak virtually at the ATD 2020 Virtual Conference on being Radically Remote. 👍

About the Author

Originally from Honolulu, Hawaii, Joshua Davies has spent the last 19 years working internationally, with the last 14 based in Asia. 

He heads up Knowmium.com, with the philosophy “We help those who do good, to do better.”

In his spare time he enjoys photography, and his pictures are at http://instagram.com/joshuawdavies

2 Comments
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I am really interested in viewing the sample canvas, unfortunately I am not seeing a link anywhere? Am I just missing it? Thanks!
Sorry about that Catina! I didn't realize it removed my images and links. The original is here: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/radically-remote-physical-places-digital-spaces-joshua-%25EC%25A1%25B0%25EC%258A%2588%25EC%2595%2584-davies/?trackingId=qsYLqfvzQ7at1LmT34a3WA%3D%3D
And the Miro is: https://miro.com/app/board/o9J_ksssOkw=/
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