The semiotics of Remote

Real world journalist Vs. desk-bound theorist

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Remote. Remote. Remote. Remote. Remote.

Barely an hour goes by where I don’t hear this word being uttered, read it on a Slack post or see it somewhere in my immediate vicinity. I’m so used to hearing it that I almost don’t hear it anymore. Does that make sense?

Recently though, I’ve started hearing it again. And listening. I mean really listening. And what I’m hearing has started to clarify some things in my mind.

This past year I’ve heard many different people’s experiences of their remote working lives. It’s disappointing, but not altogether surprising that a significant proportion of employers have serious reservations about allowing their staff to work remotely. Some reject the idea outright and others find obstacles to place in the way.

I’ve tried to unpack this the best I can, with the help of the Remotes that I’m travelling with and others I’ve met along the way, and I hear the same concerns raised again and again:

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As those who have followed my journey know, I’m currently 11 months into conducting a year-long ethnographical study into Digital Nomadism (working title: MyLifeAsADigitalNomad), and these are all themes that I’ll be reporting on in detail in 2018, so they are not going to be the focus of this piece, but what I do want to look at is what semiotic cues can be taken from the word Remote itself and how this can affect people’s perceptions and therefore their actions.


First off, here’s a snippet from the Oxford English Dictionary definition of Remote

Adjective: (of a place) situated far from the main centres of population; distant - Having very little connection with or relationship to.

 …and some synonyms from a brief Google search just to hammer the point home:

 Irrelevant to, unrelated to, unconnected to, unconcerned with, not pertinent to, inapposite to, immaterial to, unassociated with, inappropriate to.


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I think it’s fair to say that our residual definition of (and associations with) Remote sit at the core of people’s apprehension, and while there is positive evidence to show that the word is being used increasingly in our everyday lives, I feel that this is an issue that needs to be tackled head-on and I for one am willing to take up this gauntlet and run with it.

Before starting to write this piece, I sought the opinions of an experienced Semiotician who is a former colleague and current friend, and whose mind I admire greatly. He suggested that I “consider what the positive signifiers are of remoteness in the context of work, but what the negative associations are in terms of our cultural understanding…”, but in truth I struggled to find any historical references to the former.

On the whole, his thoughts and mine were pretty well aligned; “…the myths about slobbing around in pyjamas, not engaging fully with work, productivity dropping, too many (homely) distractions etc, and how we might signify pro-activity to offset that assumption with activity signifiers…. greater use of email to declare work in progress and checking in for reviews etc. The stuff we habitually do to make sure nobody thinks we’re slacking off.”

Interestingly, his immediate associations are around working from home, whereas mine are generally intertwined with travel; clearly a product of him being a dedicated partner and father living outside of London, and me being a little more footloose and fancy-free (and currently in Colombia)!

The issue as I see it is that these negative perceptions are barriers to individuals and employers considering remote work as a positive step forward. Not only does this create resistance to a movement that is growing in popularity and momentum, but it also holds people back from exploring their full potential and becoming their best selves.

My experience of living as a Digital Nomad fully contradicts the dominant/residual semiotic cues of Remote. Of course, every individual is different, but on the whole I see only good things coming from those who are free to live a more integrated work and personal life. A life full of richness, cultural immersion, flexibility, opportunity, gratitude and positivity. The world and how we connect with it and each other is changing, and that to me is exciting.

When all is said and done my friend and I agreed that it feels like there is a battle of opposing perceptions… one dominant/residual that focuses in on the negatives, and the other emergent/dominant that tries to articulate the positives. The challenge is that the negative signifiers are well established and understood, whilst the newer, less formalised positive signifiers are still evolving and coalescing to create a new set of semiotic codes. And so we are left with a question in our heads and in our hearts:


How do we neutralise the negative perceptions of ‘remoteness’ with powerful signifiers of ‘remote action’?


Generation Share

With thanks to Tim Spencer, Semiotician extraordinaire.

Life through kaleidoscope eyes

Perspectives.

Something we talk a lot about in the world of insight. Something I’ve come to consider more and more over the last 8+ months during my foray into digital nomadism.

For me, it comes back to an age-old maxim of the insight world; I mean, what researcher worth their salt can honestly say they haven’t written a slide with the header ‘Context is King’ or ‘Perception is Reality’ – and if not, why not?

The fact of the matter is that context IS king; people’s perceptions ARE their reality; and perspectives really DO matter.

I know that living and working in a city for a single month doesn’t mean I can consider myself a local by any stretch, maybe even calling it ‘living’ is a gross exaggeration; I don’t have to deal with bills, local authorities or plumbers, and making the effort to make new friends when I am travelling with a 50-strong community of remotes is more of a bonus than a necessity.

I feel the most immersed in a city when I bring structure into my daily life. Navigating local ‘green markets’ to find the freshest and best value vegetables, getting laundry done, attending a local yoga class and becoming a recognised face in a favourite coffee shop or workspace. All these things expose you to parts of local culture that I haven’t experienced when I’ve travelled exclusively for leisure or business. They give you a different perspective on the place and the people.

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This shaded digital street display shows Valencia at a balmy 28...

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...but just moments later, and only a street away, it's a sizzling 34! It's all a matter of perspective.

These are also the things that have been making me stop and reflect on research I’ve conducted in the past - and the nuances I may have missed by not having seen things from the ground, up.

“A lot of people in our industry haven't had very diverse experiences. So they don't have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one's understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.” 
Steve Jobs

A timely example: a few years back I worked on a qualitative study for a brand looking to fill a potential gap in the hot drinks market. I’d never heard of Yerba Mate at the time – and certainly had never tried it. I understood from the dialogue that it was a very popular drink in Argentina and some other parts of South America. I had an idea of how it was served and that it tasted bitter – a little bit like strong green tea. What I didn’t know, however, was that Mate is much more than just a drink – it’s a ritual, it’s a way of forming and strengthening social bonds, it’s about sharing, and it’s an obsession! Having now dabbled, myself, over the last couple of months, I can see how it brings people together – regardless of age, gender, social standing or otherwise and this is something the Argentinian people are very proud of. Such is the obsession with Mate in Argentina, there are even signs on roads and trekking paths prohibiting its consumption whilst driving or walking. Why? Because it is drunk through a metal straw and as such a Mate straw through the eye is one of the most common causes of injury in the country!

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Grant tops up his beloved 'mate'

Lima, Peru

 

If you think a brand new drink product has the potential to replace such a well-loved national treasure, think again!

It’s true to say that this lifestyle is giving me the gift of perspective, which I will gladly accept and carry with me, always.

Making sense of a new world

“You’ll never understand anything unless you adjust your frame” (Orphan Black)

It’s taken me a while to get this blog going, but not because I didn’t know where to start. I’ve known exactly what the theme of this first post would be since the moment I announced - heart racing - what I was planning to do with 2017. When I told of my plans, pretty quickly every conversation took a similar turn:

‘Wow, you’re going travelling for a year… I’m so jealous!’

‘You’re going on massive holiday…’

‘Will you be getting a job in each place?’

Um… not exactly, no…

To be specific, I’m living in a different city each month for a year, but continuing my work as if I was still based in London (kind of); a lifestyle that’s been neatly coined ‘Digital Nomadism’. It’s true; I am officially a digital nomad. I’ll be working, yes, but it won’t be 9-5. I’ll have an office, but it might not have desks as we know them. I’ll be exploring the world and immersing myself in local cultures, but not in a break-from-life kind of way. Digital Nomadism is a genuine and viable way of mixing up life and work into one big bowl and baking a beautiful marble cake (mash-up) rather than traditionally switching from one to the other.

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Wayco co-working space

alencia, Spain

No matter how clearly and succinctly I tried to put it to those who enquired, I could tell that most times I misfired. Turns out it’s almost incomprehensible for many, and I realise how condescending that could sound, but I truly don’t mean it that way.

If it comes across as though I’m putting myself on a pedestal to demonstrate to you that I am a pioneer; an innovator; ahead of the crowd, that’s not my intention, although I wouldn’t blame you if that is your impression. It’s merely a timely segue into presenting the idea that our minds have become programmed to work in a certain way in order to understand the world around us… to make sense of it.

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Soho Co-working Space

Sofia, Bulgaria

When I started working in the late 90’s this type of lifestyle was unheard of, not least because our access to the internet did not extend much beyond email / browsing and the odd purchase from ASOS. Our desks were fixed, as were our working hours (except when we were expected to do unpaid overtime), we worked on desktops not laptops, and had landlines rather than mobile phones. In all senses of the word, we were ‘attached’ to our carbon-copy offices. Holidays were set to 20 or 25 days a year  and booked at least a few months in advance to avoid ever being off at the same time as one of your team members. Perish the thought.

But times they are a-changing. And society as we know it is being forced to evolve. It is now viable for people to travel, work and live in a truly integrated way. And it’s not just a lifestyle that applies to software developers or web designers. No. Our community of 5o digital nomads includes (but is not limited to) product designers, writers, PR consultants, recruiters, graphic designers, film producers, business owners, marketers, social media experts, life coaches, and of course, a generous helping of coders.

We live, travel and work side-by-side, and with all of the logistics taken care of we are able to focus on our work in much the same way as if we were sitting in our homes or offices. In fact, in a lot of ways were are able to be much more productive – but that’s something I want to explore in more detail, later.

Back to the point though – even though I am 5 months in, I still struggle to find the language to use to describe this life and all that comes with it.

At dinner tonight my friend Michelle; a product and packaging designer from Australia, was telling me about a new type of beauty product she had been asked to design by her client and it reminded me of a perfect analogy for this post - and something I have been faced with many times in my work in consumer insight: When presented with a scenario or a set of cultural codes that don’t fit neatly into the binary language we create for ourselves, we struggle to know what to do with them.

A few years back I conducted research for the first 'In-shower body conditioner' for a global health and beauty brand which will remain nameless. It was a product designed to cut the time and hassle of post-shower body-moisturising. One applies the product in the shower after washing, waits a few moments and washes it off. Simple. But because it was a totally new category people just didn't know what to do with it, where to look for it in a shop or how to talk about it. If you put it in the body wash aisle, people used it as a shower gel. If you put it in the body lotion aisle, people used it as a lotion (and forgot to wash it off). So the brand was challenged with educating its target audience on a whole new product category from the bottom, up, in order to make sense of it. 

That's kind of how I feel about what I'm doing.