Having presence, being present ...

As another year draws to a close, I find myself reflecting on the experience of the 12 months just gone and what could be learned for the year ahead. One of the features of the past year was how my interactions with colleagues, friends, and family transitioned from being mostly online to a ‘hybrid’ mode of engagement. My experience of hybrid varied from alternating between online and in-person interactions with people, to attending gatherings where there were a mixture of online and in-person participants. 

The different activities I was involved in over the year highlighted the different ways in which having presence and being present play a more significant role in our interactions that the modality of the engagements themselves. Here I am distinguishing different types of hybrid interaction by considering the dimensions of time and space. Sometimes an interaction is hybrid because it depends on people being together at the same time, but distributed in different places (some co-located, others online). At other times, an interaction is hybrid because it takes place in the same (online) space, but is distributed over time. 

Having presence

The milestones I reached over the past year included helping PhD students complete and submit their theses. In one of these cases, it was clear that being able to interact with presence - where we shared time and space - was critical to resolving some of the challenges that needed to be overcome. By meeting in-person, we were able to have a collaborative discussion at a whiteboard and map out different aspects of the research that then made it easier for the work to be written up in the thesis. 

This example highlights the importance of context when thinking about how to work effectively in a hybrid environment. In an article titled “How to do hybrid right” for the Harvard Business Review, Professor Lynda Gratton of the London Business School, highlights the need to focus on individual human concerns, particularly thinking about the nature of our work from the perspective of the tasks to be completed, individual preferences, project workflows, as well inclusion and fairness.

This latter aspect of inclusion and fairness is important to consider as online meetings can often enhance equitable presence. This is because it allows for presence in an interaction to manifest without being constrained by the place where people are located. It can also make it easier for individuals to be noticed and be invited to contribute to the discussion by using the digital affordances provided by online meeting technologies - such as the now ubiquitous raising of a ‘digital hand’.

Thinking how the nature of our work and individual preferences relate to the need for having presence is also an important consideration for deciding on the modality of interaction. Some work needs a lot of coordination - and therefore depends on synchronous interaction at agreed times but people can be based at a place of their preference. Other types of work require more intensive cooperation, and therefore it is more important to bring people together - such as was the case for the PhD student I was working with.

Sometimes, it is necessary to have a proxy for people in a hybrid interaction - for example, in a meeting that involves some people online but others in the room, it can be helpful for there to be ‘co-chairs’, one online and another in the room who explicitly communicate with each other to give others presence in the interaction. For example, the ‘in-room chair’ can make sure that any physical hands raised in the room are noticed and drawn into the discussion, while also making sure to ask the ‘online chair’ to bring remote participants into the conversation. 

Thinking carefully about the presence of people in the activity is important to ensure everyone is involved in an appropriate manner.

Being present

It is not necessarily the case that having presence - i.e. occupying a shared time and place - means that we are present.  There have been many occasions where my mind has drifted during a conversation, irrespective of whether I was physically co-located with others or joined a meeting online.  However, being present is more about active listening and mindful attention to the moment, rather than being determined by the modality of the interaction. This means removing and reducing the sources of distraction and taking the time to respond to what is being said by others.

The ability to be present has been important to several aspects of my work over the past year - for example, as a mentor to colleagues and students involved in the Sustainable Education Foundation’s ScholarX programme. It has also been crucial to conversations I have had as a mental health first aider.  While I find it is easier to avoid distractions when physically co-located, this is not always possible in a hybrid working environment. My approach for compensating in online interactions is to try and replicate the conditions of having shared presence as much as possible - for example, by using my video camera, maximising the window showing the people I am talking to, and (if the conversation has been planned in advance) switching off notifications or shutting down applications that might demand my attention.

For me, another important support for being present is to establish a regular practice of mindfulness meditation. To this end, I am very grateful for the Mindfulness for Beginners programme organised by the Nissarana Vanaya Forest Monastery in Sri Lanka. While I haven’t been able to attend every weekly session, the recordings and regular guidance has been invaluable in helping me maintain my mindfulness practice.

Looking ahead to 2023, working across time and place is going to be an ongoing feature of our lives. I hope to continue to strive to make it effective for myself and others by enabling everyone to have presence, and be present!

Title Image by John Hain from Pixabay


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