Mu-An Chiou


In 2019, I was living in Brooklyn, New York, in a studio apartment above a bookstore in Fort Greene.

On most days, I worked from home, where there was a barely ergonomic setup—I sat on a stool with my back against a wall, my laptop placed atop a stack of books, and a mechanical keyboard (also on a book platform at times, for standing) on a IKEA MELLTORP table.

Aforementioned table

On those days, I woke up and moved myself in front of the laptop, with an occasional coffee break to Coffee Project not far from me. When the work day ended, I moved onto a bean bag between my bed and TV to play Overwatch or Apex Legends with my co-workers in Denver or Seattle (depending on which day of the week it was).

I had been working remotely for 8 years at that time, and I was really productive this way. I liked the long stretches of alone time, and enjoyed taking the time to make a proper lunch at home.

Every now and then though, I did crave seeing faces and felt the need to recharge my social meters. A single recharge could usually last me a few weeks. I had three options back then: I could go to Brooklyn JS, I could arrange a co-working day with a friend, or I could go to the GitHub co-working space in Prospect Heights.

Brooklyn JS was held monthly at a bar called 61 Local (rest in peace). During the day there was Boroughgramming, where people go to the venue to co-work ahead of the meetup. Everyone would introduce themselves, and briefly talk about what they’re working on for the day, and if they’d like any help. Since the event self-selected a group of JavaScript enthusiasts, it was not unusual to hear people working on something I was also interested in; even though, being me, I didn’t really talk to strangers. To me, it was simply nice to be in the company of like-minded nerds.

Co-working days with friends usually followed this schedule: 10am we meet at a coffee shop, 12pm we go to lunch, then walk (ideally through a park) to one of our apartments to continue working, 6pm we call it a day. On those days we tended to use the chance to complain about our respective problems at work and commiserate.

The GitHub co-working space at the time was just a bare room with 10 seats. The commute from my apartment to the space was a 15-minute walk down Flatbush Avenue, which was not exactly a pleasant route; nevertheless, I remember always being excited to head to the space.

At the co-working space there were a few regulars, made up of folks who either lived close to the space, or were on the GitHub native apps team. There was a ramen joint close by that we all liked, a pie place next door, and a friendly coffee shop around the corner with pink neon signs. The co-working space didn’t provide much, but during that time, they always had a communal puzzle game which was sometimes the reason why I wanted to head in.

An incomplete puzzle featuring a bunch of donuts

The GitHubbers who went to the co-working space regularly weren't people I worked with day-to-day, but I was really happy that the shared physical space provided an opportunity for us to get to know each other. Through watercooler chats, occasional coffee runs, and serendipitous lunch get-togethers, we, scattered across a few different departments, could discuss anything from our personal lives to the latest reorg and all the drama involved.

I also remember fondly having run-ins with fellow puzzle lovers from other offices in the co-working space, who, like me, probably were taking too many breaks to do the puzzle, as well as that group of folks who’d always smile and nod in the hallway, and seemed to have the most fun working together.

This good time didn't last though. 2020 came. As COVID arrived in New York, all of these options came to a stop. Initially I thought I’d be fine, being a hermit and all, but it quickly started to take a toll on me. I didn’t need daily face-to-face human interactions, but those far and infrequent recharge days were critical to my mental well-being, as I later found.

Amongst all the things that were happening at the time, the lack of humans in proximity was detrimental and certainly exacerbated the downward spiral of everything. I quit GitHub in October 2020, and moved back to Taiwan.

Fast forward to the present day. I live in Taipei, and once again work remotely with the majority of my team in North America. We don’t have a co-working space here, since I’m the only person in Taiwan. I don’t have remote worker friends who live close enough to co-work with. And there isn’t a community meetup like Boroughgramming. Needless to say, I am also not playing video games with my North American friends anymore due to time zone differences and the terrible lag.

Without any of the support systems I was used to, I found myself falling back into the 2020 mental space, and was desperate to find some ways to socially recharge periodically during my work days.

I talked to a bunch of friends, tweeted about my conundrum, and talked to some more friends. Then I finally gathered that, through a process of elimination, what I really miss was working in the presence of people with whom I share some sort of connection.

Live streaming doesn’t work for me because it’s a one-way presence. Chat rooms don’t work for me because to be present you need to talk. Persisting video calls in the background don’t work for me because it’s a constant intrusion of personal ambience, and chatting without prompt not only has a higher barrier of entry, but also comes with risks of unwanted interruptions.

To me, presences could be of the like-minded strangers who attended Brooklyn JS, the familiar faces from the office next door, or my friends and co-workers. With those, I could feel like I had people to potentially reach out to when I get stuck, it’d provide opportunities for serendipitous socialization, and there would be some sort of progress occurring throughout the day; but I’d argue most important of all, it’d serve as a reminder that I was not all alone.

Then, I made this list of things that could represent presence in a virtual setting, but without the aforementioned drawbacks from common solutions, inspired by the various types of in-person co-working experiences I had when living in New York:

Over the last week, I(UTC+8) tested this out with @jlord (UTC+1), and @risacan (UTC+9), and it worked like a charm.

@jlord and I tried out a few different solutions, and in the end we found FigJam to be the most suitable. It allows for creative freedom, but not too much. The canvas is neutral and non-opinionated. It provides enough basic tooling so things can be put together without much effort. And, it has a whole suite of widgets built by the community, from games to productivity tools.

The following is the instruction I wrote in our FigJam file:

To start your day:

  • Create "a desk" by drawing a section and name it “#{your name}’s desk (YYYY/MM/DD)”.
  • On your desk, post a picture of you or your workspace from today!
  • Press C to leave a comment on your photo, with a note about your day. For example: “50 meetings today, fml” or “more browser bugs, fun!”

Throughout your day:

  • Leave stuff on your desk as you work. They could be work relevant links, screenshots from your meetings, music you are listening to, or fun tweets you came across. Optionally, add a comment by the item so people can respond to your thoughts.
  • Want to take a break? Draw an arrow to the "on break" sign to signal to people that you might be up for a short chat. Optionally, add an explanation like "lunch time" or "getting more coffee".
  • See something interesting on someone’s desk? leave a comment by pressing C.
  • Aside from comments, please don’t leave other things on people’s desks.

To clock out for the day:

  • Optionally, right click on your desk and “Export selection” to keep a record.
  • Don’t clear your desk! While we are still experimenting it’s nice to keep a record of things. Hide your desk by selecting the section, and press cmd + shift + H.
  • Hope to see you tomorrow!

When I floated this idea with @risacan initially, she told me she's generally happy working from home, but was open to trying something new. The first day went well, so on the second day, I messaged @risacan in the morning: "If you're interested in joining again (no pressure at all!), the URL is the same." and she responded with "I joined before I saw your message!"

Immediately, this FigJam file we aptly named "Presence!" changed our work day behaviors. For me personally, simply starting the day from Presence made such a big difference. I now care to make myself presentable in the morning in order to take a picture to put on the desk. This routine gave me a reason to care and lifted my spirit. And the Presence tab became a place that I simply "hang out in" during work hours. Instead of scrolling through my phone mindlessly, I'd switch to the tab whenever I was waiting for a test to run, a deployment to finish, or simply want to distract myself from work. When I am in Presence, I look to see if there's anything I can put on my virtual desk, check out what @risacan has been working on, respond to her comments, or play the music she shared.

Before Presence, @risacan and I talked on Instagram every now and then, with our life updates limited to the stories we posted. But in the last week, I've learned about her joining a new team, the new tech stack she's getting into, the music she's been listening to, and many more fun facts. If we were sharing a physical space, these are things I would have learned, through chit-chats. And now it's happening again, thanks to Presence.

Here are some screenshots of our desks, with secrets redacted:

Presece desks on June 30th. Mu-An's desk featured a link to Deno Deploy, a link to HTTP 203, a coworker's coffee recipe, two YouTube videos one titled 'did you just say classical music is boring?' and 'Buther Brown: Tiny Desk (Home) Concert', screenshots of GitHub comments, and lunch details. Jlord'd desk featured a YouTube video of Danish String Quartet, a photo of her mokapot on stove, a dictionary lookup for the world 'monotonous' captioned 'Life before Presence'. Risa's desk featured a few sticky notes detailing her work day happenings, a link to Google Cloud documentation, a link to sailorhg's tweet, and a YouTube video titled 'Mixed Nuts'.

Presence desks on July 4th. Risa's desk featured a picture of her lunch and its recipe, a YouTube video to a Japanese rap group performance, a link to a brand of artisanl gins, and other notes about the work day. Mu-An's desk featured a todo list that is all checked, a picture of ice coffee pretending to be whisky, a tweet from FakeUnicode, and a few GIFs.

Presence desks on July 1st. Risa's desk featured a YouTube video of Huncy Gray (sick bass lines), a link to her favorite podcast, notes about her feelings about work today, and her afternoon snack. Mu-An's desk featured a GIF of her 6am meeting, chat log between coworkers, a note about her sporadic work hours for the day, a tweet by @lcasdev, a picture of a Minecraft monster spawner, YouTube videos of Les Enfant du Paradis by World's End Girlfriends and Postman by Toro y Moi, a Google answer for what snail mail means, a link to a GitHub pull request whatwg/html#7829, and a todo list.

Here's what @risacan said about Presence:

I love the system! You can hang out with friends sync/async. And yes, it feels more productive than scrolling the twitter feed! I love starting the day with setting up the desk. It is like a nice ritual to start a day.

It is just so fun to see what others (mainly muan) are doing! ♥ and play with the widgets when we are at Presence at the same time!

Here's what @jlord said about Presence:

I love starting the day with something easy, creative and fun!

It’s more interesting to see what links and artefacts friends have left behind than scrolling Twitter endlessly. And it’s more fun to share this way, too, without the gloom and doom of the timeline.

I decided to write this post after just two days using this setup, because I was so excited about how it has changed how I feel about working alone from home with so little effort.

Going forward, I see few reasons why a file/space like this can't be opened up to more people. Obviously FigJam wasn't built for this, and this space does require everyone to respect others' virtual boundaries (sections), which could be a bit of a wildcard on the internet. But with a group of trusted people? I can't wait to send out invites.

This mechanism is definitely still limited by time zones, which was why it occurred to me to reach out to @risacan, instead of just using it with @jlord to start with. On some days I do shift my hours later and will have more overlap with London, where @jlord is. But imagine the possibilities–a space like this can be shared by friends spanning across all continents!

And with that, I've shared with you all my findings so far. If you have ever felt alone and isolated working from home, I highly recommend trying this setup with a friend or two.

P.S. Many thanks to @jlord, @risacan, and @gjtorikian.

@risacan and I highfiving in FigJam (hold H to highfive)

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