What happened when I tried virtual coworking. | #android | #security

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I showed up for my first “Flow sesh” feeling sluggish. It was 6 p.m. on a Monday, and I had promised myself I was going to use the time to try to make headway on a writing project I had been putting off all day. But I was also pretty skeptical.

Flow Club, a platform for virtual coworking sessions, promises to allow members to “Feel good getting work done.” What’s not to love? But the company also markets itself as a “Peloton for coworking” and a “space where people work in high-intensity sprints designed to double their productivity.” These last two phrases (sprints and Pelotons?!) felt a little too Silicon Valley for me, and like all deeply disenchanted millennials, I’m inclined to cringe at the “optimize everything” mindset in labor systems ultimately designed to spit us all out.

And yet, as much as I wish I didn’t, I still crave optimization and hyper-productivity. And so, there I was, logged into the Flow Club platform with eight temporary co-workers, ready for an hour of on-camera work.

We began with five minutes of introductions, in which each person explained their goal for the session: grading papers, writing grants and proposals, responding to Slack, editing websites and slide decks. Others were there to “talk to a friend”; eat dinner, snack on a banana, or drink a juice; or even rack up Fitbit steps.

After introductions, the session’s host started some background music, everyone turned off their microphones, and we got busy. Most people left their cameras on, which, the company says, is “important in setting the context and creating an energetic environment.” Fifty minutes passed, and a gong sound rang through the speakers, letting us know it was time to regroup. Over five minutes, we shared our progress, which many people had also registered on shared checklists that popped up over their video boxes. Upon leaving the session, we were brought to a survey that asked us to rate how “in the flow” we were and prompted us to send a thank-you note to our host, who, the platform reminded us, was a volunteer.

I left the session pleasantly surprised and (dare I say!) fulfilled. I accomplished more than I had expected, and I felt a strange sense of connection. I signed up for six more sessions over the next week.

One of my biggest challenges working remotely has been the need to “perform” work. Performing work (and by extension, productivity) is very easy in-person: Your coworkers (and your boss) can see how early you show up, how purposefully you type, how selflessly you eat lunch at your desk. With remote work, though, the parameters change. Performing productivity is more complex—is it how many emails you send? When you’re online? How many projects you advance or Zoom calls you connect to?

(Some people may be thinking here, why the focus on performing? Why not focus on the end product, rather than impressing people along the way? And to them, I would say, Congratulations. Most of us haven’t done enough therapy to get there yet, and/or don’t live in work environments that allow us to.)

Part of the attractiveness of physical coworking spaces or coffee shops is that they themselves are a stage. Others are performing work and create the space for you to do so as well. In performing, there is some sort of accountability. Do you really want to look at your phone again? Would you really feel good knowing the person who walked behind you saw your open Facebook tab? People talk about the common energy in these spaces, and the desire to perform productivity is a driving force behind that energy.

This, in my experience, was one of the most powerful parts of Flow Club. There you were, on camera, with no alternative but to look at least as productive as the tech founder with seven items on her shared to-do list. And the line between looking and being productive is surprisingly thin.

Flow Club offers a free two-week trial, after which it costs $400 a year. The platform, which has raised $5 million in funding, opened to users in early April.

Flow Club, it’s important to point out, is not without privacy and security concerns. As Jonny Evans wrote in Computerworld, “In essence, it takes a very private and creative time—productive time—places a boundary around it and transforms it into a data experience that is (unless you switch the video off) captured on camera.”

Ricky Yean, the co-founder and CEO of Flow Club, told me via email that the platform employs standard technical practices like SSL to protect user security. Flow Club uses Daily.co to provide its video infrastructure, which also tracks how long someone is in a session or if there were connectivity or other technical issues. That data, Yean said, is stored for 21 days and used for “debugging purposes only.” Data such as how many sessions a user has attended and the tasks they input and accomplish is stored and shared in the user’s profile, but cannot be accessed by third parties, according to Yean. The company does not record sessions, and Yean said they worked to “foster a respectful community overall,” using a sort of opt-in model—users can be as specific or vague as they wish about their tasks, and are able to choose whether to publicly share info like their last names, employers, or cities.

Flow Club is not alone in its mission to make work, and particularly remote work, more productive and, in a way, more social. There is Teamflow, Flown, and Focusmate, to name a few. They all capitalize on a sentiment that was aptly described by Focusmate’s founder, Taylor Jacobson, upon explaining why he created his company: “Big dreams and bold career moves have always come easy. … The real battle was holding myself accountable to follow through. At times, I sank into prolonged bouts of shame over my lack of progress. I wrestled with fear and anxiety that I would never learn, improve, or achieve my potential—that I was somehow broken.”

These are feelings that have echoed continuously in the conversations I’ve had with friends and colleagues about work over the past two years—shame, guilt, and anxiety that we’re not getting enough done, and by extension, are not enough. As Adam Grant described in a much-shared New York Times column in April 2021, we’re languishing. Grant offers up “flow,” or deep absorption in a task, as an antidote to languishing, and explains that it requires creating uninterrupted time and focusing on small goals.

Ultimately, these solutions are band-aids slapped over systemic problems. The real issue is that we live in a world where companies have unreasonable expectations of workers whom they undervalue, where caregiving work is not compensated, where freelancers and contract workers live most often in precarity, where every moment can be optimized, and where “hustle” and “grind” are governing virtues, whereas “rest” and “vulnerability” are cardinal sins. This, of course, is the same world in which we need accountability partners to help us remember to eat a banana, read a chapter of a book, and buy groceries. This is the world in which companies like Flow Club can thrive.

Here, I could write a few lines about how it’s important to rage against this machine, this commodification of every breath, this canonization of busyness. Doing so would make me (and perhaps you, dear reader!) feel momentarily righteous.

And then, moments later, some emails would arrive, my credit card statements would fill my inbox, and the anxiety to start, to produce, to keep moving would return to my chest.

This, after all, is the world we live in. Ultimately, it’s better to remember to eat the banana.

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As fire season ramps up again across the West—and it’s expected to be, and in some places already is, a brutal one—I keep returning to Fernanda Santos’ The Fire Line. The book tells the story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a wild land fire crew based in Prescott, Arizona. In 2013, the 20-man crew was assigned to fight the deadly Yarnell Hill Fire. Only one survived. Fernanda masterfully reconstructs the men’s lives and narrates the decisions before, during, and after the fire that led to tragedy. The book is helpful to understand the policy decisions and science that have created a reality in which more than 3 million homes face moderate to very high wildfire risk, as well as the human implications of that risk. (Disclosure: Fernanda is a professor at Arizona State University, which is one of the partners in Future Tense.)

What Next: TBD

On Friday’s episode of Slate’s technology podcast, Lizzie O’Leary spoke with Kate Kaye of Protocol about new video-based AI products that promise to read people’s faces to find out if they’re paying attention in class or open to a sales pitch. Last week, Lizzie interviewed Jameel Jaffer of the Knight First Amendment Institute about how to understand free speech online and Mai Fleming, a fellow with Physicians for Reproductive Health, about the future of digital abortion care. Tune in on Sunday when Lizzie talks to Drew Harwell of the Washington Post about the prospect of Donald Trump returning to Twitter, and what it might mean for right-wing social platforms like Truth Social.

Upcoming Events

Join us on Wednesday, June 1, at 6 p.m. Eastern for the next installment of our Science Fiction/Real Policy book club, presented in conjunction with Issues in Science and Technology. We’ll be reading All Systems Red by Martha Wells. The novel explores a spacefaring future in which corporate-driven exploratory missions rely heavily on security androids. In Wells’ engaging—at times funny—tale, one such android hacks its own system to attain more autonomy from the humans he is accompanying. The result is a thought-provoking inquiry into the evolving nature of potential human-robot relations. RSVP here.

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