What telepresence robots can teach us about the digital workplace

2014-11-16

Based on the marketing materials at least, first impressions of telepresence robots may leave a less than credible feeling. Why would anyone choose to project themselves through a device like this? Who would take them seriously if they tried to deal with a real workplace or business issue?

The experience of early adopters trying out this new way of working tend to highlight the purely technical challenges of letting a robot loose in an office. In 2012, a Wall Street Journal reporter described frustrations encountered including spotty wireless connectivity, poor audio, running into glass walls and getting stuck in an elevator.

Over the last few years as the technology has improved and the costs have started to come down - for example, you can buy a Double Telepresence robot from the Apple Store for just US$2,500 plus the cost of an iPad, while the crowd-funded PadBot promises to retail for US$449 - more organisations are discovering the real benefits for themselves.

Talking to one company using telepresence robots to improve collaboration between staff in Sydney and San Francisco, they were enthusiastic about the way these devices have positively impacted the way they work. While their use in that workplace is still treated as somewhat unusual, those who work with them more regularly have been impressed by the different ways that telepresence robots allow remote staff to engage their colleagues, from serendipitous conversations to formal meetings.

There are plenty of other positive stories about telepresence. For example, here in Australia, Freelancer recently reported on the impact of a new telepresence robot in their office:

in a matter of a day or two people started using the robot differently in the work place. Normal non-tech staff and visitors alike took the time to actually look closely at the screen and find out who was ‘on’. Introducing themselves if they didn’t know them, asking if they could help them find their way around. Just like a real presence. A new social norm was developing before our very eyes. People from other offices (and lazy ones from distance ends of the same office) started attending meetings through the robot. We took photos. Now it is becoming a regular event. Normalised, if you will.

What you may find surprising is that for those who have spent some time working with telepresence robots this is not an uncommon experience. For example, one company reported:

"When you're talking to Skype, you're always talking to a computer. When the robot is there, because it turns around and faces you, it takes on the personality of the individual. You're hearing his voice, you're seeing his face through the video, you've got movement involved.

This preference for using a telepresence robot can actually give rise to an unusual situation where remote participants choose to join a videoconference in-room rather than as a normal remote participant. Even if telepresence robots fail to become the norm, this scenario raises interesting questions about our preferences and possibilities for improving how remote or distant workers collaborate more effectively.

One vision for the future of work is a kind of virtual workplace, where people are physically scattered but come together using a variety of digital collaboration technologies. In theory, if everyone has access to the same digital workspace then their physical location makes no difference. But this ignores the draw of physical space and organisational places that bring people together, which telepresence robots appear to solve.

Perhaps the lesson we can take away from the success of telepresence robots is that we need to spend less time trying to force workers into a digital space and more time understanding how we can best break down the tyranny of distance?

That may be true in part, but the way people respond positively to telepresence robots probably also has its roots in our human pre-disposition to anthropomorphise and this behaviour reflects our natural sociability.

My take away is not that every workplace should be filled with telepresence robots (although it may be a very good solution to consider), but rather we need to remain focused on humanising the digital workplace to get the best results from collaboration technologies. Telepresence robots show us that given a choice, people will pick the tools that help them feel a connection with other people, not just communicate.

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