Can In-Office Avatars Help Out-of-Office Employees?

When you work with a virtual team, you may talk with them every day — but you don’t actually see them. We’re used to actually seeing people when we interact with them, so it’s easy to feel a little bit disconnected.
There are ways to counteract this feeling, of course: videoconferencing and other tools have certainly made a positive impact on how out-of-the-office employees can interact with their in-office colleagues. But there is at least one company exploring the question of whether a physical avatar in the office might help even more. Anybots offers a physical avatar for telecommuters, which displays a video at about eye-level as well as can be driven around a facility. All a remote team member needs to use the robotic avatar is a web browser.

Do In-Office Avatars Make Sense?

At a hefty $15,000 a pop, it’s going to be hard to justify the cost of one of Anybots’ devices. As the telecommuting trend grows, however, it’s likely that the cost of in-office avatars will drop, especially if they turn out to successful.
Personally, I have a hard time seeing a use for a robot as a substitute physical presence for myself in a client’s or an employer’s office. Then again, almost all of my work is done at the computer, where opening up a chat client or videoconferencing software is trivial. In a situation where physical presence matters more — like when you need to chase down a particular team member and have a face-to-face chat, or locate something in the office — a mobile avatar prove to be be far more useful. Such an approach may also promote interactions that are almost as good as those conducted face-to-face.
It’s not clear yet whether an in-office avatar will be useful for building up relationships between the members of your team who stay in the office all day and those who work from elsewhere. But it is an interesting tool to consider and, as costs come down and availability goes up, they may prove to be helpful in building the personal connections that make a team effective.