Why robots are good (and bad) stand-ins for remote workers

It’s challenging to be the lone remote worker in a team where most of the members are located in the same office. You miss out on opportunities like impromptu meetings, informal gatherings at the water cooler, and most offline collaborative activities. The phone and the web are your only means of connecting and participating with the hub.

The good news is that many companies are now offering in-office avatars or embodied social proxies (ESPs). Basically robots that can be remotely controlled, the ESPs are a substitute for a remote worker being in the same building as the rest of the team. The ESP usually has a speaker, video screen, microphone, and camera, which allows real-time audio and video to be sent and received by both the satellite and the hub. It’s like having your own robotic avatar roaming around the office building.

We’ve previously covered these ESPs or in-office avatars here at WWD, specifically mentioning Anybots – which costs $15,000 per unit. Similar products include VGo ($5,995 for the unit and a $1,195 annual service fee) and the Texai Remote Presence System (no pricing information yet).

The costs of these in-office proxies tends to make one skeptical about whether the value they provide is worth it. Will companies get a return on their investment? And what benefits can we expect from using these things?

What ESPs can do for remote workers and hub teams

According to researchers from Microsoft Research and the University of California, Irvine, the continuous presence of the proxies in each team improved their social connections as well as their mutual support in work activities. The lone remote workers were easily available to participate more fully in meetings and impromptu discussions. This lowered uncertainty among colleagues and gave them a closer sense of proximity.

Other studies support this, including this recent study published by ACM Press. Researchers Min Kyung Lee and Leila Takayama noted that even though teams previously used phone and video conferencing, these proved to be too limiting because the remote workers were often left out of meetings and decision-making. With the ESP, “[…] remotely controlled mobility enabled remote workers to live and work with local coworkers almost as if they were physically there.”

The informal and spontaneous interactions probably contributed a lot to this sense of proximity. Based on the interviews with the participants, impromptu work meetings, worker availability, and planned social interactions were the top three activities that showed the most improvement. Impromptu meetings, which were usually for getting answers or sharing ideas, mostly took place in hallways and other shared spaces. This kind of spontaneity would be almost impossible with web-based conferencing, email, or chat, since workers would have to return to their workstations to conduct these types of meetings.

The researchers note that these spur-of-the-moment meetings could show commitment and build stronger social connections among geographically distributed workers.

Apart from more nuanced real-time interactions, ESPs also provided the most value during creative design tasks. According to the Microsoft Research and Univeristy of California paper, “Teams involved in creative design activities perceived a greater use value of ESPs, as they allowed the satellite members to more fully participate in the design process, inside and outside meetings.” Remote workers and on-location teams could easily participate in fast-paced design discussions. It was also much easier for both parties to communicate ideas visually via gestures, diagrams, and whiteboards.

The challenges of using ESPs

Apart from cost, there are a few disadvantages or inconveniences to using ESPs.

The first of these is the remote worker’s difficulty simply driving the ESP. Though this is learned over time, driving was usually done simultaneously with other tasks such as conversation or presentation. In the study conducted by Lee and Takayama, sometimes it was more inconvenient to use the proxies for meetings because they had to drive it to the meeting room. Though driving in itself wasn’t difficult, it consumed a lot of time. Remote workers then had a tendency to be late for meetings.

Experiencing network delays also proved to be challenging. When the internet connection is slow or unreliable, the delays made it hard to achieve the impromptu and nuanced discussions that the ESPs were supposed to provide.

There were also cases when the quality of the machine had an impact on the perceived quality of the worker. When, unbeknownst to the remote worker, the machine was too loud, colleagues perceived the worker himself as loud and disruptive to the workplace.

New etiquette rules were also needed to foster smoother interactions between remote workers and hub teams. For example, it was sometimes seen as a violation of personal space when colleagues changed the volume, orientation, or location of an ESP without asking the remote worker’s permission. Co-located teams, on the other hand, found it rude whenever remote workers did not drive their ESP away at the end of a conversation — even if they were no longer paying attention to whatever went on around their ESPs.

Who benefits the most?

Based on the studies and tests done on ESPs so far, it seems that these devices are best used when the company setup includes a hub office where most workers are co-located, while having only very few remote workers. Fast and reliable Internet connections should also be available to both the hub office and the remote workers — without it, your team won’t experience the benefit of richer real-time interactions.

It’s clear that ESPs have their benefits, but whether these benefits are worth it would depend on how your team works and the kind of work that you do.

Do you think ESPs would be useful in your company? Why or why not?

Thumbnail photo courtesy of Anybots.