Communication challenges in a dispersed workplace

We’ve all experienced the challenges of collaboration and communication in the workplace; those challenges are multiplying in our increasingly globalized working environments. And there’s a lot more to communicating than meets the eye; an important factor in workplace interactions is the social side of teams — which, after all, are made up of people. Given that having strong social ties is considered the greatest predictor of both happiness and the productivity and success of teams, this is not an area to overlook. Social connections help establish trust among team members and are key to working well together.

In a global work environment, we have many tools to help us stay in touch with our colleagues, the most prevalent being e-mail. But a great deal of important communication happens not over e-mail but in meetings and ad-hoc conversations. This is where being distributed, rather than co-located, puts team members at a disadvantage. Even in meetings, remote employees have trouble getting a word in — if a number of people are in a room, those on the phone are often overlooked. And as important as meetings are in getting things done, ad-hoc conversations are the number one way a group shares awareness and information. We all know how much easier it is to work with someone we can run into and talk to anytime.

Studies have shown what our own experience can confirm: we interact far more with people in close proximity, and even being in a different row of cubes or on a different floor can make a difference. In fact, a distance of 100 feet may be no better than many miles, and even short distances, such as 3 feet versus 20 feet, make a difference.

Where’s the remote employee? Often, their only presence in a meeting is a phone on the table. Image courtesy of Microsoft Research.

So how do we keep communication going and establish trust when our co-workers are dispersed in different locations? It helps to use telconferencing software. But the technology often doesn’t work as expected, and even when it does, it doesn’t allow for the visuals and the kinds of interaction that are possible in person. The remote people on the screen may be small and hard to see, and they may not have a good view of the main meeting room.

A research team at Microsoft — which includes Mary Czerwinski, Gina Venolia, George Robertson, John Tang, and Kori Inkpen Quinn — have come up with a promising new solution: “Embodied Social Proxies” (ESPs).

Image courtesy of Microsoft Research.

These are devices made up of a computer with a monitor picturing the remote employee, and a camera on top that tracks their gaze, so people in the room can see where they’re looking. The remote employee has both a wide-angle camera to see the whole room and a regular camera to look at each person in the room. And the ESP contains sophisticated audio conferencing. It’s simple to use — all you have to do is plug it in, and it’s ready to go.

Remote person’s view through Embodied Social Proxy. Image courtesy of Microsoft Research.

It can be given a seat at a conference table or placed higher up, if the people in the room are standing. All of these features add up to a lot more than the effect you get just using laptops with audio and video, or other teleconferencing technology — there’s something about the roughly human scale of the ESP and the quality of the representation that makes a difference.

Even when meetings aren’t happening, the remote employee can keep the device turned on in their office, and you might see them when you’re walking by; Czerwinski has come across two remote employees talking from one ESP in an office to another in a different office.

ESP when the employee is not available. Image courtesy of Microsoft Research.

When the employee is not at their ESP, a default display can be kept on that shows basic status and availability information, such as whether the employee is on vacation or in a meeting, or what the weather is where they are. The information is kept abstract enough so as not to feel invasive. And keeping the ESP on helps increase the presence of the employee in the group.

So, do these ESPs make a difference? It turns out that they do, and Cerwinski has anecdotes to illustrate their often profound effect. In one case, a software architect in Silicon Valley who felt unappreciated by and disconnected from his team in Redmond was given an ESP. Four weeks later, the situation had turned around, and the morale of the entire team was greatly improved. In other situations, the ESPs help distributed team members get to know each other even when they’ve never met in person.

In fact, the devices have been such a hit that even people on different floors of the same building are asking for them, and the research team has distributed specs to workers at both Microsoft and other companies so they can create their own ESPs. The team has been working on various features and improvements, such as improved gaze direction and a robotic arm that can point. There has of course been talk of robots — but what’s amazing is the success they’ve achieved with relatively simple technology.

As serious as communications issues are in terms of sharing information and getting work done, what I find especially compelling about these devices is their ability to improve collaboration and social ties. In considering ways to increase happiness and productivity at work, social connection is one of the key areas of focus — and it’s one of the trickiest. In my group at Adobe, and I’m sure in many others, it’s increasingly rare to come across a team that is not at least somewhat distributed, and it’s therefore increasingly hard to maintain cohesiveness in a group. I have a direct report in Ottawa whom I’ve seen in person only a few times, and I work closely with a couple people in India whom I met for the first time just the other day. Others I may never meet. So, like many knowledge workers these days, we’re prime candidates for embodied social proxies. I hope we get the chance one day to see their effects firsthand.

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