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Flipping the office telepresence model

TechCrunch TechCrunch 18/06/2016 Peter Hirst

What if I told you that you could visit three continents in one day without leaving your office and truly feel like you were there in person? That you could move down a hallway or across a stage, make eye contact and feel, well, more like a human being than just a face on a screen?

Earlier this year, Paul McDonagh-Smith — my coworker at MIT Sloan Executive Education who is based in London — did just that with the help of “telepresence robotics.” First thing in the morning, he co-presented at a conference in Singapore alongside our colleague Cyndi Chan, then had a business meeting in Cape Town, South Africa and later that afternoon met with me and other team members on the MIT campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

If you haven’t encountered a telepresence robot before, they look surprisingly humble. There is some variety in appearance, but the basic elements are: a screen that functions as a “head,” a “leg” or a “neck” for turning the “head” and a set of gyroscopic wheels for traveling. The model we use is made by Double Robotics and is essentially an iPad on a leg with wheels. Though it may seem simple, the technology is quite remarkable in what it can do for bringing people together.

In our office, telepresence robots are no longer a novelty, but an everyday tool we’ve been using to enable our remote team members to be more engaged. About two-thirds of our staff work remotely one to three days a week. Double’s robot units are available regularly for team meetings or one-on-one visits. Paul’s experience may be a bit extreme, and we don’t all use our Doubles quite like that every day.

The majority of us are more like Colleen Berger, an Executive Education Program Director who lives on Cape Cod, which is about a three-hour commute from the office — on a good day. Colleen uses a telepresence robot regularly to join meetings and have conversations with colleagues on campus. I use the robots occasionally when traveling, and have even logged in from a plane once. What we all enjoy, however, is the ability to be truly present in our interactions with colleagues and clients — an experience that feels much more natural and personal than a phone call or a videoconference.

Telepresence seemed like an intriguing addition, and has proven highly effective for our team.

The daily operations of the MIT Sloan Executive Education team fall into three major categories: developing and facilitating education programs; meeting with faculty, clients and members of the business community; and traveling the world for professional conferences and business meetings. Now that we’ve learned the best internal uses of the Double robots, we’ve been gradually — and strategically — expanding beyond our office walls. I mentioned how we use telerobotics internally, but bringing a robot into a classroom required a lot more thought than just figuring out the logistics for one or two people.

Robots in the executive education classroom

MIT Sloan Executive Education programs are rooted in a shared learning experience — participants gather on campus to learn from our faculty and each other, build professional relationships and take part in the MIT ecosystem. We experiment with virtual delivery in select programs, but the underlying principle remains the same. How can we offer all the benefits of presence to remote participants without compromising the experience of learners co-located in our classrooms? Who would benefit from this technology the most?

Offering it to people with distance and mobility challenges seemed like a good place to start. We wanted to make a selection of our programs available to people who may not even consider enrolling otherwise — even though they and everyone in the room would benefit from their participation. To help us find the right candidate for the pilot, we brought in disability diversity expert Sean Driscoll. Sean is the founder of BBsquared, a consultancy that advises organizations on diversity, equality and inclusion initiatives.

We have worked with Sean before in the context of our involvement with Work Without Limits, a statewide network that aims to increase employment among individuals with disabilities in Massachusetts. Sean’s deep knowledge of the disability diversity issues and his wide professional network were instrumental in our experiment. With Sean’s help, we met Tom Hershey, an entertainment industry executive who lives and works in Los Angeles. Tom uses an electric wheelchair, so traveling across the country presents its own set of unique challenges for him.

Once it was all up and running, it was a lot of fun and I forgot the fact, honestly, that I was there remotely.
— Tom Hershey

Tom attended a two-day executive education program, Managing Complex Technical Projects, led by one of our senior faculty members, Professor Steven Eppinger. Prior to the program, Tom had a couple of training and troubleshooting sessions with our staff, but other than that he was expected to participate just like everyone else in the room. He got the hang of operating the robot fairly quickly and was able to enjoy all aspects of the program. “Once it was all up and running, it was a lot of fun and I forgot the fact, honestly, that I was there remotely,” he says. “You get sort of caught up in the activities that are happening in the classroom — it was like being there.”

Having attended MIT as an undergraduate student, Tom thought that his experience with the robot approximated the classroom experience quite well. Lucky for us, Tom’s long career in special-effects technology at Sony Pictures made him a savvy user and eager to try a cool new tech approach. He noted some areas of improvement, but his overall impression was very positive. “There was no sense of me being that remote physically,” he says. “It needs a bit more work, but I feel confident that it will be a good avenue.”

Teaching robot-enabled students

Steven Eppinger was a little nervous about having a robot-enabled participant in his classroom. “My key concern was would Tom get as much out of the program as he should?” he says. “Even though I know it’s possible to interact with someone via this robot technology, I didn’t know how it would work in a classroom setting, but it actually worked quite smoothly. Tom was fully able to participate. In an open enrollment program of about 50 people, everybody should, if they want to, have an opportunity to speak in class and interact with others at their table, and he did exactly those things.”

Steven considers personal interaction an important part of the overall program experience. Although he has taught in various technology-enabled settings, including online and teleconferencing, synchronous delivery is still his preferred method.

“I think you get a richer experience with synchronous,” he says. “And to be truly synchronous, we need to gather. We can do that physically at MIT or we can use various remote technologies. Comparing telepresence to conventional or even very good videoconferencing, this has more presence. For certain things, there is a big advantage in being synchronous and co-located. And this made it possible for us to break the co-location requirement.”

As a bonus, Steven didn’t have to change a thing in how he teaches to make allowances for this technology. It was simple. However, teaching a room full of robots would be an entirely different matter, because if everyone in the room were present digitally, their sensing capability would be quite different and would require a dramatically different method of teaching.

Another key aspect of telepresence robotics is the level of attention that’s required from the person participating remotely.

Professor JoAnne Yates agrees. “A room full of robots doesn’t make as much sense because the thing that the telepresence robot gives you is the physical presence that can interact with other human presences. If there’s no presence there, then why not have everyone on a screen?”

JoAnne teaches in our Communication and Persuasion in the Digital Age program and studies dispersed teams and communications methods that make them effective. In her opinion, telepresence robotics offer important advantages over the more traditional collaboration tools in allowing a remote participant to join a co-located group.

“The robot gives you much more flexibility than an audio phone connection or a videoconference,” she says. “The voice actually comes from the robot, so people treat the robot more as if it were a person. Usually, you don’t have the picture and the voice coming from the same point in space, and you do with the robot. And that’s a big advantage in allowing the robot to interact with people in a class or in a meeting.”

Seeing eye to iPad

Bruce Hecht attended the same program as Tom, only in person — or rather in his physical body. An electrical engineer at the Boston-based Analog Devices and a robotics enthusiast, Bruce was thrilled to have a co-participant attending via a telepresence robot. Although he wasn’t seated at the same table initially, he made a beeline for Tom as soon as he saw him. “When I heard where he was, I wanted to meet him because I wanted to see what the experience was like but also because I just like to sit with people at different tables and meet as many people as I can.” Bruce took every opportunity to talk to Tom during breaks, at lunch and in small-group projects. He describes the experience as not much different from working with someone who is there in their physical body.

Bruce is a regular participant in MIT Sloan Executive Education programs. Building relationships with his co-learners is an important aspect of the program experience for him, and that is not something easily done with traditional audio or videoconference tools. “That wouldn’t really be possible on the phone. With so many people, you won’t even know what to ask, and you won’t know whom to ask,” he says. “In the room, there are a lot of people. But if you have so many people on a call, only one person can really have a conversation at a time.”

The telepresence robots make it possible for the remote person to direct their attention in a more natural way. You may not be able to shake someone’s hand (yet!), but you can maintain eye contact as you talk, you can turn to look at someone else around the table and you have an actual seat in the room as you would physically. “When you are present at the table, you lower it [iPad] down, so you’re basically at the same position as if you’re seated. You can see people at the table eye to eye,” says Bruce.

Navigating communication styles

Adding to the robot’s natural feel is the ability for the remote person to move between communication styles. Here’s how our super-user Paul describes it. “We could be having a one-on-one conversation, but I can move quite naturally to another communication style where I might move the robot to a stage and I might present to a group of 10 or 50 or 100. And you can move from this one-to-one or one-to-a-few kind of collaboration to a broader communication style and back and forth very easily.”

The robot’s agility to adjust to different communication modes was an important aspect for Tom, too. “Navigating between the spheres of communication: instructor to class, instructor to student, student to workgroup and student to student is a key benefit of the technology,” he says, adding that, as a user, he sees this area as “most ripe for evolutionary improvement.”

What telepresence technology has given us goes far beyond our initial plans to make meaningful technological accommodations for our remote workers.

This kind of natural ease just isn’t possible with more traditional collaboration tools like audio or videoconferencing. “There is a tendency to kind of round robin where people will take turns to speak,” Paul explains. “And sometimes you have to wait for the host to initiate the discussion with the remote user. This is a lot more egalitarian in the sense that if I participate by robot, I can actually very easily initiate a discussion. It’s not something that happens to me. It’s something that I am very much creating and actively participating in. Active participation is a key difference.”

Paul also points out the similarity between the Double’s design and a face-to-face conversation. “The only thing visible on the iPad is the person’s head. It’s about 80 or 90 percent of the real estate. Which is very similar from the human interaction perspective, this is what we see when we interact physically.”

However, eye contact is not the only human-like feature of the Double’s range of motion. Paul likens the unit’s slight oscillation to a person shifting their balance from one foot to another as they stand and talk. “I think that gives the sense of active presence, like a human embodiment,” he says.

Staying focused

Another key aspect of telepresence robotics is the level of attention that’s required from the person participating remotely. You can’t multitask easily — and that is a good thing. Colleen explains, “I think that we all fall into the trap that if we’re just on the phone, we tend to multitask regularly and you don’t have that option with telepresence. You really do have to be present. It can be retraining yourself, if you will, to work in a different way, but in the end, the meetings are more productive, more collaborative. You participate more and add more value and probably receive more value out of it if you’re truly listening.”

The heightened attention and focus are just as important in our classrooms. The experience of our executive education programs is intense and requires a full commitment of time and attention for the duration of each program.

Experiment, explore and evolve

What telepresence technology has given us goes far beyond our initial plans to make meaningful technological accommodations for our remote workers. The popular proverb about necessity being the mother of invention is certainly true for us.

Our motivation to try out this technology came during our office’s move to a physically remote space and in the middle of a major city construction project near campus that would make the notoriously frustrating Boston commute even more so. We thought long and hard about the most effective ways to accommodate flex work for our team members.

Telepresence seemed like an intriguing addition, and has proven highly effective for our team. I’ve written and spoken extensively on what a boon our flexible working arrangements have been to employee morale, job satisfaction and productivity, and technologies such as telepresence robots are helping make this possible.

Now that we’ve opened our classrooms to robot-enabled participants outside our own team and have learned from the experience, we will continue to look at different ways of using telepresence robotics on campus and beyond.

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