One of the often mentioned downsides of telecommuting from home is the lack of face-to-face contact with coworkers. No more conversations around the water cooler. This can be particularly true for full-time home-based telecommuters. In one of our telecommuting demonstration projects we even had a telecommuter who quit the program so he could go back to the office full-time — and he was telecommuting only one day per week!
This risk of anomie is often quoted as a reason not to telecommute even though it is rare among part-time telecommuters. But now technology is coming to the rescue with robotic telepresence. A company named Willow Garage is developing a telepresence robot called the Texas Robot in order to help them understand the technical challenges and social benefits of robot telepresence.
The project is the result of the desire by Dallas Goecker, one of Willow Garage’s engineers, to expand informal relationships with his co-workers. Dallas lives in Indiana and Willow Garage is in Menlo Park, California. Dallas and Menlo Park-based Curt Meyers developed the first Texas Robot. There are now 25 of them [Willow Garage’s plural of Texas is Texai], each looking like a demented vacuum cleaner, for use in the test project.
To the question: “What are we going to do with 25 Texai?” the company responds:
We’re working on that. We’ve already seen how one Texas robot could positively affect the relationship of one employee with the rest of the company — now we’d like to see what effect many can have.
So one more barrier to acceptance of telecommuting is being broken down. Still, I should point out that I have often said that one of the reasons why teleworkers are more effective than their in-office colleagues is that they are interrupted much less often. Now we have the Texai-enabled possibility of a resumption in shmoozing. Will teleworker effectiveness plummet or will increased serendipity (from those casual encounters in the corridor) save it?