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How Technology Has Failed Remote Workers

A 94-second Walter Cronkite video from 1967 has been making its way around Facebook and Twitter. Cronkite stands by a desk bristling with a half-dozen computer-ish devices and talks about the “home office of the twenty-first century.” We’ll be connected by video. It will almost match being in the office. “We may not have to go to work—work will come to us,” the newsman tells us.

In 1999, Raju Rishi of Bell Labs updated that vision. “Combined with directional microphones, surround-sound audio, and 3-D images, the effect is much closer to that of a face-to-face meeting,” Rishi said back then, adding that, as the technology grew more immersive there would be no need for business colleagues to gather in one place.

Well—here we are, still waiting. The home office experience doesn’t replicate the actual office experience. Like flying cars and refrigerators that order more milk on their own, the technology has so far failed to meet the vision.

And that is the dirty secret of telecommuting—the reason Marissa Mayer felt she had to order her Yahoos to stop working from home and come into the office.

Working from home is possible, and in many ways may even be more productive than commuting to an office. But it is different from being with colleagues in the same room.

For decades, technologists have tried to erase that gap. In the pre-Internet era, Lotus Notes was the first big step in that direction. It served as a collaboration environment, where people in far-flung offices could e-mail, chat and share work. But it was so complicated that most people felt they could learn to play the piano faster than they could learn to use Notes. And it was an enterprise product, never meant for the home. (Lotus, with Notes, was bought by IBM in 1995.)

The Web opened up whole new possibilities for remote collaboration. Ray Ozzie, who created Notes, started a new company, Groove Networks, to take advantage of the Web and create a high-fidelity virtual workspace. He promised Groove would revolutionize the way work got done. It didn’t. (Microsoft ended up buying Groove, mostly to get Ozzie.)

Along the way, research labs experimented with all kinds of arrangements. I remember being shown collaborative software that would display little video windows of all your colleagues all day long. Allegedly it would be just like you were all together. Except it just seemed creepy—more like you were spying on each other with hidden cameras. Nobody has made that work yet.

In the 2000s, IBM thought there might be a better way around this problem. The animated virtual world Second Life was growing in popularity. Maybe workers would be more comfortable in an online, shared office environment that looked like a scene from Star Wars, where everyone could move their avatars around and interact much like in a real office. “People like to interact with their environment in more visceral ways,” Irving Wladawsky-Berger, then a top IBM executive, told me then. “It’s the way our brains work.”

But…again…nice try. Never caught on.

Researchers have long known the problem to be solved. Human interaction is fantastically rich. It involves so much more than just sight and sound—smell, touch, peripheral vision, spacing, gestures. “Often unconsciously, our actions are guided by social conventions and by our awareness of the personalities and priorities of people around us, knowledge not available to the computer,” wrote Jonathan Gruden of the University of California, Irvine, in an early-1990s paper titled “Groupware and Social Dynamics: Eight Challenges for Developers.” Apparently, knowing the problem and solving it are two different things.

Of course, technology has come a long way. I work remotely most of the time. It’s made possible by e-mail, instant messaging, Google Docs, Skype. I can talk by video to people in India—though, oddly, hardly anyone ever wants to do that in the U.S. If seriously pressed, I might use GoToMeeting or WebEx. I work quite effectively with anyone from anywhere.

But it’s not the same as being with them. There are certain things‐certain kinds of meetings or conversations or projects—I’ll fly across the country to do in person because there’s no way it will be the same online.

That’s the failing of technology. It was supposed to be better than that by now.

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2 Responses to “How Technology Has Failed Remote Workers”

  1. Netcelerate says:

    It makes such little sense that teleworkers are so stranded away from the office considering how evolved our communications systems have become. This is just an example of how systems have changed over the past few years. http://www.netcelerate.com/blog/post/2013/02/a-shift-in-technology-part-3-the-benefit-of-going-hosted/

  2. Back in the 1970s,at the time of the first “oil shock” when gas prices spiked, colleagues at the Institute for the Future conducted a study of what was then being (optimistically) called the “telecommunications/transportation tradeoff.” The hope was that virtual meetings could substitute for the real thing, thereby saving money. However, the study found that the more people communicate with others, the more they want to travel to meet in person. Telecom (e.g, conferencing, email) is OK for routine communications, but when something important or sensitive needs to be discussed, it seems that there is still no substitute for doing it face to face.

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