Trustworthy Telepresence

In a recent Ipsos/Reuters poll, which questioned 11,383 people in 24 countries, about half believed that they would be at a disadvantage in earning promotions because of the lack of face-to-face contact. Previous research suggests part-time telecommuters do not communicate less frequently with managers. … After four years of experience, the average male telecommuter will earn about 6.9% less than a non-telecommuter. (more)

Telecommuting requires the use of various types of media to communicate, such as the telephone and email. Emails have a time lag that does not allow for immediate feedback; telephone conversations make it harder to decipher the emotions of the person or team on the phone; and both of these forms of communication do not allow one to see the other person. Typical organization communication patterns are thus altered in telecommuting. For instance, teams using computer-mediated communication with computer conferencing take longer to make group decisions than face-to-face groups. (more)

Decades ago many futurists predicted that many workers would soon telecommute, and empty out cities. Their argument seemed persuasive: workers who work mainly on computers, or who don’t have to move much physical product, seem able to achieve enough coordination to do their jobs via phone, email, and infrequent in-person meetings. And huge cost savings could come from avoiding central city offices, homes near them, and commuting between the two. (For example, five firms might share the same offices, with each firm using them one day per week.)

But it hasn’t remotely happened that way. And the big question is: why?

Some say telecommuters would shirk and not work as much, but it is hard to see that would remain much of a problem with a constant video feed watching them. Bryan Caplan favors a signaling explain, that we show up in person to show our commitment to the firm. But a firm should prefer employees who show devotion via more total work, instead of wasting hours on the road. Yes inefficient signaling equilibria can exist, but firms have many ways to push for this alternate equilibrium.

The standard proximate cause, described in the quote above, is that workers and their bosses get a lot of detailed emotional info via frequent in-person meetings. Such detailed emotional info can help to build stronger feelings of mutual trust and affiliation. But the key question is, why are firms willing to pay so much for that? How does it help firm productivity enough to pay for its huge costs?

My guess: frequent detailed emotional info helps political coalitions, even if not firms. Being able to read detailed loyalty signals is central to maintaining political coalitions. The strongest coalitions take over firms and push policies that help them resist their rivals. If a firm part adopted local policies that weakened the abilities of locals to play politics, that part would be taken over by coalitions from other parts of the firm, who would then push for policies that help them. A lack of telecommuting is only one of a long list of examples of inefficient firm policies than can be reasonably be attributed to coalition politics.

Some people hope that very high resolution telepresence could finally give enough detailed emotional info to make telecommuting workable. And that might indeed give enough info to build strong mutual trust and loyalty. But it is hard to make very high resolution telepresence feel natural, and we still far from having enough bandwidth to cheaply send that much info.

Furthermore, by the time we do we may also have powerful robust ways to fake that info. That is, we might have software that takes outgoing video and audio feeds and edits them to remove signs of disloyalty, to make people seem more trusting and trustworthy than they actually are. And if we all know this is possible, we won’t trust what we see in telepresence.

So, for telepresence to actually foster enough loyalty and trust to make telecommuting viable, not only does it need to feel comfortable and natural and give very high bandwidth info, but the process would need to be controlled by some trusted party, who ensures that people aren’t faking their appearances in ways that make it hard to read real feelings. Setting up a system like that would be much more challenging that just distributing something like Skype software.

Of course eventually humans might have chips under their skin to manipulate their sight and sound in real physical meetings. And then they might want ways to assure others aren’t using those. But that is probably much further off. (And of course ems might always “fake” their physical appearance.)

Again, I have hopes, but only weak hopes, for telepresence allowing for mass human telecommuting.

Added 3July: Perhaps I could have been clearer. The individual telecommuter could clearly be at a political disadvantage by not being part of informal gossip and political conversation. He would have fewer useful allies, and they would thus prefer that he or she not telecommute.

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