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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  • Douglas Knight

    From what I see, a big problem is that big firms aren’t even able to figure out that free Skype is better than the expensive products that they do use. Even a simple telephone call is probably better than those products.

    • IMASBA

      Have you ever used free Skype? It has rubbish video quality, and that’s when it’s actually working. It’s almost as if Skype deliberately squeezes the bandwidth on the free version (or rather that’s pretty much the only explanation since the bottleneck definitely doesn’t lie with modern broadband internet and hardware and you’ll have bad connections even with people in the same town that has fibre optics all over it, in a country with one of the fastest average internet speeds in the world).

      As an answer to Robin I’d say obtaining a critical mass of teleworkers within a firm will greatly alleviate the promotion problem (either the promotions will become more fair or if the promotions keep going to the non-teleworkers this will become so blatantly obvious that the teleworkers will rebel and management has no choice but to change their promotion process). I guess this could even be forced (force all employees to work at home for two day per week to start off or something like that). Although it has to be said many employees simply do not believe they can be productive at home and teleworking is not common enough for our culture to have adapted to it well (so you’re still bound to have a spouse who doesn’t quite understand that you’re not available to do chores in the house even though you’re home), there’s also the fact many people actually like working at some place other than home, it gives them a change of scenery, allows them to escape from the spouse and kids for a while and to maintain friendships (or even affairs) with co-workers.

      • Douglas Knight

        Have you ever used a commercial videoconferencing system? If so, perhaps you could explain the psychology of the idiots who buy them. But, no, you’re probably too stupid to do that.

      • Silent Cal

        Maybe the systems are chosen to hobble teleworking so the coalitions have a good reason to keep meeting?

        (I don’t actually believe this; I think it has more to do with ‘No one got fired for buying IBM’ mentality and the companies with IBM-status being some combination of incompetent and rent-seeking)

      • I know absolutely nothing about Skype and commercial video-conferencing programs, but I wonder whether companies avoid free software generally. Free software is probably low status. (And the corporations providing it may treat users that way, as indicated by the latest Facebook scandal.)

      • Khoth

        I’ve used both Skype and a commercial videoconferencing system at work. The commercial system is so much better that nobody uses Skype for video (it still sees use for instant messaging, but the experience there is rather poor too).

        Perhaps you’ve only come across the bad videoconferencing systems, and not the good ones?

      • Douglas Knight

        It’s not hard to believe that there are good videoconferencing systems, although the fact that there are ones that are worse than telephones, let alone Skype, suggests that there is some selective pressure to make it terrible, perhaps emphasis on bandwidth at the expense of latency.

        Do you and your coworkers use it for group meetings, or only one on one?

  • One major problem with telecommuting is that American ISPs are too poor to get consistently good connection quality. I wonder if telecommuting is more common where ISPs are better, e.g. in Sweden or Korea or in the towns that got Google fiber. Maybe in 10 years there will be enough instances of sudden jumps in ISP quality for particular areas and this natural experiment will test the hypothesis that it’s largely about connection quality.

    Really, though, for myself at least I think better connection would be necessary but not sufficient.

  • Faze

    Among my associates, I have long noticed a high correlation between the desire to telecommute and lower apparent conscientiousness and engagement with the organization. Griping about not being able to telecommute often precedes a person being fired or quitting. The few successful long-term telecommuters in our organization make frequent personal visits to HQ (they could even be more frequent). The freelancers who have an opportunity to telecommute but instead show up at the office to work in hoteling space often get hired full time. Among those I see often, I’ve hooked some up with inside opportunities, or lucrative free-lance gigs — just because they’re there and i get to like them. My informal conclusion: Telecommuting is career poison for most.

  • Homo hypocritus won’t submit to constant video surveillance while working. (It sounds worse than traveling to work.)

    • Yes part of what I’m talking about is signaling loyalty. I’m also talking about creating and maintaining loyalty.

  • Robert Koslover

    I’ve been telecommuting for roughly 9 years and it has worked out well for my employer and me. I sure wish more people would consider it. People highly-concentrated in urban areas are so strongly and unavoidably impacted by the actions of their neighbors that they have strong incentives to impose many, many rules and regulations to protect themselves from the potentially annoying behaviors or habits of others. People in rural areas, by contrast, are more free to do as they please, are effectively far more self-reliant, and in general have views that are far more supportive of America’s founding/traditional principles of individual freedom and liberty. Urbanization destroys freedom; telecommuting just may be able to save it.

    • I’d weakly predict that you are not a central player in the coalitions at your workplace. Some coalition thinks you are worth keeping for now, but they remain tempted to replace you with someone more loyal.

    • NL7

      One could just as easily argue that large populations encourage anonymity and hence relative freedoms, while small populations encourage familiarity and hence relative social pressures.

  • Doug

    Remote communication seems fine for normal conversation. But explaining complex abstract topics feels much more difficult over the phone or email. Can’t really explain why…

    • Because you can readily see when the other person is confused.

      • IMASBA

        Yeah, though that can be solved with video communication, but that still leaves it difficult to use your hands to explain things, both to make gestures and to point things out on a screen or a piece of paper (most people use their hands much more in conversations than they’re consciously aware of and that actually helps the other person understand things a little better), although I’m sure solutions to that problem can be found.

    • The puzzle isn’t why the last 1% of communication takes place face to face but why the last 90% of it does.

      • David Gobel

        video conferencing is less effective because it is confrontally face to face. In contrast, in physical convo, we are at angles to one another. In a conference room, people are free to cast covert glances to one another to read the progress of a conversation and adjust. Frontal communication is a confining mummified straight jacket to verbal intercourse.

      • That doesn’t seem like such a hard problem to solve if you have multiple camera views to offer.

      • David Gobel

        It certainly isn’t a hard problem. There are now lots of ways to solve it. Just seems like no one has addressed it. I’m too busy at methuselah foundation to work on it.

      • IMASBA

        You have to be able to view the upper bodies of the other people in the conversation and to view them pointing at or writing on a screen in real time.

        Some kind of holographic projection would be ideal, but I believe it can be done with flat screens as well. Of course another possible solution would be virtual reality (controlling an avatar body that has advanced dexterity).

        I do not think people want or should be made to accept permanent surveillance. I also think much of the effective “resistance” agaisnt teleworking is based in cultural and psychological reasons other than coalition politicking: we’re simply not used to it which leads us to believe we can’t do it and to our housemates not responding appropriately to it, but we also simply like the company of colleagues and the escape from life at home. Which is why we first need to force a critical cultural mass to be reached, but also without forcing teleworking all the time, so force people to telework but never all days of the week, unless they volunteer for that. Save money by timesharing, either between the employees or between businesses based in the same building.

  • Aaleeyah

    Excellent details here in the post. I must say it is very insightful on the topic. Check more details on telecommuting .

  • consider

    I think it is mostly that the really, really cool telepresence isn’t quite here yet, although I bet it will be widespread by 2019. Check out some of the future versions on youtube. Costs will keep dropping, and we’ll soon forget about the toy called Skype — or at least the current version of it.

  • Michael Vassar

    Related hypothesis. Coalition politics is vital to firm performance, but past a low ceiling it’s zero-sum. Offices allow employees to discretely monitor how much time their co-workers are spending on coalition politics and match it, leaving the relatively positive sum component in place but preventing unchecked escalation.

  • Jess Riedel

    My impression is that telecommuting is much more common with software developers, which suggests an important role for technological frictions (which can be smoothed out by people with technical software knowledge) and/or simple status quo bias (since so many software developers work for recently founded companies).

    Can anyone confirm that devs do telecommute more? Robin, would this imply coalitions are less important in software companies (maybe just because of average company size)?

    • Competitive pressures may be higher for software firms, and relatively autistic folks may gain less trust and loyalty via in person meetings.

      • Debashish Ghosh

        Robin, do you mean that among software developers, there are a greater than average proportion of relatively autistic folks?

      • I was suggesting that yes.

      • Debashish Ghosh

        Ok – I work in the software industry and though I am not a software developer I have worked closely with many of them. My feeling is that while it is certainly possible that there is a slightly higher proportion of socially less adept people among developers, I would probably think of just some of them as having Aspergers rather than being autistic (although I’m probably not thoroughly knowledgable about the differences). I also think that the vast majority of these individuals do not actually have any disorder like Autism or Aspergers but are instead simply the type who are inclined to work on technical problems and are less motivated to expend effort in a role requiring more social efforts where the contribution of one’s day-to-day work to the project is less directly obvious (or even present sometimes). Your conjecture that “relatively autistic folks may gain less trust and loyalty via in person meetings” probably does have some truth to it, but then I think that managers are less likely to approve telecommuting for such employees as they may not have enough confidence in their communication skills.

      • IMASBA

        Social skills form a pretty much continuous distribution, all the way from smooth talking ladies man on the left to rain man on the right, and somewhere in between psychiatrists put a line and everything beyond that line they call “autism”, aspergers used to be a part of autism, but is no longer recognized, now it’s all called “autism spectrum disorder”. For Robin’s point all that matters is that software engineers are on average more to the right of the distribution than the average person (Robin used the words “relatively autistic”), whether or not that qualifies them to fall beyond the essentially arbitrary line of autism that psychiatrists made up doesn’t really matter.

      • Debashish Ghosh

        Of course there’s no disagreement that the line for autism that psychiatrists draw is bound to be somewhat arbitrary – nevertheless the term “relatively autistic” doesn’t seem to me the best one to use. As an analogy, if someone is not in good physical shape and thus not inclined to be physically active, would referring to them as “relatively physically challenged” be meaningful, or would the more prominent effect instead be that of ascribing to them a disability that the vast majority of individuals in that group do not actually suffer from?

      • IMASBA

        Well, most physical disabilities are discrete quantities, unlike social skills. A good physical analogue to social skills would be high blood pressure or obesity, not a paralyzed leg or something like that and it’s perfectly normal to say “relatively high blood pressure” or “on the chubby side”.

      • Debashish Ghosh

        While my analogy probably wasn’t perfect, neither does yours seem to be. I think if you describe a person who is just a little overweight as “relatively obese”, he/she will probably dislike that more than “On the chubby side”. The latter sounds better because the term does not include the word “obese”, which carries more negative connotations due to the greater undesirability of the condition of obesity.
        I think it is reasonable to apply the same reasoning when comparing the terms “relatively autistic” and “less socially adept”.

      • IMASBA

        Yes, but both Robin and I are writing comments on comments of a relatively unknown blog, so we don’t have to think about PR. It would be different if we were politicians CEOs.

      • Debashish Ghosh

        It seems then that maybe we do not disagree significantly. However, I wouldn’t characterize this blog’s influence on public discourse as insignificant. I have read several insightful posts here, and going by the comment count, I’d say that it does have a decent readership. Also, PR, to borrow the term you used, is not just the pronouncements of CEOs and politicians, but rather the sum total of all public discourse (which blogs like this are an important part of). So even when no harm is intended, its probably worth the effort to use more factually meaningful and sensitive terms..

      • We may say that someone with poor physical coordination is somewhat physically challenged. (The difference from your example being that yours isn’t necessarily permanent.)

        [You seem concerned that the “relatively autistic” label will lower the status of software engineers, lol.]

      • Debashish Ghosh

        Actually, no, that was not what I was primarily concerned about. Like I said, I did not find the term “relatively autistic” to be the most meaningful one possible, based on my years of interaction with software developers in my mid-sized company, and elsewhere at conferences, etc. I think there are actually very very few developers that fall under the autism spectrum. Most people consider autism to be a type of disability, and therefore “relatively autistic” does a poorer job of realistically describing the social skills of developers as a group than, say, “less socially adept”.
        That said, I do think that if software developers as a group are routinely described as “relatively autistic”, it certainly might lead to a public image of them being mildly disabled or something like that which would be quite far from reality – not to mention that it can reasonably be considered somewhat insensitive to just casually use that term. I wouldn’t have thought that my expressing this sentiment (even if indirectly) would have elicited much vocal disagreement, but clearly it has from some readers of this blog. Perhaps it’s not a total loss though, seeing how it has it has at least served to amuse in this case!

    • Silent Cal

      Among devs at my company, primarily telecommuting is believed to be a poor career move bu the occasional remote day or even week is fine. But it’s not rare to IM people twenty, ten, even five feet away.

      The biggest advantages I’ve noticed to being in the office are 1) I find I’m more motivated to work while I’m there rather than at home and 2) I sometimes overhear questions to the people next to me where I know the answer. And maybe 3), the physical office is a distribution point for various forms of in-kind payment. Probably not worth everyone’s commute time.

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  • NL7

    My employer is highly technical, with remote access to all our data and our virtual workspaces from anywhere in the world and internal 6-digit dialing to all our offices in the world. But most of my work comes from people within 100 feet of my office. It might actually hinder my career to move to the other side of the building or to a different floor, since it would physically separate me from the handful of people who do what I do. It’s easier to coordinate work in person. When I work by phone or email, especially with someone outside the office, we communicate less and more sporadically. This is true with someone temporarily out of the office or with someone based in another time zone. Some people are better at coping with this than others (I find more and longer phone conversations are better than emails, which tend to be terse and vague).

    Professional services are often very dollar-focused and atomistic, so experienced service providers can typically get away with working remotely, traveling a lot, or otherwise being a bit of an island. As a result, we have a culture here that allows significant independent scheduling but also strongly encourages attendance at various social events.

    I think most employers have a weaker sense of who contributes to what extent. Being present is one way to show contribution (so I guess this is like Caplan’s explanation). In professional service firms, a partner may have a book of business that bills $X million per year, so it’s easier to measure that contribution. As a result, actual presence is less important as a proxy for contributing to results; they have tracked data showing actual results.

  • Peter McCluskey

    Does that mean that companies can signal that they have less politics by not having an office?

    Is enough evidence available on companies whose employees mostly telecommute to say how it affects their performance?

    • I’m not sure they would in fact have less politics. They might just have more awkward politics, where all the factions are hindered from strategies they’d prefer, but still spend just as much time and energy doing politics.

      • If you make politics more costly, wouldn’t you expect less of it?

        [This assumes, reasonably I think, that effectiveness is at least one of the motives for politics.]

      • WIth downward sloping demand Q = D(P), with higher P, you get lower Q, but P*Q might go up or down.

      • Connelly Barnes

        I hate politics and would strongly prefer to work at companies that signal for less politics. With that said, I think politics is fundamentally about resource contention.

        So another way to state my preference is I strongly prefer companies that delegate all decision making to be purely empirical or by the data, and organizationally flat.

        As opposed to by political pandering, positioning, attacking opponents, and realpolitick of human actors, with deep organization charts, characteristic of large corporation / Washington DC style decision making.

        Actually I think doing everything by the data is a good way to reform conventional politics. If you could just measure absolutely every economic and political signal it should be possible to start using machine learning to identify improved policy (e.g. “remove this rent-seeking law X.”)

  • the_commentariatte

    I’m not convinced that the problem is simply, or even primarily, political. There are a lot of studies showing that even small distances (10’s of meters) are a barrier to interaction (i.e. in the same building).

    At least for engineering, one of the difficult things is balancing between individual focus on some activity and interaction. Meetings and con-calls can be scheduled and I think that using them effectively is learnable skill. But often it’s all the little one-minute interactions that keep things on track (especially when they keep small issues from becoming big ones).

    Those are much harder among telecommuters, because the barrier to interaction is much higher. You lose all the visual and social cues about whether it is a good time to interrupt, especially in an environment where many tasks require focused attention. It’s also harder to quickly rope in another participant (hey joe, you got a second to look at this?) – setting up a con-call takes more time than the actual conversation, so you don’t bother.

    It’s inefficient to spend 5-10 min writing a clear email about some minor technical issue and then waiting an hour for an answer, even if you’d happily spend 30s on it in person. Part of that is fear of asking a “dumb” question on email vs ephemeral conversation.

    Phone call, IM, or chat are lower overhead, but then you’re increasing distraction due to lack of social cues, when you want people to be able to spend time focusing on tasks.

    Maybe true telepresence will address this, but large scale telecommuting doesn’t really work very well for a lot of engineering work. Maybe one day a week, or when working on a very focused task for a couple days, but not general.

    • I can believe there are some situations where the key issue is the ability to often quickly tell if someone can be interrupted, but where they can’t bother to declare that state. But I find it hard to believe that is the main reason for the lack of telecommuting.

  • Anyone who’s worked hard on a team project knows how mutual trust and affiliation are required before people sacrifice to work extra overtime for team goals. Slackers are poison to this process. IBM had people sing “Ever Onward” for a reason. It can be simultaneously true that mutual trust and affiliation are needed to win battles between groups within a firm, and also that this same trust drives max productivity within each group inside the firm. Economic competition at the firm level selects for within group productivity, but deselects for the between group political battles. This is of course a common theme in evolution. Cancer mutations are good for the cancer, but bad for the organism.

    Does telecommuting shift the balance of these within-group between-group competitions? Well, it certainly makes it easier for gossip to spread between factions where everyone is remote and wired up. Easier to snitch with one-to-many gossip.

    Buffer and the transparency movement are interesting in this regard. The movement is about sharing all company information including salaries with everyone. The religious analogy would be confession of course, which historically has deep roots with group bonding. And like many early movements they have a zealot edge to the movement. Where this gets interesting is with telecommuting. Transparency may grow the max coalition size within a firm beyond what you can get by placing people in same physical location. You can only fit so many people into a particular space. Virtual teams can be larger. Factions within companies will still exists of course. But if the size of cohesive teams can be made larger using telecommuting/transparency, this could give an edge to those companies which embrace the technology.

    Buffer profile

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  • Daniel Carroll

    My anecdotal impression from my work in the financial sector is telecommuting is slowly increasing over time. Telecommuting is now pretty common 1-3 times per week when not traveling. The resistance is more cultural and generational, as well as physical and financial – office space is a sunk cost with tax credit, autos are sunk costs, rituals are important, and employees are not paid to allocate office space and install equipment in their house (some older houses aren’t built with separated office space). I think social networking may ultimately prove more effective in promoting telecommuting through better communication than telepresence, but social networking is not prominent among the over 40 crowd, and social networking business tools are in a primitive stage. As far as productivity, I saw a study about a year ago that suggested that employees who telecommute are more productive on average than employees who don’t.

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  • Ari

    1. When I read this post, it’s interesting that you thought the problem with telecommuting is monitoring. Maybe it’s just a cultural thing, but my vague guess is that this kind attitude is the same reason people think the problem with crime is lack of surveillance and lack of police. Too much crime? Let’s give more power to NSA! We need more police!

    You know there are many ways to solve coordination and social problems. You could create better surveillance and monitoring, or you could teach people some values when they grow up. I remember talking to a Mexican exchange student, and she was wondering how can people leave such valuable stuff for grabs? Don’t people steal it? It feels like some of these solutions create a lot more problems than they solve, and they come from a very unhealthy mindset.

    Maybe telecommuting is a bad example, but given that this is a blog that is about *bias* I feel when your model is that people are selfish, and not to be trusted, the solutions are going to unhealthy. I just hope this kind of attitude doesn’t wash on my shores. I think this undermines a lot of econ, and American culture.

    I think it would be nice to talk to say Silicon Valley companies, and ask them what they think about this. Do you feel you would be more productive if there was a guy watching you behind your back all the time? More innovative perhaps? For example, I have practiced an instrument. There’s a big difference between when someone is watching me do something, and practicing alone. When you are being watched, you just became extremely risk averse in order to not look stupid.

    2. I have telecommuted a year or so. It’s nice to be in a office with people. I missed that as an employee. I didn’t really care so much for the office politics. The work community is different from other communities, but it’s still a community. My guess is that there are health benefits of being part of a community. It’s also much more easier to communicate some ideas face-to-face.

    I’m not dismissing the coalition hypothesis at all, but at least my view there are many benefits to office presence, and also all kinds of costs to monitoring.

  • How much would widespread telecommuting undercut the need for auto-autos? (Why plan cities to achieve greater densities when folks telecommute?) Can agglomeration more generally be simulated by telepresence?

  • rrazor

    Weak management tends to be the first to downplay the benefits of telecommuting. Been telecommuting for 20+ yrs, currently do so as a VP of a 26 yr old software biz with tech and non-tech directs in 3 countries. Loyalty, culture and coalitions can be built and maintained on a VPN unless management and culture are of the sort that also couldn’t build them well face to face.

  • Guest

    My guess is simply that workers would shirk. In what world do telecommuters have video feed watching them? Who would cover the costs of (probably multiple) always-on cameras? I think people being physically around raises awareness of others, provides more sensory info and focuses attention on common tasks. Even multiple cameras isn’t as good as reality.

    • Guest

      There’s also the issue of distractions from family. Going to work provides an excuse not to simultaneously help your spouse with child care, etc.

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