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Robots, telepresence, and our experiment with the future of remote working

And they worked remotely, happily ever after... 

The ability to work remotely is like a fairy tale. It's the idea of being able to wake up later and work in your pajamas. It's the story of avoiding your commute or working in a place with a better climate. It's the money you would save on transportation and lunches. It's the promise of regained ownership and autonomy over your career. Those who have it, brag about it to friends and family. You think, "If I could just live the remote working dream, I'd live happily ever after."

Collaboration has always been core to our culture and ability to create great products. We too, wanted to offer the flexibility of working from home, while also leveraging the benefits of daily collaboration in a unique and inspiring work environment. 

Like all fairy tales, we rarely get to ask what happens next. We quickly learned that remote working wasn't entirely what it was cracked up to be. With Facetime, Google Hangouts, Fuze, Gotomeeting, Slack, Hipchat, Github, Basecamp and other collaboration and communication tools, being connected with our co-workers was never easier but something was still missing. Despite the fact that we had better access to our remote team members than ever before, they could only participate as long as someone on the team established a connection. 

Essentially, if you worked remotely, you needed a digital handler.

If there's a meeting, the invite always needed a way to dial that person in and a way to share their screen. When doing a working session, whomever had the camera needed to make sure the whiteboards or tables were in full view at all times. If there was something spontaneous happening at the office like a brain storming session, unexpected client visit, birthday, big announcement, you missed it.

Graphic courtesy of  DoubleRobotics

Graphic courtesy of DoubleRobotics

Social isolation and missed opportunities were becoming a huge problem, so the team put their heads together to solve the problem. We decided to do an experiment in telepresence. You may have seen the Double Robot before on Modern Family or Silicon Valley. The idea is pretty simple. Take an iPad, put it on something like a Segway and let the person remotely control it, live.

An unforgettable out-of-body experience
— Brian

Have a meeting to go to? Take yourself. Need to see the projection a bit better or you can't hear very well in that part of the room? Move closer. Need more power after that meeting? Go dock yourself at the charger.

 The other benefit to the robot is being able to participate in our many weekly cultural events in the office. In the video above, one of our project managers, Paige, was teaching the team the basics of taekwondo. Watch Steve do the warm ups with our group from his home office in southern California.

The bot has given me some sense of autonomy and physical presence in the office that was non-existent before. Oh, and it probably makes me more memorable/interesting/weird to people who meet me on the bot, than in regular life. haha
— Steve

One of our Ruby on Rails developers lives in Dekalb which is about 1-2 hours with traffic from our offices in downtown Chicago. We setup certain days for him to be in the office but he also enjoys using the robot when working from home. He describes a time using the robot when he needed to stay with his son, home sick from school.

I stayed home sick with my son before and let him try it out. When I asked how he liked it, he replied ‘They need one of these at my school so I never have to leave the house again.’ He also asked if anyone ever attended a meeting with only a t-shirt and no pants.
— James

We were skeptical that the robot would mean any more than a novelty for new business meetings. After using it for 5 months, we can say with complete confidence that telepresence is the absolute way forward. Our meetings start quicker, our collaboration is constant and the magic has been reinvigorated in our remote working fairy tale.


About the author

John W Ostler (@seahostler) is Co-Founder and Principal of UX & UI at Eight Bit Studios (@eightbitstudios), an award winning mobile strategy, design and development studio that focuses on strategizing and executing the visions of Chicago's most promising startups. His teams have helped lead and produce technical and interaction design engagements with brands like Cadbury Adams, Burger King, Motorola, Career Builder, Groupon, Exelon, Sidley Austin, and HSBC. His studio's work has been featured in Advertising Age, USA Today, Brandweek, The Daily Beast, NewYork Times Tech blog, Mashable.com, featured on multiple CSS design blogs, and had multiple apps reach in the Top 25 and receive a "New and Noteworthy" nod from Apple. He is also Co-Founder of Bughouse (@bughousekids) a kids app, toy, game, books startup an education through creativity mad scientist lab.