Distributed Work and Remote Presence

The need for remote presence technology has actually been studied for a long time, much longer than the technology has existed.

For example, Stanford Professor Pamela Hinds has published research on many aspects of this topic, and co-authored with Sara Kiesler the comprehensive book, Distributed Work. In a recent study of 143 individuals in 11 different globally-distributed software teams, Hinds and co-author Catherine Cramton found that physical presence and face-to-face communication were very important, even with modern videoconferencing and collaboration tools. Quoting from their working paper, Deepening Relational Coordination: Why Site Visits Matter in Global Work:

Our findings suggest that site visits promote situated knowing who – knowledge about distant colleagues that is situated in context and intertwined with practice – that deepen relational coordination between co-workers. During site visits, people observed and interacted with their distant colleagues in these colleagues’ context, thus gaining a deeper understanding of their behavior within the social and physical context in which they were situated.

Therefore, the use of traditional videoconferencing and dedicated, shared multimedia workspaces, no matter how high the quality, may not be sufficient.

Rather than focusing on technologies to support meetings, for example, our results suggest that technologies that provide a window into the local day-to-day interactions of distant colleagues may be a more fruitful avenue for exploration.

This is exactly the kind of interaction that we aim to capture with Beam — continuing a conversation down a hallway, dropping by someone’s desk, or even just passively “hanging out” in a workspace.

Finally, Hinds and Cramton recognize the tension between the benefits of personal interaction and the costs of travel, both financial and environmental.

One of the interpretations of this work might be that people involved in global collaboration should travel more often. We are reluctant to make such a blanket recommendation particularly given the potential affect on the carbon footprint of these teams and, in turn, on the environment. Instead, we hope that our findings will aid organizations in determining who should travel and for how long.

We believe that with Beam, nearly all of this travel is no longer necessary. We’ve refined the design, over several years, to provide the key benefits of being there, but without the time, hassle, and cost. We’ve found this to be the case for our own internal use at Suitable, and our early customers as well.

In the coming months and years, we plan continue our own study of distributed teams, to try to measure the effect of remote presence technology like Beam. We expect that as the technology improves, it will become an even more central component of these teams, not by replacing existing tools, but by augmenting them with new types of interaction that are currently not possible.