Sometimes it’s lonely being a robot

I’m committed to be a global citizen but, living in Australia, I simply can’t get to as many meetings around the world as my role would ideally involve. To deal with this, I find other ways to participate. The myriad of technologies available today, including video conferencing and telepresence robots (think an iPad sitting on top of a remote-controlled Segway), has made this much easier than any time in the past.

I’ve spent many hours, often in the middle of the night, sitting alone participating in meetings thousands of kilometres away. As I load up on caffeine, I find myself comparing the experience to that I would have in person. Overwhelmingly it is positive, I can get to more meetings, contribute more often and avoid many days away from my family. However, there are subtle differences that we often put down to our need to develop relationships in person.

Given the cost and productivity benefit of doing more meetings virtually, it is important to challenge the catch-all excuse that we need to meet in the same physical location and really understand what works, when and why. It is an oversimplification to say that we rely on body language to develop relationships, but there is no doubt that electronic participants in meetings are treated differently.

Through an accident of birth, I am part of society’s “in group”. I seldom experience the unconscious bias that many of my talented colleagues have to navigate in their day-to-day work. However, when I sit in the same room, with the same people, as a robot rather than in-person, I start to experience some of the same subtle shift in behaviour that I’ve observed some of my “out group” colleagues experience in the past.

The thing about bias is that it is based on the short-hand that our brains use. Does the other person look like me? Do they move the way I expect? Can I predict how they will talk? If someone doesn’t fit a mould, then our reptilian brain tends to group them as outsiders who shouldn’t be trusted. This is unconscious bias.

As an electronic participant in a meeting, particularly when I’m on the end of a telepresence robot, I find it fascinating to participate in a meeting and move from being part of the “in group” to being part of the “out group”. I’m still “me”, yet even people that I know well, act differently. I’m included, but not in the natural flow of the conversation. I’m consulted, but as an afterthought. I’m respected, but because of who I have been (in person) not because of who I am as a robot in that meeting.

Of all the faces around the table, I look the most different. They have to use their imaginations to convert my avatar into the person they are used to seeing in the chair. I also move differently, not the natural movement of a human but jerky electronic movements that, as a result of lag, can overshoot – sometimes with hilarious consequences. And, even on the best of video conferences, I don’t talk in quite the same way.

Researchers have found that the normal flow of conversation relies on speakers taking turns with remarkably small gaps. Moreover, these gaps differ by culture as a result of language and local norms with Japanese speakers leaving as little as 7 milliseconds compared to Danish speakers who wait an average of 469 milliseconds. The study found that English speakers average gap was 236 milliseconds.

Most people notice that other cultures seem different in conversation which may be partly attributable to the differences in conversational turn taking. It is no surprise then that when someone is participating in a conversation electronically, and the gap is measured in seconds rather than milliseconds, they seem even more different again.

An unexpected benefit of this bias against electronic participants is that it can be used as a training tool to explain what unconscious bias feels like to people who don’t normally experience it. While only a microcosm of what many have to deal with, such exposure can change your perspective.

There is work for all of us to do to unlock the power of a global community. We need to include our electronic colleagues in each and every conversation knowing that the favour you do now will benefit you next time around.

If we make the unconscious, conscious we can include everyone in every meeting. Remember to pause at appropriate times, check everyone is participating and listen carefully to every idea. After all, these behaviours are just as valuable in an inclusive workplace regardless of whether we are supporting remote colleagues.

Sometimes it’s lonely being a robot!

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Category: Enterprise2.0
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