Humanizing the Remote Work Experience with Social Apps and Robotics

For the past six years, I have been a remote employee. During this time, the quality of my experiences as a remote employee has varied greatly, directly impacting my work satisfaction and motivation to perform well. In this post, I will share strategies and practices used by my team, Teaching and Learning Innovations at CSU Channel Islands, in an effort to contribute to the dialogue about effective practices for supporting remote employees into an organizational context.

Between 2005-2015, the remote employee or teleworker population increased by 103% (GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics) in the United States. Data has shown that organizations with remote employees see many advantages. Some of the benefits to organizations include:

  • improved employee satisfaction
  • reduced attrition
  • fewer unscheduled absences
  • increased productivity
  • cost savings to employer
  • environmentally-friendly practices
  • potential reduction of discrimination (hired for talent, as opposed to what one looks like)
  • increased collaboration
  • improved use of asynchronous technologies (reducing wasted time in meetings)
  • expanded talent pool
  • improved performance measurement (it’s what you do that counts, not where you are)


However, these advantages do not simply emerge by hiring remote employees. Too frequently, remote employees are hired without a process to identify practices to support their success. When a remote employee joins a workplace culture that uses practices to support traditional face-to-face employees, these benefits are not achieved. For example, an organization that relies upon face-to-face meetings to facilitate projects and tasks is likely to merely open a laptop and pull in a remote employee via Skype or some other teleconferencing system and consider the process done. The remote employee in this situation would likely be unable to hear details of a conversation and without the face-to-face relationships established ahead of time, would have difficulty distinguishing who is speaking in the conference room. This experience would establish a feeling of of isolation for the remote employee and diminish her ability to succeed in her role and make an impact within an organization. On the flip side, these barriers prevent her from being viewed as an equal, effective contributor by her colleagues.

In contrast, when teams are led by leaders who view remote employment as a valuable asset to an organization, the likelihood of success is greatly increase. This was the context of my employment at CSU Channel Islands (I acknowledge the leadership of Michael Berman and Jill Leafstedt here).  When remote employees are valued, team members are more likely to be empathetic to the remote experience as they proceed with day-to-day operations.  This leads to critical conversations about what’s working, what isn’t working, and brainstorms about how to improve problem areas. This is the experience I have had in the past two years at CSU Channel Islands, where I remotely provided professional development and support to online and blended faculty.  I was hired for the value that my expertise would bring to CSU Channel Islands, as they continued to grow their blended class enrollments and prepared to expand their online offerings. Having me at a distance was viewed as a benefit, not a hindrance. And this was demonstrated in many ways.

First, from the very beginning, my team embraced our use of technology as an ongoing experiment. We certainly do have regular “meetings,” but we are seamlessly connected between these meetings through the use of various communication and collaboration tools. For meetings, we started out using Google+ Hangouts for regular and impromptu live conversations. Our first challenge was identifying a microphone that allows me (at a distance) to hear the conversation in the room. The Hangout platform worked well for us as a team, but for me to support faculty at a distance, the requirement for a faculty member to have a Google account was not ideal.

This led to an interest in experimenting with Zoom, which has served to be an ideal solution for our needs. Zoom loads quickly on a laptop or mobile device and does not require a participant to have an account. The use of video conferencing has been invaluable in establishing deep, meaningful connections between my colleagues and me and also has allowed my teammates to learn to read my expressions and gestures during a meeting. During meetings, I regularly hear Jill say, “It looks like Michelle has a comment to make,” often before I even recognize my interest in speaking. I should note that Zoom offers a free account (limits participants to 25 and meetings to 40 minutes) and upgraded PRO accounts (for $15/month), which can be packaged into a site license (used at CI). Click here for more details about Zoom accounts.

Image of Michelle on the Kubi Robot
Michelle on the Kubi Robot. Photo by Michael Berman, CC-BY

More recently, we have extended our use of Zoom’s telepresence into a 3D context with Kubi, a telepresence robot (about $500).  With Kubi, my colleagues on campus connect to Zoom on an iPad and also launch the Kubi app (on the same iPad), which generates a Kubi URL. That URL is sent to me, I click on it, and I appear on the iPad in Zoom. On my end, the Kubi control panel opens in my browser (or mobile device) and enables me to tilt the iPad left, right, up, and down and set contact points on a canvas, which represent the 3d layout of the room and each person’s location within the space. For example, I tilt the iPad until I see my colleague, Jill, click the Kubi canvas and mark point “1.” I proceed to do this for others in the room and then I can simply click each node to maneuver to the individual who is speaking. This works best for small group communications (2-3 people). For large groups, I am projected on a large monitor on the wall of our FIT Studio. (Michigan State recently experimented with Kubi as a way to integrate online students in a live, face-to-face class session.) Our next steps are to improve the microphone and speakers that are included on an iPad — here are suggestions from Revolve Robotics.

An image showing Michelle's video presence projected on a large monitor.
Zoom conversation – their view. Photo: Michael Berman, CC-BY
an image illustrating what Michelle sees when logged into a Zoom conversation with multiple people at the other end in one room.
Zoom conversation – my view. Photo: Michelle Pacansky-Brock CC-BY







Communication technologies are just one important component to support the success of remote employees. The use of mobile, social technologies enable co-workers to stay connected and productive at all times. In my group, we no longer rely solely on email (hooray!).  Instead, we have an evolving collection of mobile apps that keep us connected and productive from anywhere.  This collection currently includes Wunderlist, Slack, Google Drive, Dropbox, and Twitter.

screenshot of Slack channels
Screenshot of Slack channels. Photo by: Michelle Pacansky-Brock, CC-BY

We use Wunderlist to track the completion of important tasks, help each of us manage our own productivity, as well as assign tasks to each other. A particularly useful feature is the list of completed tasks, which can be referenced at any time to view and demonstrate the team’s productivity.  For asynchronous and synchronous conversations, we use Slack, which is self-described as a “messaging app for teams.” In Slack, we have created a TL Innovations “team” and each of us has joined as a member. Within the “Team” there is a series of 13 “Channels” (see image), each referencing a common topic of conversation: accessibility, blackboard, cikeys, etc.  Any team member may create a Channel and invite select teammates to view/participate in the Channel. Channels may be referenced in other channels with a hashtag, creating a truly digital, conversational exchange complete with hypertext. Slack also supports “mentions” (much like Facebook), which team members may choose to be alerted about with a special notification. Each of us has the choice to download the Wunderlist and Slack mobile apps on our mobile device(s) too, providing each team member with the ability to have a continuous communication with each other, as well as a view of what the others are working on (which may also be disabled, an important feature for work/life balance in the mobile age). I should add here that Slack also provides the option to integrate an array of apps,including Zoom, Google Drive, and Wunderlist — just be cautious about turning notifications on for apps that you also integrate into Slack.

Higher education organizations have a long way to go to become agile and adaptive, qualities that differentiate successful organizations in today’s digital, mobile society.  The strategic integration of remote employees into the workplace can play a role in this process by stimulating opportunities for improving productivity through the use of emerging communication and collaboration technologies. Along the way, higher education organizations who embrace these practices will become more like the workplaces our own students will enter after graduation.

Image of the TLI at CI Team
The Teaching and Learning Innovations @CI team. Photo by Michelle Pacansky-Brock, CC-BY

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