Working Together Apart
Technology is shrinking the world of business. As borders collapse, organizations increasingly require employees to collaborate with colleagues who are based in other countries — and who frequently speak different languages. Professor Judy Olson frames it this way: “Working with someone who is not co-located creates a lot of problems. It’s hard to coordinate across time zones and cultures, and we lose trust when we don’t know what other people are doing.”
Through her research, Professor Olson has found that distance has a direct impact on work, both in terms of productivity and worker satisfaction. Managers who supervise people remotely face a myriad of challenges. As Professor Olson observes, “Ultimately, it translates to someone having to stay up in the middle of the night if they want to have a real-time conversation.” Even then, the relationship differs dramatically from that of a manager who regularly checks up with a team in person and immediately works with team members to address challenges when they arise. Surprisingly, Professor Olson has found that the same loss of productivity and worker satisfaction occurs in projects involving people in different buildings or even on different floors.
Another important place affected by distance is schools, which traditionally are inaccessible to children who might be homebound because of an illness or disability. Professor Olson is working to understand how the recent emergence of telepresence robots can reduce this barrier. The robots are basically an iPad on a Segue; a homebound child can use videoconferencing on the iPad and can control the robot, moving it around the classroom and navigating to other classrooms. “The effect has been life-changing; children can learn as if they were in school and can socialize with friends,” says Professor Olson, who is working with school districts nationwide to bring this experience to all children in need.