Nick Brewer goes into the office every day, just like most working professionals.
He shows up promptly at 9 AM, logs onto his email, hangs out by the water cooler, catches up with his boss, and attends weekly meetings. Around six or seven, he says goodbye to his colleagues and signs off.
But unlike most people, Brewer isn’t physically in his office. He’s not even in the Bay Area, where his company Double Robotics is headquartered. Instead, he’s 2,900 miles away in Brooklyn, NY, with his two dogs and spouse, where he controls a robot that allows him to telecommute to California.
The Double robot Brewer uses stands five feet tall, about the height of a full-grown human. It wobbles around on bulky wheels for legs. Its body is a long, thin stick atop which a tablet rests like a face.
Thousands of Double robots have been shipped since the company launched in 2012; they can be rented for a few hundred dollars per month or purchased outright for a few thousand.
Brewer’s company has about 35 employees, a handful of which are remote. Each remote employee is assigned a robot, which has their name on it. Within a few weeks, Brewer says employees get very attached to their pseudo-selves.
In the California office, all five robots are stashed in a room, where the door is never closed, so Brewer and his remote colleagues can roam the office in their robotic forms, just like regular employees.
We met Brewer at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas on Sunday and asked him what it’s like to telecommute this way.
The daily routine of a robot
Every morning, Brewer wakes up in New York and makes himself a big breakfast. Then he walks his dogs and checks his email. Around noon his time (9 AM Pacific), he signs onto his Double robot in California and his face is projected onto the tablet. Around the same time, the robots around him come to life as other remote Double employees log on.
Brewer has two screens up at home: One that projects a view of the California office from his Double robot, the other dedicated to his emails, chat applications, and other productivity tools. He mutes himself when he isn’t being spoken to so his colleagues can’t hear music playing or his dogs barking.
His team has weekly meetings, and Brewer is expected to be there on time. He, like every other employee, was given a tour of the headquarters when he first joined, so he knows how to roll himself to each meeting place using the Double’s 150 degree camera view. Bumping into walls doesn’t happen much at all, he says.
“There’s no one picking me up and walking me down to the office. I have to be there, just like anybody else would be there,” he says. “If i’m not on my robot I’ll get an email that’s like, ‘Hey, where were you today?’ I’m just as absent as if I just didn’t show up for work that day.”
Robot etiquette: Keep your distance and the doors open
An obvious issue with using a robot like Double to telecommute is that it doesn’t have arms. Closed doors are a pain point for Brewer, who does not appreciate being stuck behind them. As such, the Doubles headquarters has an open door policy. You only shut your office door if you need total privacy, because it prevents the robots from going about their days like normal.
Brewer recalled one time when a physical Double employee was giving an office tour and accidentally shut the door to the office where all the robots are kept. The employee left them locked inside for a few hours.
“When he finally reopened our door we yelled at him,” Brewer says. “It was like, ‘Dude! It was like you trapped us in a closet!’
When he finally reopened our door we yelled at him. It was like, ‘Dude! You trapped us in a closet!’
You can’t go anywhere or do anything so you’re hindering my ability to do my job. And you’re hindering my ability to interact with other people in the company.”
Another big no-no for robot commuters like Brewer is borrowing a Double without asking the owner’s permission.
Brewer says you get “oddly attached to your robot,” and it’s not a good feeling when you try to log on but can’t because another employee has already taken over your device.
“And it’s a huge faux pas for one of my other colleagues to log onto my robot without at least asking me or letting me know, ‘Hey, can I borrow it?'” Brewer says.
“If I want to use it and it’s not there and I don’t know why it’s not there, then it’s inhibiting me from going to work. Then I’m just that guy on the other end of the phone, at the other end of email, and it’s this huge disconnect between how I can deal with these people.”
Another thing that irks Brewer is when people don’t give his robot enough personal space. Close talkers aren’t appreciated during in-person conversations, and similarly they aren’t appreciated up close to the screen of his robot. Additionally, Brewer doesn’t appreciate when his robot is picked up and moved without his consent. It’s disorienting, he says.
“I have the ability to do what I need to do, but if someone picks me up I’m losing that ability,” he says. “If someone pushed me in a hallway, it’s the same feeling.”
Help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up
The most embarrassing issue Brewer has encountered is when his robotic body has fallen over. He says it doesn’t happen much anymore now that Double has released a sturdier second version of its robot. But occasionally, his robot has toppled over, and he’s needed help from a California colleague to get back up.
“It’s super embarrassing, because then you have to ask for help back up,” Brewer says. “That’s when you send an [all-company] email like, ‘Hey, I fell down in the hallway
It’s super embarrassing, because then you have to ask for help back up. That’s when you send an email like, ‘Hey, I fell down in the hallway…
…It’s awkward enough that you don’t do it very often.”
Currently, Brewer is facing another hurdle. He went on vacation and when he returned, his robot was missing. He sent an email to all Double employees asking for whoever borrowed it to put it back, but his robot appears to have been stolen.
The company is working on replacing his robot, but for now, Brewer feels like a part of him is missing.
“I feel naked,” he says. “I feel like I’m not part of [the team], it’s weird.”
Overall, it’s a good robotic life
Aside from personal space issues, closed doors, and the occasional device hijackings, the life of a robot teleworker is pretty good.
Brewer can have close-to in-person conversations with his boss, where he can roll away with a much better understanding than he would just from reading an email.
“I can see his face, I can see his emotions, I can see his body language — and he can see mine,” Brewer says. “And we come to an understanding really, really easily without typing paragraphs about it.”
For Brewer, the flexibility of working through a robot is great. He can live anywhere in the country he wants, and is even considering moving to Texas where the cost of living is less.
“I do the same thing [through my robot] anybody else would do,” Brewer says. “There isn’t much separation between me as a person living in New York and me as an employee in California.”