How robots are helping MIT employees work from home

MITSloanExecEd meeting with robotMIT Sloan Executive EducationAn MIT employee interacts with a remote employee using a robot.

Much of the concern about robots centres around the idea that they’re stealing our jobs.

But at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, robots are helping people keep their jobs — and do them better.

For the past year, the executive education program at MIT’s Sloan School of Management has been letting its 35 employees work remotely at least two days a week, in order to help them better manage stress and integrate their work and home lives. On the days when employees aren’t in the office, they have the option of using a robot — essentially an iPad and stick on wheels — to make them feel like they’re physically present among their coworkers.

Remote employees control the robots so that the robots hold up the screens and wheel them around the office. The technology not only facilitates collaboration among coworkers, but also encourages a kind of team bonding, since the robots are used during work meetings and social events like team lunches.

The idea came from Peter Hirst, Ph.D., the program’s executive director, who first saw the technology used at a conference last fall.

When the team initially transitioned to a flexible work arrangement, Hirst said it relied on tools like videoconferencing. Yet even the most advanced videoconferencing technology couldn’t replicate the experience of walking around the office. Instead, Hirst said, remote employees often became just a face on a screen.

“People forget you’re there,” Hirst said of videoconferencing, so that you end up “frantically waving on screen.”

But “with robots, people treat that person like they’re physically there, too,” he said.

While he admits there was some giggling when the robots were first introduced, Hirst said he was surprised by how quickly his staff adjusted.

MIT now has two robots, and Hirst plans to order at least one more for his team, given that about two-thirds of the staff currently takes advantage of the flexible work policy. At some point, it’s possible that every employee working remotely would have the option of using a robot.

As more business teams transition to remote work — at least for part of the week — it’s possible that these robots could pop up elsewhere, alleviating some of the most common issues associated with working from home, like loneliness.

Right now, it’s too early to say whether robots will significantly increase productivity among remote workforces. Yet it’s possible that many employees will prefer sitting on their couches and controlling a robot from afar as opposed to schlepping into an office every day.

Either way, it’s comforting to know that these robots aren’t designed to replace humans but instead to enhance our performance and enable us to lead less stressful lives.

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