"Hey there, Jim. How's Toronto?" you ask from your home office in Miami. (Illustration: James Boast)

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A CURE FOR THE COMMON MEETING

Here comes the $16,000 virtual-you office robot. Or how we’re updating the watercooler for the 21st century.

There is a reason an increasing number of U.S. companies have embraced “telecommuting” (otherwise known as working from home, or from your favorite café hotspot): Good research and everyday experience show that, done for the right reasons, it yields both significant productivity gains and major cost savings.

The problem is that technology for business communications, which encouraged the trend, hasn’t kept up with it—and that’s as much a problem for people in the office and working at home after hours as it is for those lucky telecommuters.  The fact is that, in most companies, the most common ways of interacting with co-workers and clients haven’t changed much since the ‘90s.

In the age of digital magic, how can it be that we’re still putting up with interminable meetings and conference calls, drowning in emails and playing phone tag?

We know the solutions are out there because we use platforms like Skype, Google Hangout and Pinterest to keep in touch with family and friends every day.  But your local IT security team probably takes a really dim view of sharing proprietary or sensitive information that way.

“You don't want them using Dropbox and Facebook for business,” says Chris Crummey, worldwide director of sales for IBM's social business products, but, if company solutions don’t measure up, he says, employees “will find a way—the path of least resistance.”

Crummey is one of the new breed of digital nomads, usually working remotely from his home in Massachusetts, south of Boston. “Many IBM employees work remotely,” he says, “and I happen to be one of those employees. My entire team is spread out all over the world. We're on different time zones, and we have different cultures.”

So far nobody has figured out a way to replace what Crummey calls the “water-cooler knowledge accidents” that help companies share culture and information, but new technology has compensating benefits, he says.  People can post questions on Crummey’s digital wall, for example, whether he is currently working or not. And sometimes, because the messages are visible to other employees in his network, answers to the questions will appear before he even wakes up.

Providing useful social tools at work also helps companies recruit people who like to use those tools. Getting a critical mass of employees who want to work socially is an important bottom-up way for changing the corporate culture, because reluctant employees are exposed to more of the benefits.

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1. The Meeting

The original office communication, in which two or more people convened in a single space to discuss professional business in person.

2. The Letter

When meeting face-to-face wasn’t possible, two colleagues could exchange information about their work in written form, delivered from one place to another.

3. The Telegram

In 1844, Samuel Morse sent the first telegram from Washington D.C. to Baltimore, opening the door for employees to instantly send messages across distances for the first time.

4. The Phone Call

In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell made the first phone call, setting the stage for colleagues to discuss matters in real-time without actually being in the same place.

5. The Conference Call

Once referred as “the party line,” the conference call made its debut in the 1950s, when multiple people could pick up the handset to join the party. Shortly thereafter, it evolved into the conference calls we rely on today.

6. The Fax Machine

In 1964, Xerox Corporation invented the first modern fax machine, allowing employees to instantly send copies of contracts and other documents to one another over the phone line.

7. The Email

In 1971, the first email was sent over the Internet. It would be another two decades before they would all but replace the office mailroom.

8. The Instant Message

In 1997, AOL launched AOL Instant Messenger, which quickly became the biggest instant messaging service in the US, laying the foundation for colleagues in one part of the office to talk to another without getting up.

9. Social Media

In 2008, Facebook became the world’s first popular social network, connecting groups of people instantaneously across distances online. While its success outside the office has yet to make its mark within it, that’s likely to change.

10. The Telepresence

In recent years, video conferencing has helped pave the way for telecommuting, in which sci-fi predictions of phone calls with live video are transforming what meetings look like.

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To encourage the kind of camaraderie that comes from sharing the same physical space, Crummey holds a weekly video call “so everybody can see everybody else.” Often, that brings an element of old-school in-person office culture—inevitably, someone will wear the jersey or hat of a rival sports team that recently defeated one of Crummey’s beloved Boston teams.  “And so all the sudden, everyone is looking forward to the visual engagement, and we are actually a better team and closer team because of the video meetings that we do.”

While videoconferencing software and hardware are continually improving, they’re still far from perfect, especially for meetings. But a new breed of mobile telepresence startups, including Suitable Technologies, VGo, Anybots, and Double Robotics, are coming up with a two-way audio and video system that can move around on wheels and act a bit more collegial than a stationary screen.

Not unlike the robots we’ve always imagined, one type of these machines—called a Beam—consists of a wheeled base that supports a screen and camera at roughly eye-level. (At 5’3” and 100 lbs., Beams are about kid-size.)  You drive a Beam from the arrow keys on your laptop, allowing you not only to look at people on the other end as you talk to them but also to move around the office, stopping in on co-workers.  Simple camera controls let you focus on individual speakers and zoom in on small or distant objects.  

Like certain people, Beams take some getting used to.  When Seth Stevenson test-drove the Beam to a meeting for Slate, he found the experience a little spooky—a suspicion not exactly discouraged by the fact that Beam made its first important public appearance as the virtual presence of mega-leaker Edward Snowden when he gave his TED talk. On the other hand, Stevenson didn’t want to send his Beam back.

That’s a hopeful sign, since new-tech uptake is often foiled by the fact that users find so much new technology requires training, and they don’t want to take risks.  The last thing most people want is an embarrassing technical glitch in front of a boss or client.

Then there is the usual resistance to change—as Crummey puts it, the sense that getting up to speed on a new system or device is just “one more stupid thing I have to do.”

The solution, says Crummey, is to make new solutions “stupid-simple”. “If it takes 15 clicks [to set up a meeting], no one is going to do it,” he says, which is why his team focuses on making new business tools work with existing platforms and technologies that people are already comfortable using. “What we want to make happen is to make smarter meetings ubiquitous—all I need is a browser, my iPhone or my Android device.”

“It's a cultural thing,” he says.  “Sometimes the softer things are the harder things.”