Is a four-foot tall robotic standin the next step in telecommuting?  And what use would such a fellow be in a law firm or law department? 

Currently telecommuting is often an adjunct to an employee’s presence in the home office– three days in, two days telecommuting, or three weeks in, one week telecommuting–and poses its own challenges:  how to condense complicated discussions into an email, how to make sure everyone gets enough face-time.  Some telecommuters supplement their emails with Skype-type individual cameras at their remote desks and/or interact via sophisticated video conference equipment housed in the main office.

A new alternative is becoming available, if you don’t mind stubbing your virtual shins on very real brick and mortar wall.

The robot looks like a coatrack on a four-wheeled box, with a tablet computer that exhibits the telecommuter’s face halfway up the central metal pole, two speakers below, and a webcam and microphone above.  An attached digital camera  takes photos of critical documents or board presentations.  With the ability to move the robot at will, the telecommuter can participate in discussions and meetings throughout the office, even those that are closed-door to others.

Developed by California-based Sybase Inc., a prototype costing $9,000 is roaming the halls of its subsidiary SybaseiAnywhere in Waterloo, Ontario as the representative of a valued employee whose wife was transferred thousands of miles away.  Sybase notes that expertise is becoming so valuable and recruiting and training so lengthy and expensive, that extraordinary measures to keep talent pay off.

Minneapolis-based company PowerObjects uses robots to bring into the home office those in their Islamabad office.  "With offices halfway around the world, you have to to take advantage of whatever can help the team work together.  We no longer have to fly them back and forth or meet in a specific conference room or office for the remote person to hear all parts of the discussion –that person can move from office to office as if he/she were here," a representative explains.

With more companies and firms locating outposts in Asia and the Middle East (such as Latham & Watkin’s recent announcement it was expanding its Dubai office and establishing Abu Dhabi and Doha offices), the challenges of maintaining law department / firm and team cohesion will compound. 

There are shortcomings in the prototype, of course:  a time lag in conversations and the inability of the person on the tablet to look like s/he is looking his/her companion in the eye–the webcam position scews that. 

And of course there are those times when the robot crashes into a wall and has to be rebooted.  But I assume there are days when we can all relate to that.

Robots, anyone?