If remote workers were parrots
The Smithsonian Magazine published a terrific story, Scientists Taught Pet Parrots to Video Call Each Other — and the Birds Loved It. It details an experiment that used video chat to address the loneliness of domesticated birds —along with symptoms that might sound familiar to any overwhelmed, isolated remote worker:
In the wild, parrots tend to live in large flocks. But when kept in captivity, such as in people’s homes as pets, these social birds are often on their own. Feeling bored and isolated, they may develop psychological issues and can even resort to self-harming tendencies like plucking out their feathers.
Would the parrot experiment potentially illuminate the value of online collaboration among remote workers? I wondered how well the article would translate to our particular experience, so I asked ChatGPT to translate for me.
The results are delightful:
When humans are feeling lonely, they can call or video chat with friends and family who live far away. But what about remote workers? New research suggests that these communicative individuals may also benefit from virtually connecting with their peers.
Remote workers who learned to initiate video chats with other remote workers had a variety of positive experiences, such as learning new skills, according to a recent study in a prominent computing systems conference.
“She came alive during the calls,” one manager said about a worker on their team.
The idea for this study was not random: In the workplace, employees tend to work in large teams. But when working remotely, these social individuals are often on their own. Feeling bored and isolated, they may develop psychological issues and can even resort to unhealthy habits.
Lonely workers are unhappy workers, so researchers set out to find a way for some of the estimated millions of remote workers to connect with each other. They recruited volunteers from a remote work training program for employees and their managers.
During the first two weeks of the study, participants were taught to initiate a video call with another remote worker on a tablet screen. In this initial phase, the participating workers made 212 video calls while their managers carefully monitored their behavior. Managers terminated calls as soon as the workers stopped paying attention to the screen and capped their duration at five minutes. Though 18 workers began the experiment, three dropped out.
Once the workers had learned how to initiate video interactions, the second phase of the experiment could begin. In this “open call” period, the 15 participating workers could make calls freely; they also got to choose which worker to dial up. Over the next two months, remote workers made 147 deliberate video calls to others. Their managers took detailed notes about the calls and recorded more than 1,000 hours of video footage that the researchers analyzed.
For starters, they found that the workers took advantage of the opportunity to call one another, and they typically stayed on the call for the maximum time allowed during the experiment. They also seemed to understand that another live worker was on the other side of the screen, not a recorded worker, researchers say. Some of the workers learned new skills from their virtual companions, including productivity techniques, problem-solving, and how to make new connections.
A human-computer interaction researcher commented, “I was quite surprised at the range of different behaviors. Some would share ideas, some would collaborate on projects, others would want to show another worker their home office setup.” Two older workers, for example, became very close and even called out to one another “Hi! Come here! Hello!” from their respective screens.
The workers forged strong friendships, which researchers measured by how frequently they chose to call the same individual. Workers who initiated the highest number of video calls also received the most calls, which suggests a “reciprocal dynamic similar to human socialization,” per the statement.
The experiment also brought workers and managers closer together — on both sides of the screen. Some workers were even reported to have developed attachments to the managers of their virtual friends.
Video chatting can’t replace the social interactions that would occur in the workplace, but it may be a viable option for improving the lives of workers who are already working remotely, the researchers note. In addition, it may be beneficial for employees who cannot interact in person.
As for other remote workers, the researchers caution it might not be wise to suddenly begin launching video chats on behalf of their colleagues. The study involved experienced managers who had the time and energy to keep tabs on their workers’ behavior — at the first sign of fear, aggression, disinterest, or discomfort, they ended the calls. As the study’s authors note in the statement, “unmediated interactions could lead to fear [or] even conflict and miscommunication.”
“We were really careful about training the managers thoroughly to ensure that they could offer an appropriate level of support to empower their workers but also help them avoid any negative experiences,” says a voice technology researcher involved in the study.
Still, the researchers learned an important lesson from the study. If taught how to use video chat technologies to communicate with fellow workers, remote employees will do so in “very individual and very beautiful ways,” as a human-computer interaction researcher explained.
In conclusion, while video chatting cannot entirely replace in-person interactions in the workplace, it can be a valuable tool for improving the lives of remote workers. By teaching them how to use video chat technologies, these employees can build connections and develop skills that enhance their work experience. However, it is crucial to proceed with caution and ensure that managers are well-trained to handle any potential issues that may arise during these virtual interactions.