Better than Being There

In the era of teleconferencing, how do leaders avoid getting stuck in the uncanny valley?

I used video teleconferencing for the first time in 1973. The video wasn’t very good and the audio was worse, but otherwise the design vision was pretty much the same as the systems of today – an invisible wall between two groups of people able to see and hear each other.

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Rather than designing to simulate being there, I think we should be designing to be better than being there.

In time, under that vision, the view of each other would become holographic and perhaps the two sides would even be able to virtually reach through the glass and touch each other using some form of haptic interface.

This might seem like we’re on the path to progress, but innovation in video teleconferencing seems to be driven by a kind of unconscious horseless-carriage logic that troubles me.

The design vision seems to be based on an unexamined assumption that in-person meetings are the ultimate form of human communication, so the closer virtual meetings can get to in-person, the better.

Rather than designing to simulate being there, I think we should be designing to be better than being there.

Avoiding the “uncanny valley”

Emerging technologies such as augmented reality and virtual reality will provide new opportunities to communicate more effectively, productively and persuasively than ever before. And moving forward, they will also open the doors to forms of remote presence that could be off-putting and alienating.

This has a parallel to an idea that was touched upon in 1970, when a robotics professor named Masahiro Mori at the Tokyo Institute of Technology wrote a classic essay in which he coined the vivid term “uncanny valley” to describe how humans react to humanoid robots.

Essentially, the more human-like a robot appears, the more positively we react to it – that is, until they come very close to looking like an actual human but are still recognizable as non-human. And the dissonance creates an uncanny, unsettling feeling in us.

[Photo: Tokyo Institute of Technology/Wikimedia Commons]

A robot with a cartoon-like face is more appealing to most people than a robot with no face. But a robot that looks like a living mannequin is close enough to human that it makes us uncomfortable.

As we move into a world of ambient communications, we will likely see a similar uncanny valley emerge for leadership at a distance. In climbing toward the goal of leaders being there without being there, our affinity for those leaders will increase as their virtual presence increases – until we reach an uncanny valley where leaders are perceived as being weirdly or inappropriately present.

In a world of networked, ambient communications, leaders will be able to be present in the background much more of the time. This could be reassuring in some situations but eerie in others. Leaders will be able to monitor performance with much greater detail, even if they are not physically present.

What used to be called “workflow systems” will be capable of much more detailed monitoring of progress – or lack of progress – through a ubiquitous mesh of sensors. Blended reality leadership presence could become Big Brother incarnate, with performance monitoring turning into eavesdropping, measuring employees’ stress levels and emotional states and cataloging worker output on a minute-by-minute basis.

Such tracking might even help leaders in the short-term, but the behavior would cross into the uncanny valley of inhumane co-presence that is unwanted, uninvited and difficult to shake.

Principles for navigating blended reality leadership

In the future, leaders will need to become skilled at choosing which medium will best communicate their style of leadership.

Here are some principles to help you understand the affordances of this world and how to navigate them:

Sharable presence for leaders and co-workers:

This will be a world where co-presence will be possible, even when people are not physically present together in the same place at the same time. Mixed-reality experiences can be shared across distances. The best leaders will have much more vivid shared work and life experiences with the people they lead. Physically distant leaders will want to feel close – but not too close.

Biomedia sensors to link leaders, workers and work:

This will be a world where connected sensors are ubiquitous. Some of them will be in our bodies. Moreover, leaders (and everyone else) will have a newfound ability to make sense out of all the data those sensors collect. These embodied systems will link to and respond to biomarkers from workers. The best leaders will be able to literally embody and sense the mood of the people they are leading without intruding on privacy.

Respectfully measuring productivity:

This will be a world where the outcomes of work will become much more explicit and measurable; “8 to 5” jobs will yield to ways of making a living that are focused on outcomes, not physical presence. Progress tracking will become much easier, but the same abilities will raise the key question of what should be tracked and what constitutes progress.

The potential for worker abuse will rise, as systems will have the ability to measure almost everything and sometimes measure the wrong things. The best leaders will figure out ways to track and guide the progress of work, without prying or preying.

New blended reality leadership literacies:

This will be a world where leaders will need to be skilled in the art and science of being there without being there. There are some general directions of change – leaders will have to shift from thinking about where people are physically to what their circumstance and mindset are wherever they might be, and scheduling will become a dynamic and ad hoc process. On the whole, communications strategies will have to become much more situational.

Today, we can start looking systematically at what kinds of presence are best for which leadership goals. For instance, things like building trust and orienting new hires require people to meet in person.

In the next decade, these four modes of communication will each be further augmented by ambient communication technology.

Leaders will need to master each of them, learning how to choose the right mode of communication to meet their goal. They will need new blended reality skills to be better than being there – without getting stuck in the uncanny valley.

This article first appeared on the Institute for the Future’s Future Now blog and was republished with permission.

You might also like:

Closing the Leadership Gap

Evolving Nanoscale Communication

4 Ways Virtual Reality Is Molding the Future of Work

Bob Johansen is a distinguished fellow at the Institute For The Future (IFTF).

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