Illustration by Fanny Luor
Illustration by Fanny Luor

Working Smarter

How will virtual meetings evolve in the age of AI?


Published on October 05, 2023

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In our new Working Smarter series, we hear from AI experts about how they’re leveraging machine learning to solve interesting problems and dramatically change the way we work for the better. 

Ever wish you could send an avatar to attend a meeting that could’ve been an email? With the evolution of generative AI tools, that might be a reality sooner than you think.

Having studied the psychological and social impact of VR, online games, and virtual worlds for decades, Dr. Robby Ratan can envision a day when avatars could become not just passive participants in a meeting, but agents of representation that could act on our behalf.  

“Your avatar’s nodding along with whoever's speaking, taking notes and multitasking during the meeting, while you're doing something else,” says Ratan, Director of the Social and Psychological Approaches to Research on Technology-Interaction Effects (SPARTIE) Lab at Michigan State. “You've left the meeting entirely. You're in five meetings at a time. And afterwards the AI could send you a summary of what was important.”

Work in Progress spoke with Ratan to find out how AI tools might help improve meetings for distributed teams and help them get the most of out virtual experiences.

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How do you see AI tools changing the way we meet in virtual realms of the future?
We might think about some common metaphors in today's media landscape of autonomous cars. You switch between driving the car yourself, then putting it on autopilot. You can imagine something similar in virtual meetings. I send my AI into the meeting, then maybe I embody it in the meeting for a little bit, then I leave it. This is all much easier said than done at the moment.

What do you consider the best uses of asynchronous tools for remote collaboration?
Research suggests that asynchronous media is leaner—fewer channels of communication—but you can use them to make up for the cues that are filtered out. But it takes more time. We can replace the smiles and the nods with the emoticons and style of language in our emails. But it's gonna take us four days of six emails a day compared to 25 minutes in a meeting. Choice of the medium should depend heavily on the work task, the team, and the people. 

What do you recommend to teams trying to balance in-person and remote work?
I would say to take it on a case-by-case basis and think about: What does your organization, your team, need to accomplish in your communication? When can you allow people with higher social interaction anxiety, or disempowered people, some control over their self presentation? When is that okay to do so in an asynchronous way? When is that okay to do in a playful way? 

You probably don't want everyone in avatars at your formal meeting with the boss's boss. But if you're trying to get team members to bond and build trust, some playful synchronous communication in a virtual world—like everybody throws on a VR headset and you're all in avatars—social anxiety goes down, and control goes up.

“Choice of the medium should depend heavily on the work task, the team, and the people.”—Dr. Robby Ratan

Which kind of meetings are best to conduct in person?
Conferences, I think, are the best example of a reason to actually get together for a meeting because you're going to meet people you didn't plan to [who] you never knew before. And they might cross pollinate. I hear salespeople talk about the need to shake the hand and instill trust. When trust and serendipity [are] important, social presence will facilitate those things. 

What about asynchronously? 
When there's not a lot of exchange. When it's one person asking questions, and then receiving the all the answers. When it's not urgent—like when I have mentorship meetings with my students. It's important, but it's not super urgent. Instead of reading a long email, I’ll say, “Send me a [video]. Maybe send me a document that I can look at while I listen to your screen share.” That makes it a lot easier to respond. 

It's a slow exchange. Social presence is already established. These are people who I know really well. They don't need to establish trust with me. It's already there. The communication is information oriented. It's just moving something along.

“Conferences, I think, are the best example of a reason to actually get together for a meeting.”

How do you envision chatbots enhancing the way we use avatars?
I can imagine chatbots being trained to speak in your style and trained on your repository of emails and all the files in your drives. The chatbots [could] be aware of what's considered private or not private, speak on your behalf, but also help you organize information that comes in as you navigate these meetings. You'll see it as a friend, as a pet, an avatar, and a tool.

We’ve heard how virtual meetings help introverts feel empowered to participate. Who else might benefit from enhancements to remote work tools?
People who have higher social interaction anxiety are more inclined to use the features of Zoom that augment their self representation. But it's also non-white users, women and people with less work experience who are inclined to use these features. We classify that latter group as the disempowered. If we consider systemic biases and inequities and the ways it's harder [for those folks] to navigate the workplace, it makes sense that these tools might distract from the characteristics that [cause] social anxiety. 

What lessons have you learned from teaching your classes virtually? 
I teach all my classes in VR now. It's way better than Zoom for the same reasons that Zoom was way better than asynchronous classes [where] you don't get as much social presence, so you don't establish as much trust and serendipity. Alongside teaching in VR, I've learned from doing research on virtual meetings that social presence is the key to facilitating strong teams, long-lasting collaborations, and efficacy in your serendipitous encounters. VR is an excellent tool to achieve these goals. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.