The office of the future is a key topic of debate during the COVID-19 shutdown. The situation is changing our idea of what is possible and it is not as simple as moving from office to remote working – as many businesses and individuals are discovering. Although remote working is being forced on a great number of us, not everyone is embracing or enjoying it. Some are desperate for a return to office life. So what does the working environment of the future look like?
The reality is office life will not be the same for some time, if ever. Those that go back will find many of the things they value are no longer possible. The easy banter with colleagues, shared lunches, brainstorms and kitchen chats are gone – replaced with an uneasy and awkward dance around each other. Many will retreat back to home office life with relief.
No one can claim remote working is perfect but a big part of the problem is companies are trying to recreate physical offices online. When it comes to setting up remote working, organisations are looking at what happens within an office and trying to replicate that virtually. That’s impossible. Although we are seeing the development of tools, such as Virbela and High Fidelity, that go further in mimicking the office experience – creating random encounters and spontaneous exchanges – we need to spend less time trying to recreate the existing office set up and more time looking at the positive changes and benefits that remote working can bring about.
One of the biggest benefits of the virtual office is a sense of equality. Physical offices have an innate sense of hierarchy. Company headquarters is always seen as a more prestigious location to work in than a satellite office, for example, while teams based out of offshore centres often feel second tier. If you take physical location out of the equation this goes away.
Remote working is also an excellent way to encourage greater cross-functional collaboration. Traditionally, different teams are based in different offices or floors and this acts as a barrier. Without that physical separation or sense of territory there is a greater sense of equality which makes people more likely to attend get togethers, whether it’s a meeting, workshop or brainstorm. At News Corp we find meeting attendance is up substantially since we all started remote working. And we are even exploring removing personalised avatars as a whole to further support this. Our favourite multiplayer VR experience that explores concepts of privacy and equality online is Half+Half by NormalVR. This allows teams to meet, bond and share a fun experience, focusing only on the moment and what there is to say to each other. We imagine this approach will become useful for anti-bias interviews and recruiting.
To realise these benefits however, businesses have to make sure their employees are starting off on an equal footing when it comes to the technologies used to enable remote working and the virtual office. Some teams or people will be at an advantage because they are simply more tech-literate, so upskilling teams to take advantage of the technology available is a very worthwhile investment. There will not be a one size fits all solution. Bringing in a tool like Slack will help people connect and communicate across functions and teams but it may not have the content sharing and interactive capabilities needed by certain groups within the business. Companies will need some tools that are universal and others that support specific requirements. Equality is not about everyone having to use the same kit, it’s about everyone having what they need to do their job properly.
One significant challenge around remote working is creating an immersive experience. Video conferencing is certainly useful but it cannot replicate the interaction of being together in the same room and this has an emotional impact on the people involved. Trying to maintain the right level of presence in the room can become exhausting, especially as many of us risk turning into ‘Zoombies’ by attending five or six hours of calls every day. A very refreshing approach to calls and deck sharing is the Mmmhmm app by All Turtles; it seems inexplicable that such a versatile and engaging way of communicating didn’t exist until recently.
The next level of engaging remote meetings is VR and Spaces sits right at the transition allowing you to integrate a VR call within Zoom or Skype. Then the true game-changer is not VR per se, but actually WebXR. This enables a virtual reality (VR) type experience on any device – tablet, phone, desktop – and allows immersive experiences for everyone. We think of VR and augmented reality (AR) as gaming tools but this technology holds the key to the office of the future. See it for yourself with Spatial.io, Mozilla Hubs, Borrel, AltSpace VR, MeetinVr or Glue.work. In the last 12 months VR headsets have gone from a £3,000 investment – for not just a headset but also a PC with the power to support it – to a £500 standalone and tetherless headset like the Oculus Quest, which requires zero technical skills to jump into a VR experience. WebXR adds to these the opportunity for those that don’t have a headset to join and interact within a shared immersive experience.
Another big issue for remote workers is creating that sense of team and of belonging. The reality is that the best way to create bonds and build loyalty and engagement is in person. Tools such as WebXR will mean person to person interactions will be needed less frequently because established relationships can be better maintained remotely. Immersive onboarding means recruitment will be easier too.
The future model for the working environment will be very different. Rather than spending money on expensive offices, companies will bring employees together once or twice a year for events designed specifically to enable them to establish and build relationships. Tools like WebXR will then enable people to maintain these relationships effectively while working remotely.
Such far-reaching changes to working practices will not just impact the price of corporate real estate, they will change the shape of our world significantly. What will happen to major cities when fewer and fewer people need to live in them? What will transport networks look like if the daily commute no longer exists? Whatever happens next we can be sure the office of tomorrow will not be the same as the one we left behind just a few months ago.
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