Man in suit holding a virtual smartphone with digital infographics floating in the background

Welcome to work 2.0 – where you’ll work in virtual offices and interact through avatars

  • Facebook’s Infinite Office blurs the lines between the virtual and the real
  • Mind mapping, brainstorming, and team building are now all possible in VR
  • VR changes the (car) design industry and transforms the way we create new ideas
  • Employee-focused VR training at Verizon and Walmart works like a charm
  • VR even helps tackle bias and discrimination at work
  • The future of VR in the workplace

These days, as workforces become more flexible and decentralised, the workplace – whether at home or at the office – is also becoming increasingly tech-based. The technologies that currently have the most profound transformative impact and make the workplace progressively more attuned to its occupants – and, of course, work itself – are virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR).  According to a 2020 PwC report, by 2030, almost 23.5 million jobs worldwide will make use of VR and AR – for meetings, training, or to improve client service. And an ABI report reveals that the VR market is forecasted to grow at a 45.7 per cent compound annual rate, surpassing $24.5 billion in revenue by 2024. This report, however, came out before the pandemic struck, so the actual figures are expected to be quite a bit higher, as COVID-19 has forced record numbers of employees to work from home, pushing VR and AR tech further into the mainstream. In fact, according to Artillery Intelligence, the market for VR in business is expected to increase from $829 million in 2018 to $4.26 billion in 2023.

In this article, we will talk about some interesting VR developments that will transform work and the workplace as we know it, heralding a future of going to work without travelling, interacting with colleagues without being physically present, and having your skills updated without attending training sessions at the office.

Facebook’s Infinite Office blurs the lines between the virtual and the real

With millions of people working from home as a result of the pandemic, many actually miss their desks, the quick-and-easy IT support, and the water-cooler chats they used to have at their real-life workplaces. But Facebook is now bringing the office to the employee, hoping virtual reality (VR) can offer a solution. The tech giant has recently introduced its virtual working environment ‘Infinite Office’ for its Oculus Quest 2 Virtual Reality (VR) headset. This new product is specifically designed for people working from home, boasting features that enable you to work across multiple customisable screens built on top of the Oculus Browser. Infinite Office enables you to see live feeds from the onboard cameras so that you can integrate the VR world with your own, real-world space. You can switch between a fully immersive VR experience and – for greater awareness of your physical environment – a mix of VR displays with so-called ‘passthrough’, an adjustable level of digital immersion. All you have to do for the passthrough function to kick in is point away from the digital monitors and you can see what’s happening in your real surroundings. A key feature of Infinite Office is the desktop configuration that presents applications as pop-up windows that you can position around you to recreate the experience of having multiple computer screens in front of you. This gives you the freedom to work from anywhere without having to take computer hardware with you. You can control the digital interfaces with your hands by swiping, tapping, or pinching, just as you would using a touch-screen device. According to Facebook, Infinite Office is “a virtual office space that will feel more productive and flexible.”

Mind mapping, brainstorming, and team building are now all possible in VR

Traditionally complicated activities to accomplish using video chat tools are now increasingly done in virtual reality. Think mind mapping, product reviewing, sketching and prototyping, brainstorming, and even team building. One technology company that makes this possible is Copenhagen-based MeetinVR. Their cutting-edge collaboration platform combines the “convenience of online meetings with the interactivity of face-to-face meetings” and was specifically designed for those hard-to-recreate activities, featuring selfie-based avatars that not only help reduce costs but also increase interactivity, immersion, and engagement. According to Cristian Anton, CEO and founder of MeetinVR, as many as 2,000 organisations, among which several Fortune 500 companies, have already tested the technology. “With each of these customers, we’ve been meeting in virtual reality each week to learn about their experience to figure out how to improve our software. The platforms are designed to address ‘Zoom fatigue’ and maintain high team spirit, which can sometimes deflate when working at a distance. We see a lot of potential in social VR and enterprise collaboration. With COVID-19, we’ve had a lot of inbound requests and an insane amount of organic traffic,” Anton says.

Another cool VR collaboration platform is Spatial. This platform’s approach to virtual meeting rooms is like a VR/Zoom blend. Spatial works with Google and Microsoft Office environments, which enables participants to pull up and show spreadsheets and documents on large virtual wall screens. Participants can join the virtual rooms via a smartphone, tablet, a VR headset, or a web app on a computer. There, they can participate in 3D group meetings with participants that appear as ‘holograms’ with real faces, and motion-sensed hand and head movements. Even the avatar’s lip movements correspond to the people’s live voices. “In light of COVID, we’ve actually had an intense amount of demand – about a 1,000 percent increase,” says Spatial cofounder and CEO, Anand Agarawala. “Zoom is not a good replacement for being in the office with other people, whereas something like VR gives you that level of presence and personification.” To use Spatial, you need to create an account using an email address. If you have a VR or AR device, you can take a selfie to create an avatar. Next up is creating a room and inviting people to join you via a URL.

VR changes the (car) design industry and transforms the way we create new ideas

As a design tool, virtual reality is increasingly being used for the development and manufacture of large products. VR tech enables development teams to remotely collaborate on – for instance – car designs in virtual studios, irrespective of where in the world the team members are based. “Virtual reality allows creative teams to connect remotely in a more natural way than staring at Zoom’s rectangles. An unexpected benefit of VR is the relaxed meeting room vibe it creates,” says Cormac O’Conaire, creative director at Design Partners. “You can look over someone’s shoulder on their creations and thought process, or work in your own space within the virtual environment. In these COVID times, this feels both refreshing and liberating. It makes for an immersive, warm, and collaborative experience.”

Automotive giant Ford has been using VR for virtual vehicle inspections for quite some time now, with teams viewing detailed 3D car models via their VR headsets to identify potential problems before making clay models. These VR meetings are now happening remotely, with team members collaborating by tuning in from their homes. Virtually represented as a futuristic robot, Ford engineers ‘teleport’ around 3D models to carry out inspections and take notes. “We love big screens but you can’t get them big enough to show a full-size vehicle,” says Ford digital design manager Michael Smith. “Whereas, if you put on a VR headset you can experience that vehicle in full scale. We’re getting there and we’re close to what would be considered a streaming experience. That one is still kind of in the testing phase.”

Employee-focused VR training at Verizon and Walmart works like a charm

For decades, astronauts, surgeons, and military staff have trained in virtual reality. As a result of the plummeting costs of VR in recent years, however, the tech has become more and more popular for training employees in industries like customer service, retail, and logistics as well. VR is now increasingly used to help improve soft skills – important for client service tasks – or to expand managerial skills, or to get better at public speaking. VR offers safe and increasingly realistic environments in which people can learn without having to be self-conscious and without having to worry about potential real-world consequences. To teach call-centre employees how to de-escalate conversations with a dissatisfied or angry customer, telecommunications giant Verizon has developed a VR module to practice active listening, among other things. Verizon found that VR significantly improved training effectiveness, reducing training time from ten hours to a mere 30 minutes per person. “As they went back to work and we tracked their progress through the supervisors, the employees were much more confident, because they were more aware of themselves in how they were handling the customer,” says Cleo Scott, director of global L&D for Verizon Business Services.

Another example of the benefits of VR employee training is Walmart. The retail giant has trained more than a million employees using virtual reality. Their kiosk ‘The Pickup Tower’, for instance, is a module that enables customers to pick up orders they placed online. Employees need to be trained on how to operate these modules, which used to take an entire day and took place in specifically designated stores. VR has reduced this training time to a mere 15 minutes and eliminated the need to travel to the training destinations. Heather Durtschi, senior director of content design and development at Walmart, says: “You can do the math as to what the savings would be.”

VR even helps tackle bias and discrimination at work

The 2020 McKinsey & Company report Diversity Wins reveals that businesses with a diverse workforce are generally more successful. After surveying 1,000 companies in 15 countries, the American management consulting firm concluded that companies in the top quartile for ethnic diversity were 36 per cent more profitable than those in the bottom quartile. In order to create not only an inclusive and diverse but also harmonious work environment where people of different cultures, genders, and abilities work together, training employees on these matters is vital. And the best way to do this – to learn how to be more tolerant and respectful towards people who are not like you – is to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. The shoes, for instance, of a person experiencing bias or discrimination. American startup Vantage Point, founded in 2017 by Morgan Mercer, a biracial woman who has been subjected to sexism as well as racism, provides VR training programs on diversity, inclusion, and unconscious bias in the workplace. During the programs, employees watch a scene unfold in VR, based on true events. Placed in the character’s shoes, employees are then asked how they would respond. Mercer wants people who have never been subjected to these types of experiences to get a feel for what that’s like. She believes that VR can play a vital role in this. “I realised how effective it is in truly putting you in a person’s shoes. It gives you a first person experience of what it’s like for somebody to flinch every time you walk by them, or what it’s like for somebody to yell words at you on the street, or what it’s like for somebody to stand a little bit too close,” Mercer says.

According to a survey by the world’s largest job and recruiting site Glassdoor, these types of training programs can be incredibly beneficial in terms of a company’s performance. Nearly a third of adults who took part in the survey in the US, UK, France, and Germany have witnessed or experienced racial prejudice at work. This does not only affect employee wellbeing, it also significantly impacts the success of a company.

The future of VR in the workplace

In recent years, and in particular since the onset of the pandemic, VR has evolved significantly and is now used at workplaces all over the globe, transitioning into more and more business applications. In 2030, according to some predictions, virtual avatars will even be used for recruitment purposes – to interview job applicants and hire new staff members. It’s clear that there’s enormous potential for VR in business, although the adoption of this tech will only really start taking off once the costs drop and it becomes more easily customisable in order to meet individual companies’ requirements. However, as more and more people work remotely, which includes receiving on-the-job training, more businesses will start exploring what VR can do for them.

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