LONGREAD: how the virtual workplace will actually work

LONGREAD: how the virtual workplace will actually work

Ben Thompson

Ben Thompson CEO, Employment Hero

Published

I apologise if this sounds like something out of a science-fiction movie but in a few years time your office receptionist is almost certainly going to be a robot.

Virtual (VR) and augmented (AR) reality is coming to your workplace and it’s going to have a major impact. In fact, it’s going to change the way you do business from top to bottom.

I’m often asked how exactly it will change the way we will go about our day to day office tasks. The answer is a lot. Indeed, some amazing tech looks set to change the way we interact with our colleagues - and how we see the world.

Technology like Microsoft’s Hololens looks set to be a major player in the office of the future but other types of technology will have an impact.

So, come with me on a walk through the office of the future – it’s going to look and feel very different to the typical workspace of today.

Your augmented arrival                                                               

As I was saying: robot receptionist. Futurist Peter Cochrane says “fully automated robotic receptionists, security scanning and real-time behavioural analysis would also include subliminal lie detection and intent prediction”.

There’s no need to be worried here. As long as you have honest intentions and don’t fail the lie-detector and security tests, you should be safely admitted into your office.

Don’t expect to see PC monitors once you get to your desk though. The desk surface itself will act as a screen and you will access your files with a swipe of your finger.

Thanks to nanopaint - a coating that can modify the properties of a surface according to user-defined parameters - this functionality could even spread to walls and ceilings, turning the entire office into an interactive visual display.

If that doesn’t sound radical enough for you, some futurists are going one step further and predicting an office with no furniture at all.

“The most radical future office forecast is that offices will have no furniture at all,” Glen Hiemstra, founder and CEO of Futurist.com told itproportal.

“Flexible nanotech can be formed into whatever you need at the moment – something to sit on, a desk, a conference table.”

Holomen

A new piece of kit hitting all the headlines recently is Microsoft’s Hololens. This amazing technology combines VR with AR to create a new kind of mixed reality.

The below video offers an idea of the opportunities mixed reality has to offer.

To support this world of mixed reality Microsoft has developed a workplace application they’ve dubbed holoportation – human teleportation via a holographic image, no less.

This tech will let you meet colleagues without them having to be physically present, which will have a huge impact on how the meeting room of the future looks.

Your virtual meetings

A working meeting room will have seats with AR headsets and not much else. No whiteboards, flow-charts, graphs or to-do lists tacked to the walls – you’ll see all that virtually when you don your headset.

Your fellow meeting attendees will be holograms and avatars rather than physical bums on seats. With that in mind, the actual space needed for a meeting room will be much less.

At the Mobile World Congress 2016 in Barcelona, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made a surprise appearance at the unveiling of Samsung’s new 360-degree VR camera. He spoke in glowing terms about the possibility of holding meetings in VR.

“Imagine holding a group meeting or event anywhere in the world,” Zuckerberg said. “Right now, virtual reality is mostly used for games and entertainment but that’s quickly evolving. One day you’ll be able to put on a headset that’ll change the way you live, work and communicate.”

He’s doing more than just talking about it. The day before Zuckerberg’s appearance, Facebook announced it had already set up a ‘social virtual reality team’ to explore the future of video-conferencing.

VR meetings are going to be a real game-changer but when is it all going to happen? Early adopters will be holding the first versions of VR meetings in 2017.  If the likes of Facebook are getting involved, it’s safe to say the move could happen sooner rather than later.

The big challenge at the moment is accurately mimicking facial expressions in the virtual space. It’s thought this is the thinking behind Apple’s acquisition of Faceshift, a company who specialise in creating realistic avatars.

How your business will benefit from VR meetings

VR meetings will change the whole dynamic of real-life meetings. In fact, they’ll work in an entirely different way. Just imagine how your business could benefit:

Distance will no longer be an issue. You’ll be able to enter into a virtual meeting room and speak to a colleague from the other side of the world as if they were actually in front of you. Less business travel will mean big savings in time - and money.

Capacity problems will be gone. The days of cramming too many people into an unsuitable physical space to hear a big announcement will soon be a distant memory.

Complicated ideas will be explained more effectively. In VR meetings, you’ll be able to view complex plans in glorious 3D, rather than on old-school whiteboards or monitors. This will allow you to really explore concepts and manipulate data in real-time.

“Data visualisation in meetings has the potential to be revolutionised by virtual reality headsets.” Paul Jackson, principal analyst at Ovum says.

You’ll be less likely to fall asleep. Or to put it another way, you’ll be more engaged with what’s happening around you. If you’ve got a VR headset on stimulating your senses it’s going to be a lot more difficult to stare out the window and daydream.

Is anyone already innovating in VR meetings? YouVisit is a virtual reality company with offices in New York, Miami and a handful of other states in the US. By using VR headsets, their employees in different offices can meet in a virtual world in real-time.

Your virtual workmate

Your workmate is going to go through a pretty radical transformation too. As Chetan Dube, chief executive of IPsoft says, give it 10 years and you can be certain your new best buddy will be artificial intelligence.

“They will allow us to focus on what’s enjoyable, strategic and creative about our work,” he told strategiesforgrowth. “They will increase our human power just as calculators once did, and then PCs, databases and search engines.”

Your new assistant may well have a virtual face and body, the ability to speak multiple languages and interpret your emotions.

Whether it’ll offer a shoulder to cry on if you’re having a bad day is still open to debate. But then again, at least you won’t have to spend time offering it emotional support.

Your virtual training

Your HR department is going to be at the forefront of this game-changing new tech. Apologies to anyone currently involved in an employee training program but VR is going to be an improvement on almost everything you do.

The experts I’ve spoken to have left me in no doubt the advantages of VR training will be huge. Here are some of the key benefits we discussed:

Risk-free. Training on potentially dangerous equipment will be made risk free. Accidents can happen with no consequence in a VR environment. Why should pilots be the only people who get to play with advanced simulators?

Active, not passive. VR’s immersive experience gets the trainee completely involved, with no distractions.

Hands on. There’s no substitute for a hands-on approach and this is exactly what VR can offer. Time and time again, in an identical environment.

Realistic scenarios. As the quality of VR training develops, it will become virtually on a par with putting the trainee into a real-life situation.

Can be done remotely. Remote training can save on the time and costs involved in having staff travel to a central training location.

Can simplify the complex. An immersive, 360-degree VR training scenario will be a powerful tool to help employees come to grips with complex subjects and concepts.

It’s fun. Don’t underestimate the importance of this final point! VR training will usually be fun and enjoyable, which can give you higher levels of engagement and effort.

Although the technology is still in its relative infancy, some high-profile businesses are already enjoying considerable success by using VR in some areas of their training.

In the second half of 2015 engineering company Bosch created a VR training workshop to help shops service vehicles equipped with specialist engines. The training took the shape of a mobile tour, where two trucks visited 40 US cities from June through October 2015.

The training was geared to technicians, who were immersed in vehicle repair scenarios when they put on virtual reality goggles. They were placed in a virtual service bay, with virtual cars appearing with a customer complaint associated with it.

The technicians then examined different components of the engine and diagnosed the problem.

Bosch’s two-hour long training experience was designed to be competitive, entertaining and educational, with technicians being awarded points based on speed and accuracy.

Caterpillar has launched augmented reality goggles to guide technicians through vehicles inspections and repairs. The system fills the vehicle with step-by-step procedures and images.

The possibilities for VR training opportunities are almost endless. Employers will be able to create virtual environments that replicate equipment, vehicles, stores and even buildings. I can envisage a day not too far from now when people play virtual reality games to perfect their job skills and experience in the real world.

Such on-the-job training will allow employees to start work fully qualified and ready to perform from the very first day. When that becomes commonplace, will your employees ever sit in a classroom to learn something again? More importantly, perhaps – will they want to?

You virtual future

The type of workplace I’ve detailed above isn’t going to be with us for a few years yet. But as smart tech rapidly develops the future could be with us earlier than expected.

Have you thought about using VR or AR in your business yet? Or is it something you think you’ll take notice of in a year or two? If you want to get ahead of the competition, it could pay to start thinking about it sooner rather than later.

As independent industry analyst Jeff Kagan says, VR “will start as a competitive advantage for early adopters. Then, over time, it will become the way we do things. At that time, companies who don’t do it this new way will be behind the eight ball.”

Research indicates almost all SME’s manage their own HR processes and function and the most significant HR challenges are compliance, business administration and hiring.

ANZ has announced a collaboration with cloud-based platform Employment Hero offering customers free access to market leading software which manages the entire employee life-cycle for small to medium businesses.

“Utilising a platform like Employment Hero me and business owners can save valuable time on admin, and direct their efforts towards running and growing their business,” ANZ Partnerships Manager Matt Buck says.


Ben Thompson is CEO at Employment Hero

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.
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