AR/VR can make flexible workers more engaged with their colleagues, more invested in their work and more productive.
Turning our backs on the city
Much has been written in recent years about high rates of urbanisation, but it seems we Europeans are moving away from the city. According to Eurostat, just over a quarter (28 per cent) of Europe’s population lives in rural areas. And this has been growing. Between 2010 and 2015, the relative share of people living in the EU’s rural areas grew by 1.7 per cent. This accompanied a growth in towns and suburbs of 4.7 per cent, while the share of people living in cities declined “at a relatively rapid pace.”
It’s easy to see why. Land is generally cheaper away from cities, and houses bigger, meaning a higher quality of life. The delivery of digitalised films and music over the internet has replaced the need to live near a cinema or gig venue, while communication technologies like Skype and messaging apps make it easier to stay in touch with friends and family, wherever you are.
Technology also makes it possible to work without commuting to the city. Now augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) are set to make flexible working more seamless than ever.
Fixing the flexible
Of course, flexible working is already possible. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, between 50 and 90 per cent of European employees benefit from flexible working. But AR and VR have the potential to expand this opportunity to more employees, and enhance it for the benefit of them and their colleagues.
At the moment, chances are the only contact most workers have with a colleague who’s working from home is over email, or maybe the occasional call. Not only does the home worker miss out on the social aspects of office life, they also communicate less effectively. According to a study by Dr. Esther Canonico from the London School of Economics, home workers “had less communication with office staff, limited face-to-face interactions and, over time, found it harder to integrate with staff inside the office walls”. Their professional progression was stunted due to a combination of “reduced engagement, limited communications and a lack of opportunities.”
Thankfully, AR and VR can help.
Building a flexible future
The immersive nature of these technologies can create ‘simulated presence’. Through the use of world-building, and superimposing virtual elements onto a view of the real world, they introduce far more convincing virtual environments into the office. The effect is that flexible workers feel more engaged with their colleagues, and hence more a part of the workforce. This should make them more invested in their work, resulting in higher productivity.
“The idea is to replicate the experience of talking to a colleague sitting on the other side of the desk,” says Sylvain Ansart, Technical Architect, EMEA Global Acquisition at Lenovo. “The experience will be the same. It’s just that ‘the other side of the desk’ could be 1,000 miles away!”
The ultimate aim is to have hologram representations of employees actually in the office itself. These could mimic their human doppelgängers’ every move and facial expression, making meetings much more lifelike. Using current technology, holograms are very expensive and don’t look that lifelike up close. The best alternative at the moment is big monitors that give life-size representations of the virtual worker (such as Orange’s Open Videopresence technology). But again, these are expensive.
There’s another problem: you’re blurring the line between work and home, which could be intrusive. “When people work at home, they usually don’t dress as they would for the office,” Ansart says. “A lot of people wouldn’t be comfortable bringing the office into their bedroom or kitchen or wherever else they work.”
This will mean getting the HR department involved, with new policies drawn up across the company. Countries such as France are already showing how this could work in practice. “France has a committee for health, safety and working conditions,” Ansart says. “They visit employees’ homes to certify that they have suitable conditions for working, like a good enough internet connection.”
There are obviously hurdles to overcome to make VR and AR a workable business reality. But it should be years, rather than decades, before a seamless simulated presence experience is affordable for most businesses. Once it is, there will be nothing to stop employees from working more flexibly