Exodus to the Virtual Workplace, Part 2

Lets start with a brief thought trial before I get too far. Take a look at this familiar list of just some of the businesses who have, at some point, had a presence in Second Life: Accenture, AccuWeather, ABN AMRO, Aegon, Ajax Football Club, Alcatel Lucent, AMD, Armani, Autodesk, Ben & Jerry’s, Boots UK, BMW, BNP Paribas, Calvin Klein, Cecile: Ginza, Circuit City, Cisco Systems, Citroen Brasil, Coca-Cola, Coldwell Banker, Comcast, Congrex, Crowne Plaza, Dell Computer, Domino’s Pizza, Europ Assistance, Fox Atomic, Fujitsu Siemens, HermanMiller, H&R Block, Gax Technologies, Head Resourcing, IBM, ING, Intel, iVillage, Jean Paul Gaultier, Kelly Services, Keytrade Bank, Kraft Foods, Lacoste, Level 3, Major League Baseball, Mazda Motor Europe, Mercedes-Benz, Microsoft Visual Studio Island, MovieTickets, NBA, Nissan, One Manchester, Orange, PA Consulting, Packaging & Converting Essentials, Peugeot, Philips Design, Perfect Card, Pontiac Main Island, Randstad Holding, Reebok, Reuters, Samsung, SAP Network, Saxo, Sears, Semper International, Sony|BMG, Sony Ericsson, Sprint, STA Travel, Starwood Hotels, Sun Microsystems, Sundance Channel, Suruga Bank, TAM: Airline Brazil, Telecom Italia, Telstra Big Pond, TELUS, Thompson NetG, TMP Worldwide, Toyota, UGS, Unitrin Direct Auto Insurance, Vivox, Vodafone, Warner Brothers, Wipro Technologies, Wirecard Bank AG, Xerox. (SLurls to most of these places can be found on the SL Business Communicators wiki )

I won’t even hazard a guess as to the combined total number of employees working for these companies, but I’m sure its astronomical. To be fair, what we might call ‘presence’ is, for the most part, a combined total of thousands of square miles of vacant ghost-sims left in the wake of last year’s hasty marketing boom. But, just for the sake of argument, lets imagine that technology continues to advance exponentially, and that 5 years from now, virtual worlds will make telecommuting feasible for just 1 percent of the employees these companies represent who don’t already telecommute. What kind of an impact would that transition have on the physical architecture that traditionally supports the workplace? What if it were 5 or 10 percent? What about 10 years from now? Lead-times on planning, designing and building physical architecture can easily exceed 5 years, so I don’t think I’m being unreasonable to think that far ahead. Would we stand to gain anything from a workplace exodus on that scale?

I think so.

Stepping back into the present and more immediate future, here is a summary of just a few forces I think will drive development of the virtual workplace, described in greater detail later in this post. There are many more factors involved, but these are the ones I think are most closely tied with the advantages of a 3D virtual workplace versus telecommuting in general:

  • Remote worker isolation
  • Rising cost and rigidity of physical space
  • Commute time and cost
  • Environmental benefits
  • Decreasing necessity of physical presence

As far as the specific characteristics of virtual worlds that lend themselves to workplace environments, I won’t reinvent the wheel, but will instead quote directly from Peter Quirk’s excellent post on the same topic (read the full post here ):

  • by making meetings more engaging than is possible through 2-D web conferencing solutions
  • by creating a sense of a workplace separate from the employee’s home environment, helping to focus the employee on the tasks at hand
  • by creating places for real-time collaboration with other employees
  • by creating a workplace that can be seen from afar, reducing the likelihood that the remote employees will be “out of sight, out of mind”
  • by creating places for remote workers and their office-bound colleagues to hang out with each other over lunch, after work, or after long meetings

Starting with remote worker isolation, it has long been known that one of the most common challenges for telecommuters, and their in-house peers is the perception of isolation. Often, remote employees can feel distant or left out of the daily pulse of the physical office. Opportunities for chance encounters and informal socialization are lacking, which can have a negative impact on the teleworker’s ability to feel connected to the rest of the team. Virtual workplaces can readily enhance the sense of presence, and bring remote employees together. As collaborative technologies continue to emerge in virtual worlds, teams will be able to effectively work together in a shared space, even though they may be located in distant geographic locations. In my opinion, collaboration technologies in virtual worlds are still the weakest link in the movement toward the virtual workplace, but there are good reasons to believe that these challenges will be overcome in the months ahead. Until that time comes, the ability to do real work beyond immersive collaboration, communication and 3D simulation is just out of reach. I’m definitely not suggesting to wait on collaborative technology; that would be a mistake, imho – more on that later.

I don’t think we can overestimate the expense of the physical architecture required to support a workplace environment. It is incredibly expensive to build and maintain, and very expensive to change. Virtual architecture costs are minuscule in comparison and far easier to change. It behaves more like a liquid than a static artifact, and has the advantage of being very flexible. It can shift-shape on the fly to reflect the specific needs of that moment. Furthermore, data can be integrated such that the entire workplace environment comes to life with active and dynamic data that is directly relevant to the work being done. Taking this a step further, the architecture of the workplace could even become reflexive or intelligent, insofar as it can recognize and respond to the number of people occupying a space, or even change scale to reflect traffic patterns and popularity of some spaces over others. This kind of flexibility and data integration into the architecture and virtual interface of the workplace itself might seem trivial at first, but I think a fully functioning environment imbued with relevant data and responsiveness could lead to a whole new workplace structure and methodology.

Furthermore, when you look closely at what people actually do when they work together in an office that seemingly necessitates physical presence, it becomes evident that there are several modes of collaboration that could just as easily be accommodated in virtual spaces. When people do sit down and work together in a physical space, what is it that they’re doing that cannot possibly be accommodated in a virtual workplace? Viewing PowerPoint decks? Looking at a white-board? Conference calls? Virtual worlds already accommodate these activities quite well, and are getting better at it (so too thinks Forrester if you feel like splurging for the $279 report), so it won’t be long before the majority of daily interaction can just as effectively transcend physical space for virtual space. In the near future, I believe we might finally be able to transcend PowerPoint with new modes of virtual presentation and relevant data integration within the virtual space – but we’re not quite there yet.

Obviously, nothing can replace physical presence when it comes to high level business interaction, where the nuances of body language are vital, but seriously, what percentage of workers actually engage in this kind of top level strategic management meetings on a daily basis?

Another obvious scenario leading to the rise of the virtual workforce is the cost of commuting. Not only is it becoming more expensive, it is becoming increasingly crowded and less desirable. CEO’s for Cities recently posted some thoughts on the Forbes article on the same topic. The time-starved lifestyles many of us lead invite any opportunity we can find to save precious time. Spending 30 minutes in the car driving to and from work is a major loss of valuable time. Spread out over the course of a week, a 30 minute commute (not uncommon by any means) could shave more than 6 weeks worth of workdays over the course of a year.

Think twice before criticizing virtual workers for spending time customizing an avatar if you spend 260 hours a year stuck in traffic, commuting to a redundant workplace.

It is also of vital importance to note that virtual workplaces are incredibly ‘green’ by nature (see ‘Greening the Workforce‘). The ecological footprint of a physical building, the energy it takes to create, condition and maintain it, along with employee commuting utilizes a massive amount energy. Of course, virtual world servers take a lot of energy too, but only a tiny fraction of what is required to maintain a physical building. I’ve even gone so far as to argue in previous posts that real life architectural projects should even be able to secure green accreditation by incorporating virtual spaces instead of physical spaces. What percentage of employees working in a typical metropolitan area actually depend on physical proximity to their colleagues every single day of the week anyway? Imagine the economic and environmental savings if even a fraction of those employees could conduct their work as efficiently in a virtual workplace.

[update: This chart, via CoolTown Studios is a great place to start considering the environmental burden of the daily commute: http://www.cooltownstudios.com/mt/archives/001295.html]

Finally, the design and construction of real-life architecture is not only expensive, but very time consuming. It is not uncommon for the turnaround time on a project to be several years. Second Life, in its infancy, has already demonstrated its viability as a platform for collaboration now. Imagine what the technology will look like several years from now. The virtual workplace certainly won’t be right for everyone, or every circumstance, but given the evidence and logic supporting its current and future value, I think it is naive to avoid some level of research and experimentation at this point. The pace of real-world architecture certainly doesn’t advance exponentially the way technology does. Personally, I don’t find it difficult to imagine newly minted office buildings sitting vacant long after the intended function transcends the building’s usefulness. The 2D web changed things quickly, but virtual worlds will be quicker.

Next up: Characteristics and opportunities of virtual environments worth considering when developing a virtual workplace.