Assuming I have established a viable case for the 3D virtual workplace in post 1 and 2, what about the actual planning, design and virtual architecture required to support it? What are the new characteristics of this environment that deserve consideration when developing a virtual workplace? There is a lot to cover here, but I’ll do my best to include the main areas I think deserve the most attention.
First of all, the entire concept of user-generated content adds a unique twist to the virtual workplace. The ability for employees to build and customize their own spaces presents a whole new opportunity not possible (to this extent) in the physical workplace. The visual metaphors workers can evoke with 3D content can be quite illuminating. Erica Driver posted some excellent insight about this in a post back in February that I didn’t see until just last night – well worth a read. Every individual and team can customize their spaces to reflect their interests and status. Ultimately, there is no limit to the amount of creativity people will exhibit when given the opportunity and the tools to create anything they can think of. What they choose to do with those tools can convey a lot about who they are, and what is important to them – valuable currency in any kind of team-based collaboration.
Synchronous presence is also an obvious benefit to working virtually, but what about asynchronous presence? In a previous virtual workplace project I worked on, we employed a kind of ‘totem’ system whereby each employee had their own totem to rez wherever they wanted to suggest their interest or presence. The idea was that, if each project in a company had several employees working on it, they could each rez a totem nearby, so anyone could assess at a glance who was involved with which project . In workplaces that are more self-organizing, this can be an informal yet highly effective way for employees to suggest their interest in joining a particular team or working on a specific project. Taking it a step further, the totem can be programmed to communicate with a back-end database storing additional information pertinent to that employee’s status – such as on or offline, a list of projects they’re currently working on, their daily schedule, and more.
Virtual interaction also brings a lot of new opportunity for improved methods of communication and collaboration that are native to virtual environments and not easily achieved in physical reality. Obviously a personal favorite of mine is Wikitecture, which I think could also be a very useful tool in virtual workplace development, but there are quite a few new tools being developed, such as MIT’s virtual conference rooms that have the potential to make virtual meetings even more effective than real life ones. I think it will be interesting to see what Peter Quirk comes up with in this area as well. His most recent post (found here ) has some interesting thoughts on the topic, especially observing the immediate realities of Second Life interface, and what can be done to improve it for virtual work. The 3D cameras Mitch Kapor recently demonstrated will certainly improve the capacity to more naturally communicate in a virtual world. We have only scratched the surface of what a 3D interface can do to enhance collaboration, conferencing and communication.
In terms of actual deployment, it isn’t enough to simply buy an island and let employees build whatever and wherever they please, imho. It might be a useful temporary exercise in helping employees experiment and explore, and perhaps strong communication between employees might result in a coherent and useful workplace infrastructure, but chances are, it will result in a hodge–podge of stuff without any coherent order (see our first experiments with Wikitecture illustrates the outcome). This might be OK if it is always the same group working together on the same projects consistently, but it can quickly become challenging or impossible for new employees to understand and navigate, and does nothing to communicate the company’s core values, goals or vision. It becomes an exclusive function of individual expression, with no sense of direction.
On the other hand, a highly structured and polished workplace isn’t necessarily the right approach either. Without some degree of flexibility or room for employee expression, the place will remain sterile and lifeless. It is best to find a balance between the two extremes. There are lots of ways to approach this, but one of my favorites is what I think of as ‘bone and muscle’ approach. With this concept, you establish a coherent structure or backbone that organizes teams, departments or shared group workspace elements of the workplace, then encourage the individuals and teams to customize their spaces with their own content and design. In this way, the organization is able to establish a common visual language and wayfinding strategy for the shared infrastructure, yet employees are able to enjoy the freedom and expression of their own interests and abilities. It is not unlike a city infrastructure – starting with roads, sidewalks, public plazas and land parcels (the backbone), with independent architectural creations (the muscle) completing the urban fabric. I employed that technique on this project, and used a similar strategy for Architecture Islands infrastucture, for the arcspace build and, to some extend on Clear Ink Island. In each case, I learned something different about the various ingredients that need to compliment the architecture in order for community and productivity to thrive so it doesn’t whither on the vine, but that will be the topic of another post.
The jury is still out on this debate, but there is certainly a question of whether an organization should simply replicate its physical architecture exactly as it is in real life, and use it as their virtual workplace. My personal feeling is that fresh virtual context brings new opportunities and deserves fresh ways of rethinking the architecture. Having said that, I still think there is distinct value in replicating a building, but only if it is a signature piece that has some value or is easily recognizable and reinforces the organizations identity or history. In this way, the building serves as a kind of logo for the organization. However, I don’t think it is appropriate to replicate the entire building exactly as it is built in real life, unless it is to be used as a tool for training and orientation. Not only will it feel strange to the avatar scale, but it will also feel too enclosed and uncomfortable. Perhaps the replicated architecture can serve as a kind of backbone structure upon and around which a more free-form level of customized environment can emerge. However, in the end, it is impractical to expect that a building will function the same way it does in real-life when replicated in Second Life.
In cases where no signature (or singular) building exists, perhaps the virtual architecture can achieve that identity in ways the real-life architecture could not accomplish. In a project I recently worked on, the company CEO suggested that one of the primary goals of the project was to give the employees the sense that they are still all working together under one roof. Early in the company’s history, all of their employees worked together in the same space and shared a sense that they were all working together in the same space. As they grew, and opened other offices around the world, they lost the sense that they were all working together. In this case, the goal for the virtual workplace was to serve as a functional and visual metaphor that the employees could still, in a sense, come together and work in the same shared virtual space. In this way, the virtual architecture can serve as a powerful visual metaphor, helping to solve a core challenge the company is facing in a way that physical architecture could never achieve.
In physical reality, the expressiveness of architectural form is necessarily limited by forces such as resale value, and regional context, not to mention laws of gravity and protecting inhabitants from the elements. For the most part, a virtual workplace is free from such limiting factors, allowing for a far more referential expression of a company’s organizational structure, core values and vision. Where virtual workplaces lack, they more than compensate for in opportunities and advantages not possible in real life.
For these reasons and more, the time is absolutely right for any company, large or small, to start exploring the potential of a 3D virtual workplace.