Over the course of the pandemic, much of our work shifted from physical spaces to video meeting software. While work-from-home policies alleviated the dangers of COVID transmission (for some), what many managers didn’t foresee was that productivity improved for 77 percent of employees, with staffers adding an equivalent of one extra day’s work to each week. Business owners with sky-high office rents were particularly pleased by this unexpected outcome, since they were paying their rent either way. We also know that a sizable amount of this productivity increase came from employees turning what was their physical commuting time into productive work time at home.
With a large portion of the population now vaccinated and COVID protocols in place, companies are carefully weighing the next steps: return to the physical workplace, create a hybrid work model, or stay completely virtual. With current productivity rates where they are, smart managers aren’t keen on rushing to reestablish a physical workplace. Therefore, the need for compelling, persistent virtual space is just as important now as it was during the height of the pandemic. And it will be for the future.
Herein lies the current issue many employers are facing: the collection of tools that helped us “make do” during the pandemic do not equate to a virtual office. While a great many streaming options have emerged, they just allow connectivity—not an authentic connection. After all, a productive, healthy work culture built on trust, availability, connectedness, wellbeing, and transparency cannot be created or maintained in a single Zoom window. We have learned this lesson the hard way over the last 2+ years.
The virtual work environments that succeed must be a simulacrum to physical office life. We have to create the same quality and diversity of experiences that employees once had in physical workplaces purpose-built to support the many types of interactions that occur during the course of a normal workday. Video software must support all of these daily moments—from a brainstorming session to an intense client call to a co-worker’s celebration—and the best way to do this is through what we call persistent, virtual spaces.
The pros and cons of VR
While VR in architecture has been around for some time, the past 2+ years have seen an explosion in mainstream adoption. Architects and designers are implementing digital twins, or virtual replicas of physical objects and spaces, to build and test everything from golf courses to office towers, and some architecture firms are charging up to $300,000 per project to design what’s known as digital real estate.
VR will allow architects to push the boundaries of modern workplace design, giving employees the experience of building or space that hasn’t even been built. For example, architects are combining VR tools like Oculus with BIM (Building Information Modeling) software so that clients understand spatial aspects of the workplace.
When it comes to VR today, what we most frequently hear about in the press is hardware wearables-driven virtual spaces, conceived by the companies that stand to gain the most from selling advertising or enabling commerce in those spaces, including Google, Meta, and Microsoft. These are not the most trusted brands when it comes to data privacy.
Rather than exclusively by software engineers, an incredible persistent virtual office product would ideally be designed by a cross-discipline group that includes telco/bandwidth providers, hardware manufacturers, software engineers and designers, and physical space design (e.g. commercial architects and interior designers). Together, this combination of physical and digital experts will create exceptional virtual experiences that actually replicate a physical office space, with the right areas for the various activities that a team engages in over the course of a day.
The next evolution of remote work
According to PEW Research, by 2025, people will rely more heavily on digital connections for a variety of purposes, including work, education, and social interactions. Additionally, research shows that 74 percent of companies plan to permanently shift to more remote work, post-COVID.
Just like being inside an amazing office building or an airport, purpose-built virtual spaces should be beautiful, functional, inspiring, and wellness-aware. Sweaty headsets and bare-bones video meeting platforms are not realistic substitutes for physical offices, nor are dramatic but ultimately tiring video game-heavy aesthetics.
Companies need to give careful thought to designing spaces, physical and virtual, that bolster sustainability, productivity, communications, and mental health. These spaces must put front and center the ability of employees to collaborate with one another throughout the entire workday, not just during selected types of scheduled meetings.
Critical and valued employees unable to meet physically with colleagues deserve to (and can) enjoy an engaging and productive workplace, but only if a talented team of physical and digital experts designs that environment together.