Could augmented and virtual reality have a role in hybrid working?

Whether we are back in the office or working from the kitchen table, can immersive technologies help us feel like a team again?

For every company that has announced they are moving to permanent remote working, there are just as many high-profile supporters for getting back to the office.

Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon described long-term working from home as “an aberration that we’re going to correct as soon as possible.” One of Solomon’s chief concerns regarding remote working was that it did not fit with a business that he described as having “an innovative, collaborative apprenticeship culture.”

A McKinsey article highlighted that “some things simply become more difficult when you are working remotely. Among them are acculturating new joiners; learning via hands-on coaching and apprenticeship; undertaking ambiguous, complex, and collaborative innovations; and fostering the creative collisions through which new ideas can emerge.”

Hybrid approach

Yet a wholesale swing back to entirely onsite working is unlikely. Increasingly, businesses want to meld the collaborative and cultural benefits of office working with the perceived work-life balance aspects of homeworking into a hybrid model. BP, HSBC and Lloyds Group are just some of the businesses taking steps to adopt such an approach. The oil giant announced that a majority of its staff, around 25,000 employees, would be asked to work from home 40% of the time, while the two banks were cutting back on office space as they take steps to change how their teams work.

The Guardian reported that Alphabet’s (Google’s parent company) CEO Sundar Pichai “is developing a model where staff work three days in the office for “collaboration” and two days from home. “No company at our scale has ever created a fully hybrid workforce model,” Pichai said in an email to staff in December. “It will be interesting to try.”

Pichai’s message highlights that many businesses are stepping into the unknown as they adopt a hybrid model. While it certainly has significant benefits, there is a need to be able to deliver continuity across both settings. Irrespective of where they are based, employees need to feel equally visible. Organizations otherwise risk creating two separate cultures, where those in the office have greater access to colleagues and senior executives, and those at home miss out on opportunities because they were not onsite that day.

Technology will be vital in ensuring that workers can work together effectively, irrespective of where they are located. Yet while the messaging apps and collaboration tools that have been adopted over the last year are going to play an important role, there are signs that many businesses will look for other ways to enable a hybrid workforce.

Participating virtually

One of those could be the combination of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) technology. By linking the physical (with AR) and digital (with VR) worlds, workers could fully participate in meetings rather than being a box on a screen, or even just sit next to a colleague as they would do in an office.

It is this blending that makes the technologies relevant to hybrid models. Tom Brannen, founder of analyst firm OnConvergence, describes AR and VR offering “the seamless linking of the physical and virtual worlds [which] will be crucial to a future hybrid-work strategy.”

AR/VR goes beyond recreating the feeling of being face-to-face with someone, however. A report from ABI Research estimated that by 2025, there would be 60 million active users of the technology, specifically when it comes to recruitment, training and collaboration.

“Both AR and VR solutions can allow HR departments to reach potential talent more creatively, assess workers in novel ways, and support workers with improved and remote-enabled training and employee collaboration. This can save time and costs (AR/VR training can save between US$2,000-US$2,500 per employee in comparison with traditional training) and enhance the candidate/employee experience and build a competitive employer branding,” explained Eleftheria Kouri, a research analyst at ABI Research.

By 2025, 60 million people will regularly use AI/VR

Better learning

There is more to AR and VR than just a way of saving money on training or reaching remote workers. Studies suggest that these new approaches to learning can also be more effective. A PwC report on the results of VR training versus classroom and e-learning found that VR learners were four times faster to train than classroom-based students, four times more focused than e-learners, and 275% more confident in applying skills learned from training.

A variety of businesses offer AR and VR to enterprises. During the height of the pandemic, startup Spatial opened up its AR/VR collaboration platform, responding to what CEO Anand Agarawala called “a surge in interest for Spatial’s services, ranging from Fortune 1000s, to schools and hospitals, to SMBs.”

Integrated platforms

In all likelihood, the successful adoption of AR and VR together in hybrid workforces is going to come down to how well it integrates with those applications that are already embedded in enterprise workflows. Microsoft, for example, recently demonstrated its Mesh framework, bringing together virtual and augmented reality in what it refers to as mixed reality. Mesh is a collaborative platform that allows users to have shared virtual experiences. Or, as one article described the demonstration, “like a Microsoft Teams meeting set in the future.”

That is one of the goals of the platform. Alex Kipman, Technical Fellow for AI and Mixed Reality at Microsoft and part of the group that developed HoloLens and Kinect, said: “You can completely imagine a Mesh-enabled Microsoft Teams, where the key thing there is, think about colleagues from across the globe collaborating as if you and I are in the same physical location.”

Privacy, infrastructure issues

There are some challenges to overcome. The eye-tracking technology that facilitates the experience raises concerns around privacy, with the data collected falling into a new type of information that is not necessarily regulated. Then there is the hardware. Many of the devices that offer a truly immersive experience require upfront investment, which may put them beyond the reach of some organizations.

There is also a question over infrastructure. Delivering a seamless AR/VR experience requires a fast, stable Internet connection with low latency. 5G can do this, but coverage is currently focused on city centers rather than rural areas where are a lot of the homeworkers will be based.

Those challenges are not insurmountable and could well be addressed as time progresses. Privacy regulation is constantly evolving; the history of hardware is one of ever-smaller devices with ever-greater power; while 5G deployment is speeding up. Enterprises making the shift to a hybrid model and looking at AR and VR to facilitate successful collaboration, recruitment and training should consider those obstacles. Yet, they should not be barriers to initial adoption. As the technology evolves, it could well be that having a mixed reality meeting becomes as ubiquitous as video calls are today.

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