The beginning of the transformation
Crisis marks the resurgence of entrepreneurial spirit and for new ideas to be rapidly tested and deployed. The 2008 recession gave birth to some of the most popular startups known today such as Whatsapp, Uber, Slack, Square, among others. What makes this time particularly opportune for new startups/ ideas is the fact that there has been a simultaneous demand (weak consumer spending) and supply-side (curtailed productions) shock. Coupled with this are the behavioral shift and a larger early adopter pool which is more receptive to innovations
Some of the most interesting trends which are accelerating (in no way comprehensive) include autonomous vehicles, robot deliveries, remote work, telemedicine, virtual tourism among others
This piece focuses on the future of work (or rather the Present) now as workplaces become increasingly accustomed to working remotely. I specifically focus on the technologies to build and launch better collaboration and work productivity tools and the use of AR/ VR
A recent study from Global Workplace Analytics suggests that 56% of US jobs are compatible with remote working. Further, more than 50% of Americans will prefer to work remotely even after the pandemic subsides. Better tools that offer flexibility while retaining the human touch will likely push up these percentages even further.
Remote work does have a host of benefits. Key among them being savings through reduced office space and overhead costs, improved employee motivation and retention, higher productivity, and access to a larger talent pool.
Already quite a few major tech companies such as Twitter & Stripe have allowed their employees to work remotely forever while tech giants such as Facebook, Google have allowed remote working till the end of the year.
We have also seen the explosive growth of Zoom which has seen its MAU’s (monthly active users) jump from 10m in Dec 2019 to 300m in Apr 2020. However Zoom was never designed to be used for straight 8–10 hours during workdays and in just a few months, Zoom fatigue is setting in with scary implications for the long run.
VR/ AR’s moment of reckoning is here
Advances in augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) can however usher in a new type of virtual office that could bring remote workers directly into a physical space.
The race to create better collaboration & productivity tools that leverage these technologies and replicates the experience of in-person meetings, water cooler conversations, or random insights generated from workplace conversations will heat up. Technologies which aid the physical presence and communication and not be mentally draining have the opportunity to win big
The role of enablers such as 5G, IoT, hardware companies, investment from VC’s will be critical to let these technologies become mainstream. Next-gen wireless connectivity standard should enable faster speeds and more reliable connections in areas where it’s implemented. Deployment of IoT sensors and edge-computing chips could feed better data into work-related AR/ VR experiences and enhance their functionality. A ‘Ready Player One’-esque future looks increasingly possible with a “digital workforce” of AI-driven software and robots, which collaborate with the avatars of human workers.
A shift in behavioral mindset among the target users will be interesting to see as VR/ AR’s actual potential has lagged the ‘promised hype’ for most of the past decade.
Sprouts are growing with BigTech keen to grab a pie
Interesting spaces where companies can start include virtual communication and collaboration tools, mindfulness cum work productivity apps (which reduce employee apprehension, ease online work, counter loneliness due to WFH for employees), training organizations/ upskilling platforms for senior leaders and top management, on-demand bite-sized modules for learning and career development. Others include employee productivity measurement tools through output-based (quality and timeliness of task) than input-based metrics (number of hours spent on the job), informal hangout app for virtual parties, office banter, hobby groups, virtual event organizing apps, at home office setup or even ‘home office’ subscription startups
So which are some of the interesting companies working in this space?
New improved meetings app which are trying to go one up over traditional platforms such as Zoom, Skype, Google Hangout include Spaces where participants can view a virtual environment containing a digital whiteboard and an avatar of VR presenter.
Spatial is creating a platform for office collaboration and communication using AR/VR tech. It imagines a virtual world where avatars join meetings and digital objects can be manipulated in real-time by participants around the world. There is also Tandem which is creating a virtual office for remote teams and Glue
In the online events space, we have Hopin which is creating an all-in-one online events platform where attendees can learn, interact, and connect with people from anywhere in the world. There is RuntheWorld which enables attendee conversations and offers engaging community-building experiences. Microsoft owned AltVR also positions itself as the premier place to attend live shows, meetups, classes through VR.
In employee engagement and workplace productivity, we have Eloops which connects, boosts morale, and delivers a unique gamified experience at the workplace. There is Plann3r which creates a personalized meeting page or Calendly which helps schedule meetings. Meeting VR allows the convenience of online meetings with the interactivity of F2F meetings.
Indian companies such as Imaginate and Queppelin are also seeing 2–3x demand than in normal situations as companies use it to train staff and for virtual meetings. A few are also expanding the use cases for VR. Enablex has launched a video-enabled hiring platform while Imaginate has started demos for virtual expos.
The big tech companies are also bullish on this space and investing to get the early mover advantage. The likes of Microsoft, Google, and Apple are creating headsets to catalyze the shift to virtual offices. In Feb 2020, Google launched its latest Glass AR headset for direct purchase. In Nov 2019, Microsoft released its Hololens 2 at a hefty price tag of $3,500 aimed at corporations. Apple has also got the rumor mills buzzing for some time as it filed for patents related to AR/VR tech in 2019. There is hope now that it releases its AR headset in 2022 followed by AR glasses in 2023. The opportunity for these giants to sync these headsets with their existing office tools is enormous!
A giant waiting to pounce and the roadblocks ahead
Communicating efficiently and on time has become extremely important now more than ever in the digital work world.
As people stay locked indoors the demand for AR/VR has shot up
Just last week Facebook gave a sneak peek into its vision of remote work through mixed reality (leveraging both AR and VR) which looks super exciting! Zuckerberg mentioned his ambition to get Facebook to be the most forward-leaning company on remote-work at its scale.
Inevitably there are challenges. The biggest one includes that humans are inherently social creatures and crave human interactions and office banter. These tools can aid this behavior but can never replace the human element. Moreover, the culture or ethos of the company is built from in-person interactions and not digitally. Strained communication, poor collaboration, and the loss of serendipitous moments of inspiration are key challenges. Employee bonding may also become increasingly tough while new joiners and interns face orientation and onboarding struggles.
The uptake will also be hindered by high upfront costs for hardware (most of the AR headsets still sell at upwards of $1,00), insufficient internet bandwidth, and workers’ resistance to adopt new behaviors.
Further, the level of engagement and work dissatisfaction might become harder to gauge. Micromanaging employees is another challenge with more than 60% feeling burn out in remote work and reporting longer working hours. Finally, not everyone will be adaptable to the WFH shift.
Even among the biggest tech giants, there are a few skeptics of remote work. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella feels that remote work will rob employees of participating in a full-fledged community and have deep psychological consequences. As other firms (read Facebook, Twitter, Stripe) plan permanent remote work Google CEO feels that the company won’t go fully remote and will need physical spaces to get people together. Apple which is largely hardware-centric and prioritizes secrecy is encouraging employees to return to office as early as next month
A hybrid approach which blends technology and human-centric approach might be the best way forward
Something good comes out of every crisis
The current pandemic which is one of the most unsettling and damaging ones has led to a big crisis and uncertainty for the future. Amid this disruption, a reset in the world order has accelerated. Human ingenuity, persistence, and innovation will remain the hallmark for mankind to tide over the crisis.
Companies will need to confront the visible challenges of remote working in terms of the behavioral shifts required and the ‘divide’ between knowledge workers who are able to transition relatively smoothly vis-a-vis other workers
One thing for certain is the acceleration in the development and testing of new technologies. This will hence be a golden time for investors as well as startup entrepreneurs to start a new business in this area. 2020 promises the maturation of several key technologies, and for virtual offices to gain meaningful traction. AR/VR might have finally hit its momentum force in this domain!
Image Credits: Forbes, Yahoo News, Digital Information World, Film School Rejects
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of any institute or organization he is associated with.