When the Real World turns Virtual…the new reality of office life?

by Sarah Firisen

Two months ago, COVID lockdown was still new; in the US it was horrific that 3,000 people had died and  I wrote about some possible longer-term technology innovation that might come out of  this crisis.  Fast forward to today and the US has just passed an unimaginable, grim milestone, 100,000 dead. And while states are starting to emerge, some slowly, some too quickly, from the most extreme aspects of the lockdown, it’s becoming very clear that some things may be changed permanently, or at least for a very long time to come. 

Back in March, I wrote about the resistance to telecommuting that I used to face from bosses and colleagues who questioned what I was really doing if I wasn’t sitting in the same space as them all day. One of the answers I’ve given over the years is that unless you’re sitting next to me all day long and looking over my shoulder at my computer, you don’t know what I’m doing most of the time anyway. Instead, you should judge me on my output.  Famously Marissa Mayer, on taking over Yahoo, banned telecommuting, “Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home,” the company’s human resources director told employees.” But the truth is, we all know how much time can get frittered away in offices with water cooler chatter and coffee break flirtations, endless seemingly pointless meetings and “quick” breaks to pop out and buy something.

Two months ago, though it seems like so much longer, I said, “we’ve all been thrust into a great social experiment to see just how productive, perhaps more rather than less even, the entire workforce will be working remotely.” Well, it’s Memorial Day weekend and the verdict is in: turns out, we’re all pretty productive, even more so than we were before in fact. We’re using the time that we used to spend showering and commuting to sit down with a cup of coffee and start responding to emails at 7 am. Even with the distractions of home schooling and sharing our spaces with partners and pets, it turns out that most people don’t need even the illusion of managerial constant monitoring of their physical selves to get them to do their jobs. And a lot of companies have taken note. More than that, they’ve realized just how much money they’ve saved as they’ve stopped paying for WeWork space, dropped pricey office leases and T&E has basically plummeted to almost nothing as we’ve all realized that we didn’t need to fly across the country for that one hour client meeting after all and instead could have conducted it on Zoom all along. Corporate America’s conclusion: if we can all be just as productive, maybe more so, sitting on our sofas AND they can save millions in expenditure, then let’s just keep doing this.

Beyond just the bottom line gains, even if we all were inclined to go back to offices tomorrow, things would not be the same, or as easy as they were before; social distancing and heightened guidelines on hygiene do away with the idea that we’d be able to go back to being packed like sardines into cubicles in open plan offices, cramming into cafeterias, trying to defy the laws of physics to get one more person into an elevator. The amount of effort and cost it will take to reconfigure our office environments and adapt our everyday practices to allow for this new normal is starting to seem less and less desirable, “office planners can certainly envision a new workplace: new cubicle designs, touchless elevator buttons, ventilation-system upgrades to ensure fresh air, rigorous cleaning protocols, schedule shifting, and the closure of common spaces. Employers are looking to invest in their own testing systems—something the federal government has been unable or unwilling to set up—and may require temperature checks for all employees. It all sounds so grim, time-consuming, and expensive.”

Of course, this new normal is not nirvana from all perspectives; as landlords lose tenants, cities and states lose tax income. There is a whole economic ecosystem built around office workers, “Entire economies were molded around the vast flow of people to and from offices, from the rush-hour schedules of subways, buses and commuter rails to the construction of new buildings to the survival of corner bodegas. Restaurants, bars, grocery stores and shops depend on workers for their survival.”. If I had money to burn right now, I’d put it in stocks of leisurewear rather than higher-end, more formal clothing companies; even with a general move away towards business casual pre-COVID, the way we’re all likely to be dressing for work in the foreseeable future trends far more towards t-shirts and sweatpants than designer jeans and stylish accessories, and that’s assuming we ever get out of our pajamas. 

But beyond the inevitable shifting of economic winners and losers in this new corporate reality, there are also questions of what might be lost that is less easily quantifiable: the benefits of face-to-face collaboration. While I do enjoy much about telecommuting, I’ve also loved the times I’ve been with teams in large rooms, collaborating, really engaging in divergent thinking. At their best, these sessions were highly stimulating, incredibly collaborative, extremely productive and a lot of fun. Certainly they can be moved to a virtual environment, and I’ve even participated in a couple of brainstorming sessions on Zoom recently. But there’s already a lot of evidence that Zoom meetings are far more exhausting than in-person meetings and so don’t really lend themselves to the kind of all-day sessions that characterized the best of the in-person collaboration I’ve been involved with. It’s possible to do breakout sessions in Zoom (and other tools) but again, something seems to have been lost from when we used to all go to different corners of the room with a flip chart and the room was filled with the buzz of excitement as new ideas were thrown back and forth. 

Even more than planned collaboration, at their best, offices enable serendipitous creative encounters. Famously, Steve Jobs planned the Pixar headquarters in such a way that they “promoted encounters and unplanned collaborations.” And there’s no question in my mind about the value that has been created over the years by the conversations I’ve stumbled into while grabbing a cup of coffee in the office and running into someone. Most recently, I happened to go into my company’s head office (something I usually avoided doing) during a All-Hands meeting. I sat on a sofa next to someone I’d never met before. We were a few minutes early and so he introduced himself. Turned out, I knew his name very well and had been meaning to schedule time to talk to him about something. We had the chat then and there and it was extremely productive. Probably far more so than if I’d just set up a time on his calendar as a random colleague. Whether or not we can replicate the outcomes of planned brainstorming meetings, we will probably never be able to make up for the value of these in-person chance encounters. 

When I wrote about possible technology winners in this new normal (such as we could imagine it two months ago), I talked about virtual and augmented reality. They were the tech darlings a few years ago and then they weren’t. It seemed like there’d been a lot of hype but that the actual technology just wasn’t able to deliver on this over-hyped promise; headsets were heavy, clunky and expensive, the experience was disorienting and often physically unpleasant for people. But nevertheless, some version of this technology does seem our best bet to get many of the benefits of sharing an office space with other people (and meetings with our customers), and some companies seem to be having another go at delivering on that promise. Apple is working on new augmented reality (AR) glasses, “AR glasses could one day replace the iPhone or, at least, reduce the user’s interaction with the device in their pocket. To get there, however, we’ll need AR glasses that use the iPhone to display information. And that future might be closer than we thought, according to a reliable Apple leaker. What’s more, Apple Glass will reportedly cost $499, not including prescription lenses, which is much cheaper than we would have imagined.” Not surprisingly, Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook see a huge opportunity in the future of remote working, “Moving to more remote work, I think, will give us the opportunity to advance some of the important future technology that we’re working on,” observed Zuckerberg. “A lot of what we build are things that help people communicate and that give people a feeling of connection and presence even when you can’t be together in person.”

I’ve written in the past about the year or so when I got very into the virtual world, Second Life”. This was probably around 2006. Even back then, just using my laptop and controlling the avatar I was looking at on my screen (not a very good VR or AR experience), it was amazing how “real” it could all feel. There was something about sitting on a “beach” at “sunset” that was relaxing, with the right avatar next to you, even romantic. It’s not hard to imagine how much more real that experience could feel 14 years later with the right VR technology in place. I just created my Facebook avatar and, as I was trying to decide what my eye shape really is, it occurred to me that this avatar might be the version of me that my colleagues are having meetings with, sooner rather than later. From Star Trek’s holodeck to Westworld’s hologram of Serac to The Matrix, the idea of interacting with virtual reality has long been fictionalized as the future of human interaction. As with so much science fiction, perhaps the necessities of real life are now catching up to the possibilities technology has long dangled in front of us.