Will VR disrupt distributed work?

Apple promises Vision Pro will unlock new opportunities at work. But do we actually want the office to become virtual?

Image via Apple.com

I once tried my hand at writing fiction. My dark techno-thriller began with a frustrated software developer removing his VR goggles after a long day of putting up with dumb questions from annoying colleagues in his virtual office, only to face the loneliness of his tiny studio apartment.

Apple’s new Vision Pro “spatial computing device” – marketing fluff for augmented and virtual reality goggles – might make that bleak fantasy a reality.

According to Dror Poleg, the office might return to being a place where we – digitally – go to:

[We] might currently be in a temporary stage where we do our work from home (or anywhere). Temporarily, work is no longer a destination; it’s just something we do wherever we are. But with better technology, work will once again become a destination — it will be somewhere we go to, leaving behind our non-work environment. But instead of going there physically, we’ll do it digitally — by putting on our headsets.

There’s something enticing about this virtual office vision.

Having a different space where you work introduces subconscious clues that help shift between work and non-work mode. In the Metaverse, everyone could have a corner office, work from Gyrffindor common room, or in whichever environment that is most conducive to focus and creativity.

But a virtual office also sounds exhausting!

Virtual office. Real concerns

Here’s what Lauren Goode had to say after trying the Vision Pro in a controlled demo during WWDC:

Wearing the Vision Pro for hours on end will call into question what it means to compute, but also, what it means to live in the real world.
My forehead felt cool when I took the Vision Pro off after around 30 minutes, a testament to Apple’s considerate design. But my face also breathed with relief, the way it has after using other heads-up displays. The air feels more real out here.

Goode again, “Even Apple can’t out-design its way out of what is fundamentally an obtrusive technology.”

The headset might be the least obtrusive part of the virtual office. Offices come with constant interruptions, posing, signaling, and standard hours, all cruxes that distributed work has been subverting.

From the Meta’s Horizon Workroom homepage. P.S. Where are the legs?!

Apple entering the “mixed reality” market is guaranteed to accelerate progress in the segment. If offices were to become virtual, the quality of life for many remote workers may degenerate, and with it their productivity.

For all the devastation that Covid-19 brought, at least it showed to many what some of us had been preaching for a while: Remote works.

Distributed companies are as effective as co-located ones, with the advantage of employees working in their peak productivity periods and access to a global talent pool.

People don’t need to share a physical space to work well to together.
What makes distributed work great is how it emphasizes async processes and writing cultures. Bringing back the office through goggles might reintroduce synchronous communication as the default modus operandi.

VR helps with presence at a distance, but the whole point is that it doesn’t change where people are physically located. If organizations begin to rely on virtual co-location, then a certain range of time zone overlapping will be required. The door may inadvertently close for candidates with great skill and cultural fit that just happen to live too far away. A step backward compared to the advantage of location-independent, distributed work.

When entering their new virtual offices, companies will find all the downsides of the physical offices lurking in the shadow, and have to deal Lauren Goode’s VR fatigue once the day’s over.

A positive vision

Despite all the concerns shared above, we have good reasons to be optimistic about the benefits AR and VR will bring into our future.

Keep in mind that bad scenarios are easier to imagine than good ones. Taking things apart requires less creativity than building something new.

For every dystopian picture of a future with pervasive AR and VR, there are alternatives where these technologies enhance our lives and enable new value and knowledge creation.

For some organizations, those who require remote workers to keep their webcam on to ensure they’re “actually working” when working from home, VR will be an attractive tool to enforce presence and control. Those are doomed to fail.

I trust the many enlightened organizations that already appreciate the value of async-first, distributed, result-oriented work will find clever ways to deploy augmented and virtual reality tech to improve people’s creativity, collaboration, and connectedness.

Every new technology brings with it new problems and new possibilities. It’s up to us to roll up our sleeves and shepherd it in a positive direction.