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Beyond Zoom: The new tech that will transform remote working

There must be more to the future of the virtual office than video conferencing.

By Laurie Clarke

The coronavirus lockdown has seen a boom in remote working. With tech giants like Facebook and Twitter granting their employees permanent home-working status, the virtual office has become a long-term prospect. Beyond Zoom – the video-calling platform that quickly superseded Skype as the king of teleconferencing – what other tools are on the horizon?

For knowledge workers, home-working has offered benefits such as skipping a lengthy commute, having more leisure time, and spending more time with family. According to Deloitte, 54 per cent of those currently working from home because of lockdown say they would like to work from home more often once restrictions are fully lifted. Just 11 per cent say they plan to work from home less often.

This research found that since the start of lockdown 58 per cent of workers have used at least one new type of technology for work. For those who were previously office based, 75 per cent have used at least two new types of technology. But as we’ve struggled with unreliable wi-fi or been baffled by the mute button, it’s clear that more advanced tech is still a long way from mainstream adoption.

Could that change? Virtual reality (VR) has been hailed as a potentially groundbreaking remote working tool for decades. VR headsets can make you feel like you’re in the same room as someone thousands of miles away – sensors on your hands can even communicate the non-verbal flourishes. Goldman Sachs has predicted that virtual and augmented reality (AR) – technology that overlays the physical world with digital imagery – will become a $95m market by 2025.

Facebook has thrown its weight behind such tech to support future home-working. “VR and AR is all about giving people remote presence,” Mark Zuckerberg told the Verge. “So if you’re long on VR and AR and on video chat, you have to believe in some capacity that you’re helping people be able to do whatever they want from wherever they are.” Facebook is working on VR that will allow employees to walk around virtual versions of its offices and interact with colleagues.

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Virtual and augmented reality is already used to train staff in industries such as manufacturing and healthcare. Walmart delivers training through Oculus Rift VR headsets that instruct on scenarios like navigating the busy shop floor on Black Friday. The company expected to have delivered more than two million training modules by the end of January this year. Surgeons are also among those testing out new skills in a virtual environment. The International Data Corporation predicted that global expenditure on AR/VR training will reach $8.5bn by 2023.

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“Many have argued that the pandemic has created a defining moment for XR,” says Alex Naressi, managing director for R&D, Accenture Interactive. XR or X reality, is a form of mixed reality that merges virtual reality with sensor networks. “However, it’s too early to make predictions as to whether XR will replace video conferencing,” says Naressi. “A more likely alternative is that XR will evolve and coexist with the generations of video conferencing to come.”

Peter Hirst, senior associate dean for executive education at MIT Sloan School of Management, says that for decades, Second Life type technologies for the workplace have existed, where you can navigate a realistic representation of real life as an avatar of yourself. Software exists where you can mill around in acoustically realistic spaces, where voices are louder the nearer they are. Hirst says during lockdown, MIT students have built a realistic representation of the campus in Minecraft, which prospective students can wander in place of a physical tour.

Awareness is one reason why this tech is not yet mainstream. “But probably more importantly there is a bigger technology hurdle and or a learning curve and or almost nervousness or intimidation factor for people to try out something like that and to adopt it,” says Hirst. The longer so many continue working from home, the more they could gain widespread appeal.

This article is from our recent Spotlight report on business continuity. Click here to see the full supplement.