In the pre-COVID-19 world, the idea that remote meetings are second-best was pervasive in traditional corporate thinking. But insisting in-person is better is a flawed approach. It ignores the societal, economic, social, and mental benefits of remote work. It also downplays the functionality and promise of remote technologies. Most importantly, online remote experiences — from Zoom sessions to social gatherings in virtual reality (VR) — are a different class of experiences. We should expect them to be new ways to connect, not mere stand-ins for analog ways of communicating.
Remote work was on the rise before the pandemic, but Americans have experienced what feels like years of adaptation to remote communication in the span of months. Of Americans employed before the pandemic, half began working from home in April and May, up from 15 percent pre-pandemic. Benefits include flexibility in setting work hours, additional time with family members, and a culling of unnecessary meetings. A recent Global Workplace Analytics found that 77 percent of employees wish to continue to work from home at least once a week after the pandemic, with only 6 percent stating they never want to work from home. The same study found that 77 percent of remote workers report feeling productive, and 69 percent are “satisfied with their well-being.”
Stay-at-home orders made us equally far apart from friends, family, and neighbors — no matter how close or far they may be geographically. Under social distancing guidelines, hanging out with a neighbor is just as hard as hanging out with a friend in another country. This lowers the relative cost of reconnecting with more distant friends and family. Technology has further eroded the barriers to long-distance communications. VR-compatible social platforms like VRChat and Tabletop Simulator reported spikes in usage in March and April, as did PC and console video games. What is so powerful about remote experiences?
Sometimes it’s better than being there
I participated (virtually, of course) in a blend of 2D and VR experience at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers — Virtual Reality (IEEEVR) online conference in late March. One of the hosts noted its remote status allowed for wider attendance, a greater diversity of attendees, and minimized the carbon impact as participants didn’t have to travel to participate. Online conferences are also likely to be cheap as there are no costs associated with food, transportation or rental of physical spaces, and fewer staffing needs. For example, the Educators in VR conference cost around $330 for about 6,000 attendees for an event that they estimated would have cost $20,000 to hold in person.
Companies that are experimenting with recreating simulations of their 3-D office spaces through services such as Breakroom, Spatial, Walkabout, or Mozilla Hubs are also realizing they are not bound to the materiality of the physical world or its high rental costs. Virtual office spaces can be outdoors in always-sunny spaces with majestic ocean vistas. Visual and audio features are customizable — you can toggle nature sounds or switch to night mode. Commutes are instantaneous.
Networking in virtual reality is also a better experience on some margins. Within the Mozilla Hubs IEEE-VR experience, affiliations appeared above attendee’s names in large script. This meant you could know who was in the audience without approaching and doing the awkward nametag glance-dance to identify them. In virtual conference sessions, you can record and rewind, add subtitles, or change the speed of the video itself. Immersive social VR events demonstrate the uniqueness of remote irrealities.
Finally, online platforms allow users to have parallel private or public conversations that can enrich the experience for attendees. Extra meaning communicated by one’s choice of Zoom background or parallel expression through emojis, gifs, or the creation and manipulation of virtual objects can make online experiences more interactive. Making witty comments or linking to supportive documents in the chat can enhance the classroom experience. As I experienced in my remote graduate school classes in April, you can go to the bathroom, google a term, or answer an email without distracting the professor or classmates. For motivated and experienced students, this is a boon.
Bowling Alone, together
In his opus magnum, sociologist Robert Putnam bemoans the loss of traditional forms of association, from participation in membership organizations and bowling clubs to volunteering. He criticizes technological developments, in particular television, for making us more isolated as compared to “more primitive forms of entertainment” and worries that “the new ‘virtual reality’ helmets that we will soon don to be entertained in total isolation are merely the latest extension of this trend.”
Putnam makes the human mistake of thinking his conception of reality is the best reality. Putnam also ignores the fact that old forms of association are entering into new mediums. For example, I recently donned a VR headset and did, in fact, bowl alone in VRChat before my friends logged on and popped into existence, lobbing bowling balls and cracking jokes. Online platforms provide an opportunity for technologically-enabled association. Especially during a pandemic when traditional means of socializing are risky or illegal, we should not downplay this style of experimentation.
Still, virtual experiences in 2020 leave room for improvement. The architecture of virtual spaces matters for the quality of the experience. Co-locating events can allow people to move easily between them, but can also result in audio issues and distraction. Coordinating events happening on multiple platforms simultaneously is difficult. Mitigating distracting behavior calls for a combination of self-moderation tools and host-specific tools. Technical difficulties can spell doom for online interaction.
Recreating the conditions for serendipitous interaction is indeed a problem. During the IEEE-VR conference, the nature of the spaces and the simplicity of our avatars meant it was hard to determine if someone was open to a conversation. A lack of hallways and shared meals meant that networking had to be deliberate. No matter how you cut it, virtual refreshments are less satisfying than their real-world counterparts.
Embracing the new normal
Online platforms provide us rich ways to conduct social and work-related communications. Remote work facilitates a broader talent base, savings on office space, less congestion, and greater worker job satisfaction. As a result of pandemic-related changes in travel and commuting patterns, global carbon emissions will drop by an estimated 8 percent this year, and air pollution has also declined precipitously.
In order to facilitate a remote-friendly future of work, policymakers should direct more resources toward helping businesses and government offices go virtual rather than preserving the status quo. From a policy perspective, new pandemic-inspired local grants to help individuals acquire furniture and technology for remote office setups can pay dividends to companies, employees, and society.