Making the world a smaller place: using VR in the remote workplace
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When we all adjusted to a world temporarily without in-person gatherings, video conferencing quickly became the tool to connect and collaborate near and far.
Still, anyone who’s experienced these video conference meetings knows they have shortcomings.
“Can you see my screen?”
“I’m not a cat.”
Video conferencing has made so much possible. But can virtual reality (VR) help facilitate something richer and more seamless, bridging the gap between virtual and in-person gatherings?
We at Sans Serif, eager to maximize our collaborative effectiveness, even as a remote-first agency, decided to give VR a try in a brainstorming session among our creative team. I organized the meeting and introduced the team to how to use it. Here’s what I learned.
Still in its awkward adolescent phase, VR offers one notable advantage over video conferencing—immersion. From having a moment of panic when you realize your coworkers can now see your slipping attention span to realizing how often you’ve been trying to multitask behind the video conferencing window because suddenly you can’t, the immediate, immersive quality of a VR meeting can be startling. The expanse of space around you, and your coworker suddenly sitting, in some sense, behind you at the table, becomes viscerally real, even though you’re confined to a headset and hundreds of miles apart. The enhanced feeling of engagement, of accountability to being fully present can’t be denied.
Users must create avatars to represent themselves in the virtual space, allowing for either creative expression or realistic portrayal. With a team spread across the nation, this provided a powerful moment when each person entered the room for the first time—some instantly recognizable and others requiring some imagination to identify. Immediately, each person really felt present, not just like some flat representation on a screen. You could sense them in the room with you.
The details of depth
While we started off in a standard meeting arrangement with a single table in a half oval, Meta’s VR meeting app, Workrooms, offers a handful of other setups. Most unique is the breakouts room, a large space with several tables for small groups to gather. Here, the headset adjusts voice volumes based on how near or far someone is from you in the VR environment. When side conversations occur, or someone is at another breakout table, you can still hear the murmuring of their conversation in the background, an element of realness that has surprising poignancy for those missing the subtle details of presence in-person.
So, what were our takeaways from this experience?
During our brainstorm session, we were able to share screen grabs, images, sticky notes, and use key features to work together and collaborate. The setting was productive, a baseline requirement.
But more than that, for some more than others, the sense of being together in one place—even if we embrace and don’t want to relinquish all the work-life balance positives that come from a remote-first workplace — is strongly missed, and that can’t be discounted. VR meetings, even in this relatively early stage, provide simple but powerful tools that help remove the barriers of distance. Once the initial novelty of the experience itself began to wane, the environment provided an engaging space for serious collaboration.
No doubt technology will continue to improve and present even more possibilities. At the moment, the available tools provide enough of a framework to create meaningful, productive experiences.
See you in the metaverse.