Although remote work is on the rise — 37% of U.S. workers have worked remotely for their job in some capacity, according to a recent Gallup poll, and telecommuting has elements that appeal to both employees and employers — it still poses challenges.
For instance, although employees work more efficiently at home, they are less likely to be promoted as quickly as their on-site counterparts. This could perhaps be attributed to the lack of physical interaction they have with their colleagues. Going into an office may very well lead to building stronger relationships. Feelings of isolation are a real possibility for fully remote workers as well. While remote workers have been shown to foster friendly virtual work environments, they still may be lacking the feeling of truly belonging or of being an integral part of the company and its culture.
Virtual reality could possibly address all these challenges. Workers could immerse themselves in a simulated work space where they would have the opportunity to interact with co-workers in meaningful — albeit virtual — ways. Meanwhile, advancements in telerobotics could allow “teleporting” to work.
Virtual reality has been around since the ’90s, but only in the last few years has it become a viable mass-market product. VR is already beginning to inundate mediums such as video games, television and film and is even showing signs of radically changing social media.
As the cost for consumers to jump into VR steadily decreases, development for new and interesting applications of the nascent technology rises. Over 1 million people used Samsung’s VR headset last year, and that’s only the beginning. Google’s Cardboard VR has tremendously reduced the cost of virtual reality.
Talented developers and engineers are taking advantage of the immense interest in VR. Students at the University of Pennsylvania have created a robot named DORA (Dexterous Observational Roving Automaton) that acts as an out-of-body host for VR users. DORA allows users to see, move and interact with others remotely. “I have experienced the future of remote work, and it feels a lot like teleportation,” Christopher Mims wrote in his piece about telerobotics for The Wall Street Journal.
Unfortunately, telerobotics is still very costly. Cheaper solutions do exist, however. Social networking giant Facebook is investing a massive amount of time and money into virtual reality and plans to offer affordable hardware for its social VR app. In its app, users create avatars that interact with each other in real time in either virtual or real-life settings. Facebook’s social VR app, or a technology very similar to it, could be used to create virtual work spaces.
VR is fast becoming a ubiquitous technology. This ubiquity will make projects like DORA a reality. Telerobotics would effectively solve the problems faced by remote workers and could make telecommuting more attractive to employers. Even if telerobotics proves to be too expensive in the short term, social VR will undoubtedly transform remote work. VR will make remote work a more social experience, and hopefully provide remote workers and employers alike with a greater sense of involvement, commitment and dedication.
Lisa Froelings is a business and tech writer with over four years of experience in human resources working for a major retailer in the U.S. before she decided to build her own small business. Her interests include technology and how they improve user experience and productivity.