Extended reality is a great tool for approaching teamwork in telework. We explain why.

With the post-Covid-19 era, companies have to reshape their organization model to cope with the recent physical distancing measures. Regardless of the company’s size, remote work is spreading as the new normal for businesses. With teams and collaborators at home, major stakes are to keep people connected together and avoid any feeling of isolation. How to maintain teamwork and cohesion if teams and colleagues do not work physically side-by-side? How to keep a corporate culture when employees work from home?

Can Extended Reality answer those new stakes related to massive utilisation of remote work? Moreover, do these technologies have the clout to foster teamwork and social corporate life through ‘remote presence’?

Definition: 

Extended reality (XR):

Extended reality (XR) encompasses all real-and-virtual combined technologies (VR, AR, MR) in a single terminology. It refers widely to the reshaping of reality in a part or full virtual universe. The first nature of these technologies is to modify the perception of reality for the user (VR Direct, 2019). 

Remote Work: 

The current sanitary crisis challenges the way work is organized. Workplaces became a health threat as office closures, meetings and business lunches can increase the spread of Covid-19.

Tech giants have taken into account remote work for their white-collar workers, employees who are not required to be in office (unlike maintenance for instance). Microsoft, Facebook or Twitter now allow their employees to telework permanently (Forbes, 2020). Industry companies such as Groupe PSA planned to strengthen teleworking when it comes to non-production activities, and thus decrease drastically its real-estate expenses (CNN Business, 2020). 

Therefore, remote is now a reality at a massive scale for white-collar workers. While 83.3% of workers do not wish to telework only, 55.6% of companies will alternate between telework and face-to-face work, and 44.4% will generalise telework.

White-collar employees, who are not required to be present in person and whose work can be done away from the workplace, have experienced during lockdown the benefits of what remote work procures. 

Among those upwards, the issue of commuting is one of the most attractive one. In American Metropolitan areas, the average one-way commute time is 26.1 minutes (Census Bureau, 2017), which corresponds to 4.35 hours per week. Teleworking allows to spend less time in transports.

The spread of remote work therefore decreases the need to commute which in turns beneficial for the environment. In the United Kingdom, 56% of workers (in 2014) use their car to commute to their workplace (Department of Transport, 2016). In London, Academics from King’s College London studied the NO2 reduction during the Covid-19 lockdown (from 24 March to 22 April), compared to an average concentration (from 1 January to 12 March). They found out traffic flows decreased by 53% across London, leading to an overall NO2 drop of 21.5% across the London roads, sometimes even more (55% Marylebone Road, 36% Euston Road) (KCL, 2020). 

Even though traffic will not be as low as it was during lockdown, if more people continue to work from home NO2 will decrease because of less people taking motor transports. In terms of environmental consequences, remote work implies the use of more energy and electricity in the household. There will be a swing from wider sources of consumption (workplace) to a more private one (household). 

This shift might not have drastic environmental worsening because energy consumption might represent the same amount of consumption as workplaces use. The balance of air pollution and energy consumption must be found on the short and long-term in order to foster the ecological benefits of remote work. This answers the principle of the Third Industrialized Revolution imagined by Rifkin for Europe, as a digitized renewable-energy internet (Business Insider, 2017).

While many upsides are found in remote work, some people felt the downsides of it and the inequalities that existed already seemed to have increased during the lockdown. It was notably the case for people living in small habitations and single parents at home. 

However, the spread of remote without the conditions of lockdown will clear up these issues. People will be able to leave big cities and small flats if they work remotely from home as they could work from everywhere. Single parents will not have to undergo all of the tasks they went through during lockdown, as children will go back to school. 

Covid-19 Context and Communicative Technologies:

A great issue with remote work is the isolation of people which in turn leads to the breaking of connections between teams. According to a study by Buffer (2020), 20% of remote workers’ biggest struggle is loneliness, and for 20% of them collaborating and communication is the biggest effort. 

The fact that teams are not working side-by-side increases the ‘lack of interaction, project management and stimulation’ (Hunter, 2019). Problems and issues can take longer to be resolved because teams are not directly face-to-face. Remote work therefore seems in opposition to team building and team bonding. 

How can there be a cohesion between teams and collaborators without physical contact or face-to-face discussion?

Social interactions and relations must not suffer from physical barriers. The restrictive measures taken because of the Covid-19 lockdown  highlight the use of communicative technologies. 

Working style is affected by the crisis and the development of physical distancing involves a new trend of tech designs called “Touch Less Economy and Touch Less Tech”. We have been used to working on computers and phones for decades in order to exchange with others (Weforum, 2016). The growth of such communicating devices has been exponential since the Covid-19 outbreak. For instance, the American communication technology company Zoom was downloaded from the App Store 94 million times from April until June 2020 and its revenue increased up to 169 per cent (India TV News, 2020).

Remote work and XR experience:

Even though communicative 2D technologies such as video calls are highly important in times of remote, XR has in many features complementary aspects to these classic communication technologies. 

In XR settings, there can be immersive communicative environments between collaborators. For instance, settings with virtual meeting rooms with a board anyone can write on. 

While traditional communicative technology is efficient to talk and argue, XR technologies make it possible to achieve and execute further actions in collaboration. It can improve the remote work experience as well as team cooperation and shared common experience. Instead of solely talking on video calls, collaborators using XR have the possibility to achieve joint tasks. 

Furthermore, as part of our own study on telework, we found out that 66,7% of respondents would be willing to use this technology if it is provided by the employer.

XR can foster team aspects of remote work in a virtual world. Within a virtual environment, teams can collaborate next to one another, and it is possible to have an entire team or company in the same virtual room. 

The association of VR technology combined with virtual worlds with full-body avatars reinvent traditional remote team-cooperation. Although similar technologies such as Second Life have not really attracted many people, this could change with their introduction into the work environment. Indeed, teams and collaborators can socialize and work in a virtual world which is totally invented and made for a given company. 

XR allows colleagues to brainstorm together, but also share content while modifying and designing it. With XR, a user can also physically act on content, therefore being more involved and less inclined to the routine aspect of teleworking. Compared to a video call, exchange with a colleague in a virtual world with the use of XR improves the involvement of the user. For instance, in a virtual environment, collaborators can modify or create a common presentation or document at the same time. Traditional calls or video calls have the advantage of vehiculate accurate facial and verbal form of the user that XR lacks. 

While XR tends to improve creativity and cooperation, the use of both traditional communicative tools and XR is helpful to decrease the lassitude aspects of telework.

A virtual world has the advantage of being a shared and simultaneous space. Users move together in a collaborative environment and therefore do not feel at home. To illustrate the idea, we can refer for example to the company Immersive Factory which, in response to the generalisation of remote work, offers since September 2020 an online platform of the virtual environment type. The purpose of the latter is to train employees wherever they are and to allow users to share their experiences, even if they work outside the office. These technologies are an extension of corporate culture.

Furthermore, extended reality technologies can be used in order to invent more ludic and collaborative events such as immersive challenges or games. Once again, collaborators could undertake activities together simultaneously. XR technologies are moreover usable on many different supports (PC, phone, VR headsets, etc.) and are therefore efficient anywhere.

However, it is hardly believable to undertake these XR connections all the time. Some devices require a more important set-up than a regular computer. While an efficient connexion is needed for video calls, an even more powerful one is necessitated for XR technologies. The XR technology does not necessarily need to be used daily.

Conclusion

Extended Reality technologies therefore do not aim to be solely used while teleworking. They can be associated with traditional communicative technologies to organize teams and collaborators events. A part-time use of XR will foster the benefits of it without undergoing its weaknesses. 

The use of XR technologies can represent some time of a day or a week for specific utilisations. For instance, there can be a meeting in a virtual world in order to draw on the same paper with colleagues. XR technologies do not aim to be used all the time. 

XR technologies are appropriate and effective to foster team collaboration while working from home. They allow a concrete share of content and material in a virtual collaborative world.

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