Since COVID-19 turned working from home from occasional perk into business imperative, companies of all shapes, sizes and interests have been seeking new and effective ways for employees to do what’s required of them. This has inevitably led many to explore or improve their use of digital collaboration tools.
Over the past ten months, we’ve worked with numerous clients to transform their remote working setup for this new reality, enabling thousands of employees to make the transition quickly and effectively, and – crucially – ensuring business continuity. But has it paid off? If we look at Kearney’s remote work barometer results from last summer and fall, it would appear so: 87% of employees said they would prefer to continue working remotely after the pandemic, with 41% citing better work-life balance, 33% saying they had more time for family, and 30% just enjoying being in their own home.
So far, so good. But happier employees doesn’t necessarily translate into an uplift in productivity, and only 15% of respondents reported working more efficiently. Digging into this further, we found a common theme, and it’s that remote work tools, which did the job just fine previously for running videoconferences, managing projects or enabling dispersed teams to work together, simply aren’t equipped to cope with the complex online meetings and simultaneous communication so many companies now rely on.
But there is a solution, and it’s one that’s been waiting in the wings for some time: virtual reality (VR). As the name suggests, this is technology that generates a virtual environment or projection to create a realistic experience that does not actually exist.
There are a few main variants: fully immersive, where kit including head-mounted displays (HMD) and motion detecting devices like data gloves stimulates all of the user’s senses; non-immersive, where the user interacts with a device such as a smartphone, but retains peripheral awareness of the real world; and semi-immersive, in which the user is partly enmeshed in the virtual environment, as with a flight simulator for example.
These are already used for a range of business purposes, for instance designing and rolling out large-scale training programs without the need for travel, practicing dangerous tasks in a safe virtual environment, as well as developing and testing products – internally and with customers – in a cost-effective way.
VR beyond the hype
Last year, worldwide spend on hardware, software and services associated with VR solutions reached USD 7.1bn and half of all IT decision makers said they had started researching, testing, piloting or deploying it. But its real growth is yet to come: while VR contributed USD 13.5bn to global GDP in 2019, this is expected to jump to USD 450.5bn by 2030, supporting 23 million jobs (Source: HBR). Why? One driver is the increasing role it will play in connecting scattered workforces.
From WFH to VWFA
VR in the office can be invaluable, especially when ‘the office’ is a series of spare bedrooms, kitchen tables and (when restrictions permit) the local coffee shop. It allows people to be ‘in the same room’, no matter where they are in the real world. Rather than working from home (WFH), it’s virtual working from anywhere (VWFA). In this environment, interactions become more meaningful, with people reporting that their colleagues feel more present. This means more focus and less distractions. It also leads to better communication as participants are able tune in to one another’s body language and other visual cues, one of the casualties of the ubiquitous video call. In short, it connects the parts other virtual tools can’t reach, saving time, money, and causing less stress all round.
So, how does it really work? Let’s take a look at some scenarios based on our own experiences (see Figure 1 and say hello to the team).
Figure 1: The VR-based Kearney meeting room (Source: Kearney)
Inside the virtual meeting room
Anna is a project manager in the automotive industry, Paul is a marketing manager in FMCG, and Markus is a software engineer at an e-commerce company. All of them use VR to carry out their roles remotely, with tangible benefits in each case, from faster product iterations and testing, to delivering the marketing strategy across geographies more effectively, and managing dedicated sprints efficiently with dispersed teams (see Figure 2 for more details).
Figure 2: VR in action (Source: Kearney)
While these examples undoubtedly show how VR can improve remote working, it’s important to understand where it can really make the difference. The Kearney VR decision cube (see Figure 3) is a simple tool that allows you to do just this, using three main criteria.
First is the relative stability of your team. VR for remote working is most successful when the turnover of team members is low. Next is how stable the work environment is: most VR equipment is still bulky and so is not suitable for teams that change location frequently. Lastly, the actual content of your meetings is an important factor, with creative tasks much more suited to this way of working than highly standardized or administrative activity.
Figure 3: VR decision cube for remote work (Source: Kearney)
Looking at our use case examples, Markus the software engineer and his team are a good fit for remote working via VR. Neither the team nor their work environment change too much over time, and they are engaged in complex tasks where the collaboration via VR facilitates the visualization of the software planning (e.g. process tools, flow charts etc.).
Of course, not all types of meetings are suitable for a VR-based collaboration. Normal daily stand-up’s or simple status updates are too short and content-poor, so installing and setting up remote meetings via VR are not worth the effort. Meetings with clients and other stakeholders, as they happen nearly every day are of course not suitable as well, as mostly the equipment is not available for every participant.
If your team however falls into one of the sweet spots, the next challenge is determining how to start the VR adventure with your team. To help you start off on the right foot, our remote VR work approach(see Figure 4)outlines five simple steps to follow.
Figure 4: Taking your first steps with remote VR (Source: Kearney)
1. Define the scope of your VR-based collaboration by selecting the teams, use cases, projects and events that will be supported by the technology.
2. Based on your defined scope, search for a suitable solution vendor. Obviously, this can be an iterative process, where you marry the scope and solution step by step.
3. Select and distribute the necessary equipment for team members to get up and running with VR.
4. Train the team how to use their new virtual working environment. The effort required here is not to be underestimated; for instance, only one in five consumers have used VR technology to date (Source: AR Insider).
5. Now you’re ready to start running productive meetings, fully immersed in VR, wherever your team members happen to be.
Remote work is now a given and likely to play an even greater part in the future of work. At Kearney, we couple our expertise in the tangible aspects of remote working – like technology and infrastructure – with a deep understanding of organizational enablers, such as culture and capabilities, to support and train our clients in working this way. Nothing inspires us more than making a difference. Want to know more, and get started on your own path to success? Let’s talk.