Dropping in on virtual meetings
Technology has created global working digital nomads. How we all meet will soon be transformed too.
Marc Carrel-Billiard’s vision of workplace communications of the future could be from an episode of US sci-fi series Star Trek. The global senior managing director of Accenture Labs describes the next evolution in workplace technology as “a new generation of telepresence” he prefers to call “teleporting”.
Using a combination of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) tools, researchers can boldly transmit images of clients from Accenture nano labs to one of its seven innovation hubs. “If the client wants,” Carrel-Billiard says, “[he can] push a button and whoosh – he’s teleported.”
What really excites Carrel-Billiard is what happens next – teleporting 2.0. “We’re going to be working on holographics,” he says in a video for Accenture’s Tech Vision 2018 project. “We’ll do a [high-resolution] 3D scan of your entire body and effectively ‘broadcast’ [you] to different places … So you’ll see yourself, exactly as you look like, from the place you are.”
Phyllis Chua, who works at the Asia-Pacific headquarters of chemical company Croda, says she would try any workplace technology that makes it easier to communicate with her international colleagues. She uses video conferencing and Skype to keep in contact with Croda staff and individual contractors in the US and Europe.
Chua’s biggest challenge is needing to prepare for and participate in late-night meetings.
“When it’s the global team, it can be a really late start – 9pm – and it can go on till 11pm,” Chua says. She says the video conferencing line is often unclear or delayed, and teams in one physical location sometimes talk among themselves.
“When everybody’s talking and you’re not at the most mental alert stage, you don’t really feel like jumping in even if you have something meaningful to contribute,” she says.
The internet and the tools it has spawned – collaboration apps, document sharing services, video conferencing and voice over internet protocol systems – have made it easier for colleagues anywhere to liaise quickly and efficiently. They have allowed people to work remotely – across the road or across the world – to enhance their productivity and quality of life while saving businesses millions in travel expenses.
Future technology will not just take advantage of VR and AR. Artificial intelligence, for instance, will provide instant and accurate translation tools for international work teams, and present timely training and recruitment modules.
It’s not just large global companies investing in workplace communications of the future. Start-ups, small businesses and sole traders can already don VR glasses and work in virtual collaboration rooms provided by developers such as rumii and vSpatial.
What is not really understood is what impact future workplace technology will have on how we interact with colleagues at a human level. It’s clear employees and contractors scattered across the world struggle to connect effectively through modern video conferencing and phone hook-ups. Will virtual environments ever take the place of real conference spaces?
Mark Phibbs, Cisco's vice president of marketing and communications in Asia-Pacific, Japan and Greater China, says the future of work should be about what we can do, not where.
“We should not be restricted or bound by our location,” Phibbs says. “Technology can allow almost any place to be a workplace, allowing workers the freedom to decide how and where they can contribute the most value to their organisation.”
A recent Cisco global survey showed the three most significant challenges for organisations relate to people: diminishing employee satisfaction, slow decision-making and an inability to retain top talent.
“Getting the tools, culture and work practices right has a direct impact on engagement, creativity, productivity and agility,” Phibbs says. “Our findings show savvy companies focus on creating a physical and digital work environment where employees can spend more time working effectively.”
Not surprisingly, Phibbs says his global team relies on Cisco's Webex platform to communicate with people inside and outside the organisation. Webex Teams, a recent addition to Cisco's suite of workplace communications, is an all-in-one application for video meetings, group messaging, file sharing and whiteboarding.
The business world is slowly awakening to opportunities presented by VR and AR, which are set to provide immersive and realistic work environments. Accenture calls mixing visual technologies, while adding features such as sound and touch, "extended reality".
"Through immersive experiences, businesses can tap expertise in thousands of skills from anywhere in the world," Carrel-Billiard says. "[Extended reality] supports an on-demand workforce approach, which not only saves up to 12 per cent in recruitment costs but also helps businesses engage an ever-growing pool of talent who desires flexibility."
This is good news for digital nomads looking to work wherever they want, as well as those seeking a more balanced lifestyle. A recent study by serviced office provider IWG found seven in 10 global professionals already work away from the office at least once every week.
Phyllis Chua says using VR sounds like a good idea, although she would like to know how shortsighted people deal with wearing goggles. “I’m quite blind,” she says, “so I don’t know how I’d see the others in the meeting if I don’t have my glasses on and I’m not wearing contact lenses.”
Her biggest concern, though, is being teleported to virtual late-night meetings in her dressing gown. “Maybe I could have virtual outfits,” she laughs.
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