Virtual Offices For All: Return Of The Serendipitous Interaction
Come dream with me for a minute. My colleagues and I all have 3D interactive virtual workspaces, regardless of where we physically work (in a corporate office, a home office, on a mountain top, or on the road — whether in the US, Europe, or Asia). Our avatars populate our workspaces when we are online (or “in-world,” in virtual world parlance) (see Figure 1). Some of us have fairly traditional-looking offices, like this one. Others are really “out-there” — underwater, out in space, in tree houses or ice caves. Some of our virtual workspaces look more like factories, workshops, sanctuaries, or galleries. We can easily customize our virtual workspaces to reflect who we are — much the way we customize our real-world, physical workplaces with plants, pictures, books, awards, and toys.
Figure 1: My Second Life avatar (Erica Burns) hard at work in a virtual office
Let’s take it a little further:
I develop relationships with colleagues I wouldn’t have otherwise. In the virtual world, prior to company meetings, and in a fun and cheery virtual common area during breaks, we have the “water cooler conversations” that are all but lost when a workforce is distributed. We chatter before meetings start and after they end and we play chess, Settlers of Catan, or virtual ping pong on lunch breaks. People stop by the common areas to see what’s going on. I get to know people I wouldn’t otherwise, because we are never in the same physical place at the same time. I get to know sales people I haven’t met before, and the team that routes client inquiry calls to analysts gets to know me.
We have blended real world / virtual world meetings. For all-hands company meetings, employees who work in the company’s offices around the world meet in physical conference rooms there, and the rest of us join via a big conference room in the virtual world. Video streams of all the meeting rooms where employees are gathered are displayed on each others’ walls, as well as on the walls in the virtual conference room. The activity going on in the virtual meeting room is projected onto the walls in the conference rooms in the offices, right next to the streaming video from the other meeting rooms. Despite the geographic distance between us, we all feel like we are together in the same space. (See this January 25, 2008 blog post about a blended real life / Second Life meeting I attended.)
It’s easy for colleagues to find each other and hold ad hoc meetings. Let’s say my colleague wants to ask me a quick question. He scans list to see if my presence information is set to “available” or perhaps views a map of the virtual organization, where he see a pulsing green light over my virtual office. He knocks on my virtual door. I hear an auditory signal and perhaps see a visual indicator on the displays and devices I have set up in my profile. I look up and on my computer screen I see an image (perhaps a snapshot) of the avatar at my door, along with that person’s name. I signal “come on in” — I’ve been meaning to talk to him, too — and I ask him to come take a look at what I’m working on (see Figure 2). [Thanks to the good folks at Second Life New England for allowing me to take these snapshots in their virtual space.]
Figure 2: A colleague stops by the virtual office and checks out what I’m working on
We can create, share, and interact with today’s — and tomorrow’s — business tools and content. Perhaps what I want to show the colleague who stopped by is a draft of the material for an upcoming presentation we will be doing together. I click a button and there in my virtual office a large screen display appears, showing the latest iteration of our PowerPoint slides. We both can adjust our views of the space to make the slides take up as much or as little of the screen real estate as we want. As we are discussing the slides via VoIP, either of us can use our mouse to advance the slides, and either of us can modify the content. Tomorrow, we will interact with tools that business has not yet dreamed of, like 3D mindmaps and concept maps, database and sensor-driven models of entire real-life enterprises, and entirely virtual organizations that transcend the need for conventional real estate entirely.
I can set my profile to “do not disturb” if I want to. Much the way we do with enterprise instant messaging tools today, in the virtual world I can set my presence info to “do not disturb” if I’m deep in thought or in a meeting. The unified communications services integrated with the virtual world will automatically communicate that I am on the phone (e.g., display my avatar talking on the phone and show my presence info next to my name on a list as “on the phone”). If I am in a meeting, according to my calendar, my presence will display as “busy” (perhaps with a soft red glow over my virtual workspace on the map, or a “busy” sign next to my name in the alphabetical list) — and anyone who happens to walk by or tries to enter my virtual office will find the door closed and information on it about what I’m doing and when I’ll be done.
I have a computer monitor on my real-world desk dedicated to my virtual world. I use this monitor when I am engaged in my virtual world — participating in team or company-wide meetings, listening to vendor briefings, answering a client’s questions, listening to a lecture, taking training sessions, and doing research. When I am working on a report using Microsoft Office, entering information in our CRM system, or going through my email I may use a different monitor. When I am not actively using my virtual world monitor, perhaps it displays my “in the office” presence visually, like in Figure 1 above. Or — imagine this — via wearable displays with full stereo optics and head movement sensors on them, perhaps paired perhaps with kinetic controls on feet and fingers.
The beauty of virtual world technology like this: distributed workers get new capabilities (like building relationships with, and randomly sharing ideas with, remote colleagues because you happen to be in the same place at the same time — thereby potentially driving up creativity and innovation). And all information workers get improved ways of doing things they can do today (like talking, instant messaging, and interacting with shared presentation materials over the Web), thereby driving up their productivity.
My prediction: forward-thinking organizations will put virtual environments like this in place during the next few years. Their employees will develop relationships that strengthen their feeling of belonging to a larger organization and sharing an important mission. Employees’ loyalty to the company will increase, and this will lead to easier employee recruiting and longer retention. Distributed workforces will begin to share ideas and learnings in ways that just weren’t possible without this technology. For example, they will meet in the virtual world to build, share, and collaborate on 3D prototypes of physical or theoretical objects. In organizations that are re-orienting themselves toward pervasive innovation, the use of virtual worlds will lead to a long-term competitive advantage. (For a great book on pervasive innovation leading to long-term competitive advantage, read Gary Hamel’s The Future of Management.)
[Credit: Thanks for support with this blog post to my friend Charles O’Connell — IT professional and Second Life estate manager, architecture review board member, builder, scripter, vendor, and enthusiast.]