My love affair with the virtual office began more than a decade ago, but truly blossomed in 2007 when I became a partner at the marketing consultancy, crayon — a company (perhaps) most famous for having its headquarters in Second Life and helping companies like Coca-Cola navigate the virtual world.
Beyond my love-hate relationship with that particular ill-fated virtual world (I was at once an ardent supporter and an outspoken critic) and others, I held meetings on Skype and ooVoo, collaborated through Basecamp, gathered with coworkers in nascent ‘enterprise’ social networking platforms — all commonplace digital work tools today, some of which were just coming into their own then. I swore I’d never suffer the close-to-two-hour (each way!) commute I’d endured prior to that point, and I’ve (mostly successfully) stuck to that promise for close to a decade.
My support for the virtual workplace goes well beyond my desire to avoid the commuter rail or work in my underwear, although there’s lots to be said for both of these things. As I laid out in a keynote I gave on the future of work back in 2008, I saw (and see) the virtual office as the antidote to what I called the “best of what’s around workplace” — a model in which companies settle for the workforce that happens to be local and workers settle for the companies that happen to be nearby. If you’re a talent magnet like Google or a Fortune 500 company with MBA appeal, that may be fine. Otherwise, you risk building a business that’s blah at best. As an alternative, the virtual workplace (and owners’/founders’/leaders’ ability to truly embrace the virtualization of work — not just giving lip service to flexible work arrangements or grudgingly allowing an occasional work-from-home day) opens up possibilities of a global talent pool working, wherever they happen to be, in dynamic deliverables-based teams, empowered by collaboration technology. Look no further than the rise of the freelance economy to see why this model matters.
Technology has clearly come a long way since 2007/2008. What was a clunky kluge then (frankly, even now) will soon be as common as conference calls. And it will go far beyond what rudimentary remote work solutions make possible.
Just last week, Microsoft released a new demo for its highly anticipated HoloLens augmented reality headset, showcasing a workplace application they’ve dubbed holoportation — human teleportation via holographic image. Or, put another way, a means for holding face-to-face meetings virtually, without ever leaving your home, office, or home office. Watch…
Granted, pulling this off is far from easy. In addition to the yet-to-be-released (unless you’re a developer, that is) HoloLens, true holoportation requires a sophisticated and expensive 3D camera set-up at each point of origination and, we can presume, beaucoup bandwidth. But as a vision of the virtual workplace fully realized, it is compelling — and just a bit mind-blowing.
Whether implemented in an augmented reality that allows real and virtual participants to share the same physical space, or in a virtual reality that allows participants’ avatars to come together in a digital ‘third place’ (as companies like IBM or crayon did in Second Life, back in the day), we are likely years — not decades — away from realizing a truly virtual work style that collapses time and space to make new ways of work real.
Consider: How would holoportation change the way you collaborate with colleagues and clients? What would it mean for productivity, your business travel budget, or how you think about conferences? What opportunities might it open for tapping into a global talent pool or erasing the boundaries between business units beyond borders? How might it change the implications of face time while opening the door to new forms of personal interaction?