By Priyanka Jhalani
Given the unexpected circumstances of the past few months, COVID-19 forced the corporate world to quickly adjust to a work-from-home model with little warning. Given the new normal, the technology that businesses choose to keep their teams connected and productive is becoming even more important. Remote work was already a rising trend before the pandemic began and is likely to remain intact, if not augmented, post-pandemic. In an era that is defined by its revolutionary technological advancements, organizations seeking to keep employees connected will need solutions that work both during and after COVID-19.
Virtual reality (VR) can be an effective way for companies to replicate the face-to-face communication and informal interactions that employees are currently missing out on while working from home.
Many businesses have invested heavily in designing office spaces that encourage informal interactions and keep employees on-site for longer periods of time, a clear indication of how much corporations value face-to-face interaction. Therefore, not surprisingly, many businesses are looking for solutions to facilitate these in-person interactions without putting their employees at risk of contracting COVID-19. VR offers a better alternative to replicate a face-to-face work environment for employees than only using phone calls and video chats.
Unlike a video chat or an augmented reality platform (think Snapchat), VR allows people to interact in shared virtual environments and provides the shared context that is a given in most in-person meetings. Sharing an environment creates an immersive experience for users which benefits team bonding. Since these environments are available across a range of VR technologies, including desktop and headset VR, companies with varying VR capabilities can still take advantage of this feature.
Similarly, avatars and agents (users control avatars while agents are computer generated) give people the feeling that they are “really there” when interacting with others because they can use cues that they normally would in-person like body language and eye contact. One study even found that the presence of avatars made people less likely to behave aggressively and more willing to compromise, which can prove vital for companies with many virtual teams and negotiations.
Additionally, VR that offers haptic feedback can allow people to shake each other’s hands when meeting for the first time or high-five after accomplishing a task. Although it may seem insignificant or frivolous, touch can be important when building trust and interpersonal relationships, even if it is virtual.
Finally, VR can reintroduce eye contact and gaze in interpersonal communications, which helps establish and maintain trust. A lack of eye contact can be interpreted as an act of deception and lead to feelings of mistrust, ultimately hurting teams. It is often awkward and difficult to maintain eye contact during standard video conferencing because the user is either looking at the camera, missing the other person’s facial expressions and other non-verbal cues, or looking at the other person, appearing as if they are not making eye contact.
VR even allows users to go beyond what would be physically possible if individuals were colocated. For example, employees can simultaneously make eye contact with two people, giving each the feeling of being heard and receiving their full attention at the same time.
VR enables remote team members to form the interpersonal relationships that they normally would in the office by giving employees the opportunity to get to know each other in a way that seems somewhat natural. A likely result of these increased interactions will be that teams perform more effectively and therefore can better contribute to their company’s success.
Aside from strengthening teams, VR is a powerful tool for businesses looking to mitigate the loneliness and quarantine fatigue that their employees are feeling right now. Loneliness in the United States was a pre-pandemic health concern and this crisis has worsened that reality. VR’s immersive nature and ability to mimic in-person communication gives it the potential to reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation, which can help keep people inside and possibly produce a more emotionally fulfilling work experience.
A feeling of connectedness is even more important in countries with collectivist cultures. For example, interpersonal relationships are central to many businesses in India, and therefore being able to maintain them while employees work remotely is a priority.
However, virtual reality is not right for all businesses and is not meant to replace all other forms of virtual communication.
VR is best-suited for companies with a highly collaborative, team-based culture and a digitally literate workforce capable of using the technology from home. For these situations in particular, it can be game-changing as companies virtually onboard new employees and form new teams.
Additionally, workforce demographics can heavily shape the context in which companies need to develop VR strategies. While countries like the United States and Japan have aging workforces that are less familiar with technologically-oriented workspaces, India has one of the largest youth populations entering the workforce which could help Indian companies adjust to online business faster.
Another crucial consideration when constructing a VR strategy is a country’s or company’s digital infrastructure. While India has planned steps to advance digitally, including a government program to build infrastructure to support information and communication technology, Indian companies moving online now may still face issues supporting VR. Alternatively, countries with advanced digital infrastructures like the United States and South Korea are well positioned to implement VR now.
The question of how best to use VR to connect people remains. Answering this question requires further experimentation on the part of researchers and companies. Hypothetically, short intervals of VR usage when employees have the opportunity to interact informally with one another is best. A team bonding event or a few minutes for colleagues to chat before a meeting begins are examples of useful test cases.
Despite VR’s many pros, there are some cons worth examining. Employees experiencing motion-sickness after a VR experience is a possibility businesses should consider when thinking about using the technology. Unfortunately some VR headsets leave female users with more motion sickness than male users, which is thought to be a result of the interpupillary distance in the hardware being built for males rather than females. Businesses can use desktop VR for the time being to address this issue. As it is, VR headsets are sold out for months and the hardware presents significant initial costs. In the longer term, headset costs are predicted to fall as the technology improves, which would lower the barrier to entry for many firms.
It is worth noting that VR has the potential to “reduce appearance-based judgements” through the use of avatars and may be particularly beneficial for introverted users looking to build relationships. Although there is no consensus on which type of appearance based judgements VR can reduce and by what degree, the possibility of reducing bias in the workplace should be explored. Researchers may consider investigating how using VR affects biases based on beauty, race and/or ability.
VR provides an excellent opportunity for businesses to recreate face-to-face experiences in the midst of a global pandemic that has left people more isolated. It has the potential to facilitate informal interactions and interpersonal relationships that help teams perform while also reducing social distancing fatigue. The technology is worth considering as firms wade into increasingly uncertain waters. For corporations around the world, VR might just become the new normal.