April 16, 2020
This morning, I walked up to my office at around nine. I looked up at my building, the sun shining down on me. I could see the water in the distance. As I walked in and sat at my desk, I glanced around and noticed Mike, our sales manager, was already at his desk.
“Good morning Mike!”
“How’s it going Catherine?”
“Going great. Hey, I’d love to run a video idea by you in a little. Let me know when you’re free to chat.”
Thus began a typical day in the office. More people trickled in during the day, but other than meetings, I was mostly left to focus on my work. Before I knew, it was lunch, and soon after, five o’clock.
“I’m heading out everyone, see you all tomorrow!”
You might be thinking, What are you doing in your office! Have you not been watching the news?
Truth is, this pandemic hasn’t changed my workday in the slightest. Before you judge me, I’m still social distancing. In fact, I recently got back from a trip abroad, so I’ve been quarantining myself in my room for the past week and a half.
Here’s my office.
I work for an AI and cybersecurity company that’s never done things conventionally. When the CEO told me they conducted business on virtual reality, at first I thought I’d have to wear a VR headset (I don’t). Then, when I saw the platform, I laughed, thinking of all the hours I had spent playing SIMs as a kid. But I’ve been on this platform for a few months now and have since gained enough experience with it to be able to properly share some thoughts on it.
As a background, I love working in an office. I think there are so many opportunities to grow as a team, to collaborate and to communicate, that are hard to get by working remotely. As a marketer, my work depends on being able to spontaneously ideate with others. And when you work at a fast-paced company, even waiting an hour for a response to an email can throw business off. Plus, I love to feel like I’m where it’s all happening. So remote work was never something I had considered before being offered my current job.
Though I was hesitant about VR, I think it ended up being the best way for me to adjust to remote work. I’ve outlined some of the pros and cons below.
1. The Structure
Work-life balance is important to me. Sure, I’m willing to stay late at the office when I have to, but when I hear the words “always-on” by recruiters or potential employers, I run for the hills. This feeling of never really being off was something I was particularly nervous about with virtual work. Interestingly, adding a visual aspect to your remote job gets around that. When I’m working, I sit my avatar at her desk. When I’m at lunch or running an errand, she leaves her desk. And when it’s time to shut down, she leaves the office. At this point, my coworkers know to treat me as if I’ve physically left for the day. That means, no more meetings, and probably no responses to emails either. And I know to treat my coworkers the same way. If I need to ask Mark a question, and he isn’t at his desk, it isn’t a good time for him.
You might think that a green “online” icon works the same way, which is what I originally thought, but after having tried both, you would be surprised at how essential being able to visualize something is to taking it seriously.
2. The Communication
I’ve never loved email, or even IM for that matter. At one of my previous jobs, I had a coworker who sat near me but would communicate exclusively through email and IM. Based on the messages I received, I was convinced they hated me, but when I finally confronted them about it, they were surprised to hear that. Tone is so important in communication, and though we as a society have found ways to use punctuation or emojis to make up for the lack of tone, these conventions aren’t constant among the different generations in the workplace. A phone call is always an option, but many people (myself included) see phone calls as something that you should ask permission for beforehand and should be reserved for difficult or urgent conversations.
Tone aside, the delays that come with email and IM result in unnecessary inefficiencies. Sometimes, you really do only have a quick question, and it’s so much faster to have an answer in a 10 second conversation than waiting for an email response. On the other hand, you also don’t want to bother someone by calling them. Virtual reality has gotten around these issues in a way I didn’t expect. The audio on the platform is distance based, so if I turn my microphone on, everyone in range can hear me. This range can be small enough so I have to walk to someone’s desk to talk to them, or large enough that everyone in the room can participate in a meeting. When I have a question, I just turn on my microphone and ask it. It’s simple and yet incredibly effective for conducting my business. Not only that, but I don’t feel the same isolation that I thought I would feel by working remotely. I can remain up to speed on the happenings of the company, and even engage in small talk if I want to.
3. The Convenience
Though I liked working in an office, I can’t deny that it’s more convenient and cheaper to work remotely. My commute went from an hour to five seconds, and I’m saving a ton of money on gas or metro fare. Also, since my company doesn’t have to pay for overhead, I can get paid more. While I had known about these benefits before, they had still never seemed worth it for me. My current work situation addresses my initial concerns while retaining the benefits of remote work. It’s a win-win.
Working from my virtual office is essentially the same as working from a real office, but at home. This means, however, that I can’t pick up and go to a Starbucks (or for a timelier example, my backyard) if I want, like many remote workers. In fact, it’s our policy to have a second monitor, so you can keep the office visible at all times. This grounds me to my desk while I’m working. While ultimately, I think it’s helped keep me on track and separate my work life from my home life, I know it’s not for everyone.
2. The Cooperation
Our policy in the office is simple. If you are at your desk in real life, your avatar is at their desk as well. If you get up to go to lunch, a meeting, or even to go make some coffee, your avatar will leave their desk also. When followed closely, this tool can be extremely useful. But the platform only works as well as your team lets it. If someone doesn't respect the policy, and leaves their desk for an extended period of time without moving their avatar, the platform loses a lot if its value. This is something I've been guilty of a couple times, and learning to use it properly was a habit I had to build.
3. The Learning Curve
Like many new technologies introduced into a workplace, this platform took me a while to learn. If I had to compare, I would say the user interface is about on par with other B2B software, but worse than a typical consumer app. There are definitely going to be many questions in the beginning, like “How do I get my mic to work?” or “How can I walk and move my camera?” While at first it was, admittedly, quite frustrating to adjust to, once I got used to it, I could start to really appreciate it.
I would be lying if I said my arrangement perfectly replaced working in an office. There are some elements, like eating lunch with your coworkers or the free snacks, that I do miss. Some people are just better suited for remote work than others. But with the current pandemic, I’ve witnessed other people like me really struggle to adjust to remote work, and it’s made me realize that what I have is pretty unique. Maybe this pandemic is the beginning of a larger trend towards working from home that will provoke Americans to reimagine the concept of remote work. We’re turning a corner for a new way of working, and my team is at the forefront. We’ve gone remote and we’ll never go back.
If you’re interested in learning more about what life in the virtual office is like, check out this video.
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By: Catherine Sorensen