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The Office of the Future

Posted on: September 5th, 2019 by Dean North


A brand-new, fully immersive interface, promised to us way back in the 80s, has finally arrived. Flat screens are on the way out, virtual environments are coming in, and it’s going to change the way we work forever!

No early starts. No fighting through crowds of commuters on a packed train station. No hot and scratchy business suits in the summer. No sleep-deprived battles with mascara pens or staggering home at the end of the day in painful high heels. Instead, you roll out of bed, grab some coffee, and camp out on the sofa, moments later surrounded by your equally tranquil colleagues.

       The view from your new office window!

Today’s business meeting takes place on top of Mount Kinabalu. Yesterday it was San Rafael Falls in Ecuador. The finance director gestures towards a sales graph hovering in the air above you and another appears nearby showing predicted growth for next quarter. Surrounding the team are a number of interactive screens showing technical notes and wireframes for the company’s next big project.

An hour later you guide a client on a walking tour through the planned blueprint for their company’s virtual ‘site’; an update from their old 2D website. Because 2D websites are so last decade! This client manufactures various products for gardening centres up and down the country. The new website will allow their customers to view items at scale, pick them up, interact with them, and place orders directly via the virtual ‘sales assistant’; a 3D chatbot. It’s as close to a physical shopping experience as possible, without having to travel to the site in person. The chatbot saunters over to ask if you need assistance and you spin up a virtual screen in front of you to adjust a few lines of code, adding another question to its database of automated responses. From the virtual screen you can access everything on your desktop as if sitting down at an office desk.

Sounds good, right?

This is the future of software development thanks to virtual reality.

The Future Web is 360°

For many people, the term ‘VR’ still sounds like some futuristic idea out of an 80s sci-fi movie. Or they recall early attempts at building the virtual world; the jerky flight simulators with worse graphics than Minecraft, that gave even the most ardent fans headaches and nausea for hours afterwards. But for those of us now working and developing in VR, there is no going back.

My generation was the first to have personal computers and the internet in our homes, albeit with dial-up internet that took forever to log on to (when you could get on at all). Back then, the internet seemed incredibly cutting edge. None of the adults understood how it worked, including our teachers. As young teens, we barely understood how it worked – we’d grown up with 4 channel TV and music on cassette tapes. If you were disruptive in class, you would either get sent to the library or to the school computer to give the teachers a break! But suddenly having the power to put messages and pictures on a digital page that anyone anywhere in the world could access was really exciting! I remember learning to write code with pen and paper, out of a physical textbook, just so I could take it to school and book one of the new lab computers at lunch to create our band website.

No one had heard of a laptop or iPad. These screens were thick plastic boxes that took up most of the desk and weighed a ton. At the first summer job I had testing a logistics system, the screens were still in monochrome and only one in the entire building was connected to what the manager referred to as ‘the outernet’. Emails weren’t yet a thing and one of my tasks was to act as a messenger between office buildings on site; running about with folders and stacks of paperwork. Most communication with clients was either in-face, by phone or by writing.

Offices have moved on somewhat from those days. We no longer worry about the fax machine breaking or running out of paper after printing a small library worth of documents every day. Now we are plagued by inbox traffic, clients struggling with the concept of screen-share, the constant fight to keep up with digital security, and employees leaving laptops full of sensitive corporate data on trains. This advancement of technology means that we can now access files in the cloud or check emails 24/7. The war to separate home and work life has well and truly been lost. But VR can help reclaim a few hours of time every day.

End of the Urban Age?

According to Acas, the average commute for UK workers in 2015 was just under an hour, an increase from 45 minutes only a decade before. For those who travel to London, the figure is even higher. As Acas note, 1.8 million of us spent three hours or more commuting each day. Based on the average working pattern, that’s 60 hours of wasted time every single month! Not to mention all the pollution coming from those cars, trains, and sometimes planes, that could probably melt a small iceberg!

The need to take physical location into account has led to the growth of cities since the start of the industrial era. Quickly followed by the sprawling towns and commuter belts that appeared around them to house workers needing to travel to those cities. Fields and woodland were then ploughed through to create the roads and trainlines needed to transport these employees in each day. Urbanisation has completely changed the landscape.

One obvious solution that many businesses have started to embrace is remote working. Not only does the employee get to sleep in until sensible o’clock, but the company tends to save a lot of money by reducing office space and the overheads associated with it. If only half of your workforce are in the office at any given time, then you can get away with only half the desk space you would otherwise have to pay for.

Breaking Through the Fourth Wall

But there are still a few cited drawbacks for this approach; namely, that it removes the perceived benefits of having all of your staff physically located in the same space: employee motivation, the promotion of company culture, team cohesion, and the informal brainstorming sessions that happen during breaks. And, for a lot of managers, there is a sense that employees just won’t work as hard when left to their own devices.

With a virtual office, your team can get essentially the same social benefits without the cost of physical desks. For those of us who regularly work in VR, it quickly becomes second nature to treat the digital avatar (3D model) of a person as if they were standing right next to you in real life. Even if they use a completely outlandish avatar, you quickly learn to associate that face with their voice as you would do in real life. Your mannerisms, gestures and reactions towards them are automatic. Unlike the 2D internet, where the barrier of a screen creates a sense of detachment between you and your colleagues, the lack of a screen in VR space tricks your brain into behaving as you would in real life.

If you are at all interested in human psychology, it’s an entertaining phenomenon to watch. Things like waving, nodding, shaking hands, you might expect to see just out of necessity as communication techniques. But there is a deeper level of interaction displayed that highlights how well the human brain substitutes virtual behaviour for that of real life. People will move out of the way to avoid bumping into another avatar, despite there being no real consequence to walking into them. In a meeting, people will automatically position themselves to sit at the same rough distance as they would in real life; for no reason other than ingrained social conduct.

Other than the headsets (which are getting smaller, lighter and closer to human eye resolution with every upgrade), there are no strong reminders that you are not in the physical world; to the extent that the brain forgets that the people around you are not physically there either, but instead in another building or on the other side of the planet. That level of interaction between colleagues in distant locations would be impossible to achieve on a regular basis via any other method.

For managers who worry that their staff will be more easily distracted when working from home, VR solves that problem purely by how immersive the virtual environment is. Your vision, hearing and spatial awareness are entirely focused in the digital space; to the point that it can be disorientating for a few moments after switching back to reality. I’ve worked in VR for a few years now and have only recently developed the ability to effectively switch between multiple realities at speed! In addition, the disappearance or freezing of your avatar would be noticed by colleagues in a virtual office in much the same way that a colleague falling asleep or vanishing from an office to sit in the pub all afternoon would be noticed.

Building the Impossible

However, VR isn’t just an alternative tool for employee collaboration, but a way to create shared experiences that could not otherwise take place. For the average SME trying to juggle growth along with funding constraints, the lack of physical limitations in VR can provide an opportunity to scale up a team at speed without relocating to a bigger office. A digital building can grow and change along with the organisation’s requirements.

The teams I’ve worked with tend to start out by constructing a digital copy of a regular office (because old habits die hard), before realising they can work from the Taj Mahal, the top floor of a futuristic skyscraper or a giant hollowed-out pineapple, and quickly upgrading soon after. Want the pool tables, slides and meeting room ball pit that tech companies like Google are famous for? Done. You can construct a 3D model of literally anything, in any environment, and scale it up to room or building size for employees or clients to walk around and interact with. Walls and other objects can be used during team meetings to display information such as kanban task cards, and blueprints or functional specifications can be represented as spatial models for the team to interact with and brainstorm on. The possibilities are infinite.

The Growth of VR

Increasing numbers of companies are switching over to virtual space or integrating VR within their existing physical working environment as the benefits become more apparent and the technology continues to advance at a faster pace. At the same time, VR kits are already being purchased at a higher rate by the UK population as a whole than tablets and wearables were at the same stage. Its popularity as the newest technological medium is growing rapidly, as different sectors realise its potential for use outside of the gaming industry.

Even with its obvious advantages, the mainstream adoption of workplace VR won’t be entirely hassle-free. It took a while for companies to embrace the internet back in its early days, and the recent move towards the creation of phone apps for every organisation has been a gradual and continuous process of change. As with every other technological development, VR will also require some reskilling on the part of employees. Although, just like the introduction of the internet, this is likely to become easier as more of us live and grow up with virtual reality and users invent their own unexpected solutions and unique ways of working.

Dean North

Dean founded Bespoke Software Development Company - Atlas Computer Systems Limited and is our technical consultant (aka technical wizard).

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