In late August, I slipped on my Oculus headset for the first time and promptly transported myself and my laptop into Facebook’s new Horizon workroom. I hadn’t actually met my new colleague in person, who had been hired shortly after the pandemic began and on-boarded entirely through a series of video calls. We decided to gather to test out how a brainstorming session might work with a virtual whiteboard and to step through a PowerPoint presentation in another realm, cloaked in the avatar versions of ourselves.
What was refreshing about the experience, aside from the swank mid-century modern furniture, faux pink deer head, and the serene mountain landscape, was that there wasn’t the usual Zoom fatigue or worry about not being camera ready when working from home. I had rolled out of bed for this early call with absolutely no fear that my 6-year-old might appear on screen in the background without clothes on, asking me for more cereal. After 18 months of video calls and meetings from home with colleagues and clients, I notice that most people don’t even bother to turn their cameras on any longer. Perhaps they too have kids who are prone to disrobing. In all of our attempts to stay connected to each other, sometimes the tools we use can foster a deeper sense of isolation.
Much of my focus has been on finding ways to keep our employees connected to one another and to our customers, especially now that we’re unable to gather in person. “If you’re in a workplace or a job where there is not the emphasis on attachment, it’s easier to change jobs, emotionally,” according to Bob Sutton, an organizational psychologist and a professor at Stanford University. Managing a remote workforce and grappling with the reality of employee burnout and our human need to stay connected has kept me up at night. Could virtual reality be the answer to some of what ails us?
Injecting New Life into Virtual Meetings
After five minutes embodying the cartoon version of Rachel Maddow, we quickly moved past our silly outfits and our true-to-life mannerisms, marveling at just how much it felt like we were sitting next to one another. We were connecting, bouncing ideas back and forth, and writing on a virtual whiteboard that felt just about as real as any boardroom I’ve been in. I didn’t have the desire to turn the camera off, but instead, wanted to see what else was possible. I left feeling as if I had just spent an hour with one of our employees in real life; I was smiling.
Prior to COVID’s arrival, we were all road warriors. Sales meetings in Las Vegas, U.S. Open tennis matches with clients, karaoke with employees, and too many happy hours and dinners to count. Once we retreated into our remote workspace worlds, the opportunities to occupy the same space revolved around virtual game nights, trivia, escape rooms, cooking classes, and video-fueled happy hours. If we could pair karaoke nights out with the Oculus, I for one would be much more likely to grab the mic. After all, that’s not me singing “Islands in the Stream,” it’s my avatar.
Will clients and prospective customers come and hang out with us in here? Could virtual reality help us foster emotional connections with one another, prevent employees from job hopping, and facilitate a deeper sense of purpose to our work? I’m on a quest to find out, one Journey song at a time.