The image of a typical workplace has been seared into our minds. It looks a lot like Michael Scott’s kingdom in The Office: some vending machines, a reception desk, a whole lot of cubicles, a coffee break area, laminate tables, and endless carpeting. Though the decor and perks may vary at trendier workplaces or shared workspaces, the underlying concept of the in-person office remains. It is the place where many Americans have spent eight hours a day, five days a week, most weeks a year for their entire working lives–until now.
Since that surreal March of 2020, the seemingly endless cycle of 9-to-5 days in the office has been brought to a screeching halt. But work didn’t stop. Instead, it migrated to a virtual environment that relied on devices to communicate: emailing and messaging, or, for more “interactive” interactions (where you see your co-worker’s face), new enterprise video calling solutions like Microsoft Teams and Zoom. Now, though the pandemic is far from over, some workplaces are returning to their in-person models. However, with the perks of being cheaper, safer, and geography-independent, some workplaces are sticking with virtual for the long haul. This forces us to ask the question: what is the future of virtual work?
The first big trend we’ll explore is that people are spending a lot more time in meetings. A Microsoft report claims that time spent in meetings is doubling. After all, the phrase, “I’ll send over a meeting link,” has become as commonplace a conclusion to email chains as “have a nice day.” In one way, this is good for collaboration. Company cultures are fracturing as people spend more time apart – it’s easier to work with humans instead of Slack messengers. Face-to-face interaction was a critical part of building team morale and fostering spontaneous, innovative conversations in the physical workplace; virtual meeting appointments are the closest thing to it. In other ways, however, this increase in meeting-times is a massive waste of time. There are a whole lot of unnecessary Zoom meetings; according to Cleverism, 37% of meetings are unproductive. Yet still, meetings pile on week-by-week – it’s just the truth of working in a post pandemic world.
The second big trend is that virtual work, for now, is not necessarily helping the working class. The 9-to-5 working populace is smaller than you might think. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only about 1 in 6 workers has been able to work remotely during the pandemic. Corporate jobs are not the only jobs in the world. It’s difficult to be a warehouse worker over Zoom. So, while virtual options have allowed for a relatively smooth continuation of corporate work culture, it has not worked for everyone. These technologies have done more to help executives call in from their vacation houses than to help blue collar workers losing their jobs to automation. Though they have broken down some geographical barriers, virtual workplace technologies will not work for everyone unless more solutions are built for non-white collar workers.
With these two key concerns in mind, let’s look at some technologies that are disrupting virtual work in those areas.
One great startup addressing the issue of workplace fatigue is Branch, arguably the most interactive virtual workplace environment there is. On Branch, employers can create a customized virtual world where employees can virtually walk around and speak to each other. The interactive world in Branch is very similar to real life; when you walk closer to someone, their audio becomes louder, and when you walk farther, it becomes quieter. As a result, Branch creates an office-like environment where employees can seamlessly move in and out of conversation, saving the inconvenience and awkwardness of planning and engaging in clunky Zoom calls.
Branch also makes work fun by using a new-school trick: gamification. Branch is what would happen if the Sims and Among Us had a business-minded baby. Branch looks all too fun to be an office but effectively functions as one. According to TechCrunch, “The focus is to keep it casual so people can actually be online for six hours a day.” After all, Branch was created by two founders who grew up building Minecraft servers. Branch is redefining work the way that many millennials and Gen Z-ers think it should be redefined: by blurring the lines between work and play to make the online experience one that is fun to be in all day. Several parallels can be drawn between Branch and in-person offices at places like Apple and Google, where employers are providing lifestyle office perks to help employees enjoy the office. Making work fun is the future. The technical question at hand is: , how should we make it happen? Google brought cool gadgets and decorations into their offices. Branch made work feel like your favorite computer game. Moving forward, it seems awfully likely that a comfortable and accessible virtual reality workplace setup could very well disrupt a market.
However, as mentioned before, only certain types of jobs benefit from an app where you run a virtual avatar around the office. It is very difficult for an employer to continue to employ a blue collar worker in the virtual workplace. For obvious reasons, it is difficult to imagine how a worker would virtually perform a manual task like stocking a warehouse or cashiering for a local store. Per Deloitte, “(51 per cent) of blue collar workers class themselves as ‘very light users’ of technology in their work.” And without proper technological tools, blue collar workers are far less productive than they could be, which makes them even less attractive to employers. The way that technology has left blue collar workers hanging makes a full transition a far-off daydream. To tangibly improve outcomes for blue collar workers in the virtual world, providing some type of technology to improve their productivity would be a strong first step. Technology needs to be built to equip manual workers with real tools today.
A great example of a product that is improving working class productivity right now is an app named Apna, a “a digital hiring startup in India that connects millions of blue-collar workers to employers.” The beauty of Apna is that it is optimized for working class workers in India, helping them find and fill in jobs in a timely manner. By focusing on ease-of-use and accessibility, the app has allowed workers without full-fledged resumes to find work by using a simple personal profile to advertise their skills. In fact, according to Bloomberg, Apna had over “5 million job openings” in a pandemic month to fulfill jobs in industries like “manufacturing and e-commerce.” Apna is doing what other technology firms need to do: cater to the masses. This work is driven by Apna’s mission. Founder Nimrit Parikh told Bloomberg, “We are solving the biggest problem in the world and, if successful, will not just remedy unemployment but also poverty, health care and education of the next generation.” Parikh explained that Branch was “ targeting all 2.3 billion people in the emerging working class around the globe.” With this reach, Parikh and Apna have the potential to help a wider-than-ever swath of workers who have felt completely abandoned by digitalization.
This pandemic has created workforce problems on multiple fronts. First, well-known virtual communication technologies in workplaces are getting boring. To solve this problem, a company must optimize, gamify, and iterate to build the most engaging workplace substitute possible. Second, pandemic-era technologies have a deeper problem of leaving people behind. To undo some of that damage, technologists should step back and see if they are really building solutions that help everyone. Though many workplaces are beginning to return to a hybrid or brick-and-mortar model, it’s become abundantly clear that we are not moving past the virtual model completely. Instead, we are going to see innovation in the virtual space. Like Branch has built on Zoom meetings, emerging companies might take the next steps and use virtual reality, augmented reality, and other immersive technologies to build new-age virtual workplaces. New technologies will not only focus on building upwards groundbreaking innovations but, with Apna’s spirit, outwards to reach everyone. These ideas may include expansion of network access and smart cities to provide the benefits of modern technology to everybody.