Creating a seamless experience for virtual visitors enhances the office’s status as a physical destination, both directly and indirectly. With more people working from home and less business travel, almost every meeting will have virtual participants. Offices need to bring them into the room so everyone can contribute on an equal footing, as we’ve been able to do on video calls during lockdown. So collaboration technology needs to be intuitive and work flawlessly – something we’ll look at in the next part of the series.
“I think we will start to see office meeting environments that look more like television studios and less like drab conference rooms with a camera stuck in the corner,” says Narada Golden, vice president at WSP Built Ecology in New York. “Virtual participants need to see and hear everyone in the room. To do this you need great lighting, good acoustics, engaging backgrounds and cameras that allow you to actually see everyone’s face.”
If the vibrancy of the office environment comes across onscreen, those who’ve dialled in may be inspired to come in person next time – looking good on social media is, after all, a cornerstone of FOMO. But this will also help companies to reduce their carbon footprint, believes Golden, by reducing the need for employees to travel: “I love meeting people face-to-face but it would be wonderful to know that I don’t have to commute or fly just because the virtual experience is so limiting.”
Meanwhile, adopting the protocols that have made online meetings successful can also make the in-person experience better. Making sure that everyone has a chance to speak, for example, or using the chat window for questions can make it easier for those who are less comfortable breaking into the discussion.
Could virtual workers be integrated into the physical space in other ways too? “It would be great to walk over to one of our design teams in the office and see that every member is active and present, even if some of them are working remotely that day,” adds Golden. “Perhaps there is a beacon coloured red, yellow or green like your Skype status that you can tap to talk to them. That ability to have informal quick interactions is really helpful, but the conversation can stall if a colleague is working remotely and you have to walk back to your desk to patch them in. The office should be a place that creates maximum surface area between people, and to do this we need a fluid physical-virtual space.”
In the longer term, making virtual participants more visible might actually encourage the more introverted to come into the office – potentially one of the toughest groups to entice back. “When you’re working from home, there’s an onus to share your work more consciously,” points out Solley. “You have to reach out, set a meeting, whereas in the workplace it can be a little more natural. Some introverts may want to stay home longer and some extroverts might be ready to get back to the workplace – but who knows if that will turn out to be the case in reality?” In other words, when you can no longer hide at home, it may be more comfortable to blend into the crowd.
To reassert its value and retain its status, the office will have to work hard to meet new expectations and balance conflicting demands – and it will have to take full advantage of technology to do so. Smart building solutions can support health, convenience and comfort, while emerging collaboration tools will leverage augmented and virtual reality to supply the connection, novelty and excitement that we all crave in our working lives. We’ll be exploring these in the next part of the series.