Remote work is on the rise. According to a recent Gallup poll, 37% of the US workforce have worked remotely for their job in some capacity. It’s no mystery as to why telecommuting is increasing in popularity. It has been shown to decrease stress and increase productivity considerably. Remote workers typically feel more relaxed and express greater satisfaction with their company despite the fact they typically work longer hours. Additionally, both the employer and employee spend less money as cutting the commute and the necessary office space reduce expenses significantly.
Telecommuting, as an idea, is nothing new — the term was coined in the seventies, and began picking up traction as a viable option for workers in the 1980s. Over the past three decades, advancements in technology have made remote work a possibility for most career types. As software and hardware have advanced, digital awareness and proficiency have rapidly grown as well. Currently, it is estimated that 3 billion people have access to the Internet, nearly half the world’s population. In North America, 90% of the population has access, and a great proportion have attained a high level of digital fluency. Whether you’re a writer, a human resources manager or a computer programmer, chances are you’re able to do your job effectively using only your computer and a reliable Internet connection.
Despite its incredible benefits and increasing availability, remote work still faces many challenges. For instance, although employees work more efficiently at home, they are less likely to be promoted as quickly as their on-site counterparts. This could perhaps be to attributed to the lack of physical interaction they have with their colleagues. Going into an office may very well lead to building stronger relationships. Feelings of isolation are a real possibility for fully remote workers as well. While remote workers have been shown to foster friendly virtual work environments, they still may be lacking the feeling of truly belonging or of being an integral part of the company and its culture.
Virtual reality (VR) could possibly address all these challenges in one fell swoop. Workers could immerse themselves in a simulated work space where they would have the opportunity to interact with coworkers in meaningful — albeit virtual — ways. Or, it is possible that advancements in telerobotics will result in “teleporting” to work.
VR has been around since the nineties, but only in the last few years has it become a viable mass-market product. VR is already beginning to inundate mediums like video games, television and film, and is even showing signs of radically changing social media.
As the cost for consumers to jump into VR steadily decreases, development for new and interesting applications of the nascent technology rises. Over one million people have used Samsung’s VR headset last year, and that’s only the beginning. Google’s cardboard VR has virtually eliminated the cost to participate in VR.
Talented developers and engineers are taking advantage of the immense interest in VR. Engineers like the students at the University of Pennsylvania, who have created a robot, named DORA (Dexterous Observational Roving Automaton), that acts as an out-of-body host for VR users. DORA allows users to see, move and interact with others remotely. “I have experienced the future of remote work, and it feels a lot like teleportation,” Christopher Mims wrote in his piece about telerobotics for The Wall Street Journal.
Unfortunately, telerobotics is still very costly. Cheaper solutions, however, do exist. Social networking giant Facebook is investing a massive amount of time and money into VR and plan to offer affordable hardware for their social VR app. In their app, users create avatars that interact with each other in real-time in either virtual or real-life settings. Facebook’s social VR app, or a technology very similar to it, could be used to create virtual work spaces.
VR is fast becoming a ubiquitous technology. This ubiquity will make projects like DORA a reality. Telerobotics would effectively solve the problems faced by remote workers, and could make telecommuting more attractive to employers. Even if telerobotics proves to be too expensive in the short term, social VR will undoubtedly transform remote work. VR will make remote work a more social experience, and hopefully provide remote workers and employers alike with a greater sense of involvement, commitment and dedication.