The next generation digital workplace: will virtual reality have an impact?

author Brett Dixon, March 10, 2017

The concept of the digital workplace isn’t new. Arguably, the first telephone call was the precursor of the collaboration between people in separate geographical locations but one virtual space and now technologies that bring employees together through video conferencing and intranet collaboration are commonplace. But where next for the ever-evolving digital workplace? Futurists are arguing that the next step in the evolution of work will be at the intersection of human and robot, in virtual reality.

Where we are and where we could be

Over the last decade, a range of technologies have become commonplace. Affordable 3D printing is no longer a fantasy. The Internet of Things is evolving and making our homes and offices smart. Digital currencies and payment methods are part of our everyday transactions, and the cloud is becoming the digital glue that binds our digital workplaces together. BYOD is becoming a must-have not a nice to have, and Millennials have driven the adoption of flexible working through ever more savvy mobile intranet software.

Virtual reality has been around since the 50s and experienced a brief flurry of renewed interest during the dotcom bubble of the 90s. But when Mark Zuckerberg announced Facebook’s acquisition of Occulus Rift in 2014, the business world began to take notice. Zuckerberg promised unbounded experiences in virtual spaces that could be enjoyed by anyone with a headset. Will VR, therefore, impact on the digital workplace for which it might seem to be tailor made?

The future for the ‘right time’ experience

Currently, employers offer what digital strategist Maribel Lopez refers to as the ‘right time’ experience to employees. By providing the right information at the right time, across a wide range of devices including mobile, companies enable workflows through technology, process and culture. But VR is set to change the landscape as a user-friendly way to make big data more accessible and comprehensible to the workforce.

The ability to collaborate in a virtual space and to summon data and expertise when required could revolutionise the current static landscape of dashboards and data flows. The introduction of machine learning allows for the virtual digital workplace to intuitively automate tasks and help us work smarter alongside our robot assistants. Sci-fi fantasy? Car company Ford is already using VR to allow its designers to collaborate on virtual car design, catching potential design flaws and improving prototypes before ever producing a real-world model.

Implementing VR in the digital workplace

According to a report by, VR is set to move beyond gaming and into the consumer mainstream creating a market worth $2.8 billion by 2020. This mainstreaming of VR technology could impact on the digital workplace in several significant ways:

  • The virtual showcase: spatially oriented businesses are already moving into the virtual reality space, with architectural and engineering firms among the early adopters. VR can offer full 3D product showcases, virtual walkthroughs and 3D tours. The implications of this customer-facing approach are obvious for conferences and team-building experiences.

 

  • VR training: where imaging in learning is critical, VR will have a huge impact, promoting sticky learning and transforming the digital classroom. VR training will give trainers the ability to replicate any number of real-world scenarios to enhance the training experience and implement training faster and more comprehensively than through traditional digital workplace technologies.

 

  • Cost-effectiveness: VR could be of extraordinary benefit to HR, eliminating the need for face-to-face interviews and giving HR professionals unparalleled opportunities to assess reactions and body language with full 3D imaging possible to achieve with video conferencing. VR can cut business travel costs by replacing face-to-face meetings with virtual ones.

 

  • Collaboration: VR can replicate the real-life work experience in a far more lifelike way than VoIP, bringing employees together in ways that allow them to fully explore a project with walkthroughs and 3D modelling.

 

  • Research and development: following the Ford model, organisations will be able to fully explore all the iterations of a project or design, spotting conflicts and snags early and making huge potential savings.

 

  • Revolutionising HR: VR technology has the ability to streamline a variety of HR processes from onboarding to training, from hiring and firing to annual reviews. The NFL already use VR for diversity and sensitivity training by encouraging employees to virtually walk a mile in another man’s shoes.

However, for any organisation to drive the evolution of the digital workplace into a virtual one, they first need to identify the core business processes where VR can have a positive impact through real-life applications. The elimination of the cubicle and the adoption of a virtual workplace with enhanced communication, collaboration and workflows won’t happen overnight. But in an ever-evolving workplace, the savvy organisation will be watching the adoption of VR technology with interest.