Even with workers eager to get back to the office, virtual-first collaboration will dominate in the future.
The future of work is remote.By now, we’ve all heard this common refrain. And why shouldn’t it be common? Most of us have become experts in juggling Zoom, laundry and child care from our kitchen “offices.” At the same time, major corporations such as Twitter and Slack have gone as far as telling their employees to never return to the office. But for a growing population of at-home workers, the virtual world is becoming tiresome. The Zoom fatigue is real, and three in four workers recently reported a desire to get back into the office at some point.
Although this feeling is understandable, your business shouldn’t throw the baby out with the virtual bathwater. Virtual collaboration isn’t just a substitute for the real thing while we wait out a deadly virus. When used correctly, it’s a tool that can give your business unimaginable advantages. Virtual collaboration creates diversity of people and ideas, unlocks talent and protects your business from future disruptions such as the one that’s gripped the globe over the past year. And for those companies willing to look past the remote work fatigue — and embrace a permanent virtual-first approach to collaboration as the world returns to normal — the rewards will be enormous.
The status quo has changed
When I was the head of innovation and creativity at Disney, I was regularly asked to attend meetings in Los Angeles. I’d wake up at 4 a.m. and be out the door by 5 to catch the “Disney Shuttle”: a 7 a.m. Delta flight from Orlando, Florida, to Los Angeles packed primarily with other Disney employees who were also “needed” at meetings out west. At the end of the day, I’d take the red-eye home, invariably seeing nearly all the same passengers I’d flown with that morning, most of whom had traveled to Los Angeles for a single meeting.
With the five-hour flight time, travel to and from the airports and a buffer for the TSA, my two- to three-hour California meeting required 14 total hours of travel (not to mention the inevitable productivity loss from two days with little sleep).
It was grueling, but what choice did we have? We were in business, and businesspeople traveled — or, at least, they used to. After Covid, this type of corporate travel will likely be a luxury, not a necessity. Bill Gates predicted that 50 percent of business travel won’t return after the pandemic, but I believe it will be much higher. Companies have too much to gain by not sending employees on 14-hour journeys for two-hour meetings.
The status quo has shifted, and your business gets to set a new standard. Make that standard virtual-first, and you’ll unlock an incredible competitive advantage.
Understanding the inevitable
Although Covid-19 is the first pandemic to reach this scale of destruction in generations, we can’t forget that epidemics are more regular than we might want to believe. In the last 20 years alone, we’ve seen major outbreaks of MERS, SARS, Ebola and H1N1. That’s a major disease every three to four years on average, not to mention countless other regional outbreaks as well as our annual battles with the flu.
Do we really believe that something like this won’t happen again? One can hope our response will be much improved, but thinking that a virus won’t grip the globe again in the future is unrealistic. But if your business adopts a virtual-first collaboration culture permanently, your team will be able to adapt instantly to any future disruptions, allowing you to stay one step ahead no matter the circumstances.
Ingraining virtual-first collaboration within your business
Of course, skipping TSA lines and staying prepared for the inevitable is just one small benefit of a remote-friendly collaboration culture. To unlock a few additional rewards by going virtual-first, follow these steps:
1. Use brainpower from all four corners of the globe
When I was leading brainstorms for restaurant architecture ideas at Hong Kong Disneyland, I needed a way to get my team of architects (primarily white males over 50) to start thinking differently. So I invited a young Chinese female chef to participate in our brainstorm.
To start, I asked everyone to take out a sheet of paper and quickly draw a house. I then asked everyone to tape their crude designs to the wall. Not surprisingly, nearly every design done by the team of architects looked exactly the same: a box with two windows, a door in the middle and a triangular roof on top.
But there was one design that looked nothing like the others. It was in the shape of a dim sum steamer box, with beautiful curves and an audacious arch for a roof. It was unique, creative and bold, and the team of architects immediately fell in love. As one described it, the design was “distinctly Disney, authentically Chinese.”
Of course, this design was the one drawn by the young chef. “Distinctly Disney, authentically Chinese” went on to become the strategic brand platform for the Shanghai Disney project, leading Disney’s Imagineering team to develop an entirely new set of architectural designs. Imagine the innovation your teams will unlock if ideas aren’t just coming from within the four walls of your office — but from the four corners of the globe.
Besides, have you ever thought about how limiting it is to only hire employees living within a few dozen miles of your office? Even in the world’s largest cities, geographic restrictions mean you’re left with a fraction of the world’s most qualified applicants at best. And why? So they can be seen sitting at a desk from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. inside an expensive piece of corporate real estate?
Permanent adoption of virtual-first collaboration means your business now has access to an entirely new pool of top candidates. A study from Vettery shows that at a minimum, your business can expect 85 percent more qualified applicants for remote jobs than in-person ones. If you want to be the best, shouldn’t you hire the best no matter where they live?
2. Embrace a virtual world
One of the most common objections to virtual work is that it can’t replicate the feeling of being together. Though you’ll never mistake a Zoom call for an in-person brainstorm, there are countless tools and technologies that can make virtual collaboration look and feel like the in-person environment you know and love. And the best part? They’re getting better every day.
One of these tools is Virbela, a platform I’ve been fortunate enough to have conducted several workshops and conference keynotes on. Using nothing more than a computer, users show up for an event or meeting and create a virtual avatar in their likeness; they’re then immersed into one of the most spectacular corporate campuses I’ve ever seen.
As you enter the virtual world, you can see people having impromptu group conversations, taking walks together, grabbing a coffee virtually and playing quick games of soccer in between meetings. When it’s time to work, these avatars head to their respective meeting rooms or auditoriums, and folks like myself take the stage to run a session — where we can share videos, write on whiteboards and engage directly with individual audience members.
Taking things a step further are VR-enabled tools such as Spatial. With these tools, users worldwide can gather and communicate as if they’re sitting face to face. If an idea pops into your head, all you need to do is grab a marker and scribble it on the whiteboard or write ideas down on virtual paper and pass them to your coworker across the table. Whether coworkers are 10 blocks or 10 time zones away, these VR-enabled tools recreate the magic of in-person discussions in a way Zoom can’t.
Spatial is powered through an Oculus VR headset. And though some leaders might balk at the idea of spending hundreds on headsets for each of their employees, just compare that with a traditional business trip’s costs (hint: the average one-person trip could pay for multiple headsets). Plus, with the technology getting better every day, it’s only a matter of time before the large headset is condensed into a small pair of glasses or contacts, making this mode of virtual collaboration even more attractive.
It’s impossible to know exactly what’s in store for the future of work. But one thing is certain: There are too many advantages of remote work to ignore. No matter when and how (and if) your company decides to return to the office, consider adopting virtual-first collaboration permanently into your culture. It could be just the type of shift your business needs.