Filed under: architectural resources, architecture, jon brouchoud, keystone bouchard, reflexive architecture, rl architecture, second life, virtual architecture, virtual workplace | Tags: architect, architecture, bedouin, collaboration, commute, crescendo design, facility planning, home office, jon brouchoud, keystone bouchard, office, remote office, remote work, second life, telecommute, telework, virtual reality, virtual workplace, virtual world, web worker, workplace
Assuming I have established a viable case for the 3D virtual workplace in post 1 and 2, what about the actual planning, design and virtual architecture required to support it? What are the new characteristics of this environment that deserve consideration when developing a virtual workplace? There is a lot to cover here, but I’ll do my best to include the main areas I think deserve the most attention.
First of all, the entire concept of user-generated content adds a unique twist to the virtual workplace. The ability for employees to build and customize their own spaces presents a whole new opportunity not possible (to this extent) in the physical workplace. The visual metaphors workers can evoke with 3D content can be quite illuminating. Erica Driver posted some excellent insight about this in a post back in February that I didn’t see until just last night – well worth a read. Every individual and team can customize their spaces to reflect their interests and status. Ultimately, there is no limit to the amount of creativity people will exhibit when given the opportunity and the tools to create anything they can think of. What they choose to do with those tools can convey a lot about who they are, and what is important to them – valuable currency in any kind of team-based collaboration.
Synchronous presence is also an obvious benefit to working virtually, but what about asynchronous presence? In a previous virtual workplace project I worked on, we employed a kind of ‘totem’ system whereby each employee had their own totem to rez wherever they wanted to suggest their interest or presence. The idea was that, if each project in a company had several employees working on it, they could each rez a totem nearby, so anyone could assess at a glance who was involved with which project . In workplaces that are more self-organizing, this can be an informal yet highly effective way for employees to suggest their interest in joining a particular team or working on a specific project. Taking it a step further, the totem can be programmed to communicate with a back-end database storing additional information pertinent to that employee’s status – such as on or offline, a list of projects they’re currently working on, their daily schedule, and more.
Virtual interaction also brings a lot of new opportunity for improved methods of communication and collaboration that are native to virtual environments and not easily achieved in physical reality. Obviously a personal favorite of mine is Wikitecture, which I think could also be a very useful tool in virtual workplace development, but there are quite a few new tools being developed, such as MIT’s virtual conference rooms that have the potential to make virtual meetings even more effective than real life ones. I think it will be interesting to see what Peter Quirk comes up with in this area as well. His most recent post (found here ) has some interesting thoughts on the topic, especially observing the immediate realities of Second Life interface, and what can be done to improve it for virtual work. The 3D cameras Mitch Kapor recently demonstrated will certainly improve the capacity to more naturally communicate in a virtual world. We have only scratched the surface of what a 3D interface can do to enhance collaboration, conferencing and communication.
In terms of actual deployment, it isn’t enough to simply buy an island and let employees build whatever and wherever they please, imho. It might be a useful temporary exercise in helping employees experiment and explore, and perhaps strong communication between employees might result in a coherent and useful workplace infrastructure, but chances are, it will result in a hodge–podge of stuff without any coherent order (see our first experiments with Wikitecture illustrates the outcome). This might be OK if it is always the same group working together on the same projects consistently, but it can quickly become challenging or impossible for new employees to understand and navigate, and does nothing to communicate the company’s core values, goals or vision. It becomes an exclusive function of individual expression, with no sense of direction.
On the other hand, a highly structured and polished workplace isn’t necessarily the right approach either. Without some degree of flexibility or room for employee expression, the place will remain sterile and lifeless. It is best to find a balance between the two extremes. There are lots of ways to approach this, but one of my favorites is what I think of as ‘bone and muscle’ approach. With this concept, you establish a coherent structure or backbone that organizes teams, departments or shared group workspace elements of the workplace, then encourage the individuals and teams to customize their spaces with their own content and design. In this way, the organization is able to establish a common visual language and wayfinding strategy for the shared infrastructure, yet employees are able to enjoy the freedom and expression of their own interests and abilities. It is not unlike a city infrastructure – starting with roads, sidewalks, public plazas and land parcels (the backbone), with independent architectural creations (the muscle) completing the urban fabric. I employed that technique on this project, and used a similar strategy for Architecture Islands infrastucture, for the arcspace build and, to some extend on Clear Ink Island. In each case, I learned something different about the various ingredients that need to compliment the architecture in order for community and productivity to thrive so it doesn’t whither on the vine, but that will be the topic of another post.
The jury is still out on this debate, but there is certainly a question of whether an organization should simply replicate its physical architecture exactly as it is in real life, and use it as their virtual workplace. My personal feeling is that fresh virtual context brings new opportunities and deserves fresh ways of rethinking the architecture. Having said that, I still think there is distinct value in replicating a building, but only if it is a signature piece that has some value or is easily recognizable and reinforces the organizations identity or history. In this way, the building serves as a kind of logo for the organization. However, I don’t think it is appropriate to replicate the entire building exactly as it is built in real life, unless it is to be used as a tool for training and orientation. Not only will it feel strange to the avatar scale, but it will also feel too enclosed and uncomfortable. Perhaps the replicated architecture can serve as a kind of backbone structure upon and around which a more free-form level of customized environment can emerge. However, in the end, it is impractical to expect that a building will function the same way it does in real-life when replicated in Second Life.
In cases where no signature (or singular) building exists, perhaps the virtual architecture can achieve that identity in ways the real-life architecture could not accomplish. In a project I recently worked on, the company CEO suggested that one of the primary goals of the project was to give the employees the sense that they are still all working together under one roof. Early in the company’s history, all of their employees worked together in the same space and shared a sense that they were all working together in the same space. As they grew, and opened other offices around the world, they lost the sense that they were all working together. In this case, the goal for the virtual workplace was to serve as a functional and visual metaphor that the employees could still, in a sense, come together and work in the same shared virtual space. In this way, the virtual architecture can serve as a powerful visual metaphor, helping to solve a core challenge the company is facing in a way that physical architecture could never achieve.
In physical reality, the expressiveness of architectural form is necessarily limited by forces such as resale value, and regional context, not to mention laws of gravity and protecting inhabitants from the elements. For the most part, a virtual workplace is free from such limiting factors, allowing for a far more referential expression of a company’s organizational structure, core values and vision. Where virtual workplaces lack, they more than compensate for in opportunities and advantages not possible in real life.
For these reasons and more, the time is absolutely right for any company, large or small, to start exploring the potential of a 3D virtual workplace.
Filed under: architectural resources, architecture, jon brouchoud, keystone bouchard, second life, virtual workplace | Tags: architect, architecture, bedouin, collaboration, commute, crescendo design, facility planning, home office, jon brouchoud, keystone bouchard, office, remote office, remote work, second life, telecommute, telework, virtual reality, virtual workplace, virtual world, web worker, workplace
Lets start with a brief thought trial before I get too far. Take a look at this familiar list of just some of the businesses who have have some level of presence in Second Life: Accenture, AccuWeather, ABN AMRO, Aegon, Ajax Football Club, Alcatel Lucent, AMD, Armani, Autodesk, Ben & Jerry’s, Boots UK, BMW, BNP Paribas, Calvin Klein, Cecile: Ginza, Circuit City, Cisco Systems, Citroen Brasil, Coca-Cola, Coldwell Banker, Comcast, Congrex, Crowne Plaza, Dell Computer, Domino’s Pizza, Europ Assistance, Fox Atomic, Fujitsu Siemens, HermanMiller, H&R Block, Gax Technologies, Head Resourcing, IBM, ING, Intel, iVillage, Jean Paul Gaultier, Kelly Services, Keytrade Bank, Kraft Foods, Lacoste, Level 3, Major League Baseball, Mazda Motor Europe, Mercedes-Benz, Microsoft Visual Studio Island, MovieTickets, NBA, Nissan, One Manchester, Orange, PA Consulting, Packaging & Converting Essentials, Peugeot, Philips Design, Perfect Card, Pontiac Main Island, Randstad Holding, Reebok, Reuters, Samsung, SAP Network, Saxo, Sears, Semper International, Sony|BMG, Sony Ericsson, Sprint, STA Travel, Starwood Hotels, Sun Microsystems, Sundance Channel, Suruga Bank, TAM: Airline Brazil, Telecom Italia, Telstra Big Pond, TELUS, Thompson NetG, TMP Worldwide, Toyota, UGS, Unitrin Direct Auto Insurance, Vivox, Vodafone, Warner Brothers, Wipro Technologies, Wirecard Bank AG, Xerox. (SLurls to most of these places can be found on the SL Business Communicators wiki )
I won’t even hazard a guess as to the combined total number of employees working for these companies, but I’m sure its astronomical. To be fair, what we might call ‘presence’ is, for the most part, a combined total of thousands of square miles of vacant ghost-sims left in the wake of last year’s hasty marketing boom. But, just for the sake of argument, lets imagine that technology continues to advance exponentially, and that 5 years from now, virtual worlds will make telecommuting feasible for just 1 percent of the employees these companies represent who don’t already telecommute. What kind of an impact would that transition have on the physical architecture that traditionally supports the workplace? What if it were 5 or 10 percent? What about 10 years from now? Lead-times on planning, designing and building physical architecture can easily exceed 5 years, so I don’t think I’m being unreasonable to think that far ahead. Would we stand to gain anything from a workplace exodus on that scale?
I think so.
Stepping back into the present and more immediate future, here is a summary of just a few forces I think will drive development of the virtual workplace, described in greater detail later in this post. There are many more factors involved, but these are the ones I think are most closely tied with the advantages of a 3D virtual workplace versus telecommuting in general:
- Remote worker isolation
- Rising cost and rigidity of physical space
- Commute time and cost
- Environmental benefits
- Decreasing necessity of physical presence
As far as the specific characteristics of virtual worlds that lend themselves to workplace environments, I won’t reinvent the wheel, but will instead quote directly from Peter Quirk’s excellent post on the same topic (read the full post here ):
- by making meetings more engaging than is possible through 2-D web conferencing solutions
- by creating a sense of a workplace separate from the employee’s home environment, helping to focus the employee on the tasks at hand
- by creating places for real-time collaboration with other employees
- by creating a workplace that can be seen from afar, reducing the likelihood that the remote employees will be “out of sight, out of mind”
- by creating places for remote workers and their office-bound colleagues to hang out with each other over lunch, after work, or after long meetings
Starting with remote worker isolation, it has long been known that one of the most common challenges for telecommuters, and their in-house peers is the perception of isolation. Often, remote employees can feel distant or left out of the daily pulse of the physical office. Opportunities for chance encounters and informal socialization are lacking, which can have a negative impact on the teleworker’s ability to feel connected to the rest of the team. Virtual workplaces can readily enhance the sense of presence, and bring remote employees together. As collaborative technologies continue to emerge in virtual worlds, teams will be able to effectively work together in a shared space, even though they may be located in distant geographic locations. In my opinion, collaboration technologies in virtual worlds are still the weakest link in the movement toward the virtual workplace, but there are good reasons to believe that these challenges will be overcome in the months ahead. Until that time comes, the ability to do real work beyond immersive collaboration, communication and 3D simulation is just out of reach. I’m definitely not suggesting to wait on collaborative technology; that would be a mistake, imho – more on that later.
I don’t think we can overestimate the expense of the physical architecture required to support a workplace environment. It is incredibly expensive to build and maintain, and very expensive to change. Virtual architecture costs are minuscule in comparison and far easier to change. It behaves more like a liquid than a static artifact, and has the advantage of being very flexible. It can shift-shape on the fly to reflect the specific needs of that moment. Furthermore, data can be integrated such that the entire workplace environment comes to life with active and dynamic data that is directly relevant to the work being done. Taking this a step further, the architecture of the workplace could even become reflexive or intelligent, insofar as it can recognize and respond to the number of people occupying a space, or even change scale to reflect traffic patterns and popularity of some spaces over others. This kind of flexibility and data integration into the architecture and virtual interface of the workplace itself might seem trivial at first, but I think a fully functioning environment imbued with relevant data and responsiveness could lead to a whole new workplace structure and methodology.
Furthermore, when you look closely at what people actually do when they work together in an office that seemingly necessitates physical presence, it becomes evident that there are several modes of collaboration that could just as easily be accommodated in virtual spaces. When people do sit down and work together in a physical space, what is it that they’re doing that cannot possibly be accommodated in a virtual workplace? Viewing PowerPoint decks? Looking at a white-board? Conference calls? Virtual worlds already accommodate these activities quite well, and are getting better at it (so too thinks Forrester if you feel like splurging for the $279 report), so it won’t be long before the majority of daily interaction can just as effectively transcend physical space for virtual space. In the near future, I believe we might finally be able to transcend PowerPoint with new modes of virtual presentation and relevant data integration within the virtual space – but we’re not quite there yet.
Obviously, nothing can replace physical presence when it comes to high level business interaction, where the nuances of body language are vital, but seriously, what percentage of workers actually engage in this kind of top level strategic management meetings on a daily basis?
Another obvious scenario leading to the rise of the virtual workforce is the cost of commuting. Not only is it becoming more expensive, it is becoming increasingly crowded and less desirable. CEO’s for Cities recently posted some thoughts on the Forbes article on the same topic. The time-starved lifestyles many of us lead invite any opportunity we can find to save precious time. Spending 30 minutes in the car driving to and from work is a major loss of valuable time. Spread out over the course of a week, a 30 minute commute (not uncommon by any means) could shave more than 6 weeks worth of workdays over the course of a year.
Think twice before criticizing virtual workers for spending time customizing an avatar if you spend 260 hours a year stuck in traffic, commuting to a redundant workplace.
It is also of vital importance to note that virtual workplaces are incredibly ‘green’ by nature (see ‘Greening the Workforce‘). The ecological footprint of a physical building, the energy it takes to create, condition and maintain it, along with employee commuting utilizes a massive amount energy. Of course, virtual world servers take a lot of energy too, but only a tiny fraction of what is required to maintain a physical building. I’ve even gone so far as to argue in previous posts that real life architectural projects should even be able to secure green accreditation by incorporating virtual spaces instead of physical spaces. What percentage of employees working in a typical metropolitan area actually depend on physical proximity to their colleagues every single day of the week anyway? Imagine the economic and environmental savings if even a fraction of those employees could conduct their work as efficiently in a virtual workplace.
[update: This chart, via CoolTown Studios is a great place to start considering the environmental burden of the daily commute: http://www.cooltownstudios.com/mt/archives/001295.html]
Finally, the design and construction of real-life architecture is not only expensive, but very time consuming. It is not uncommon for the turnaround time on a project to be several years. Second Life, in its infancy, has already demonstrated its viability as a platform for collaboration now. Imagine what the technology will look like several years from now. The virtual workplace certainly won’t be right for everyone, or every circumstance, but given the evidence and logic supporting its current and future value, I think it is naive to avoid some level of research and experimentation at this point. The pace of real-world architecture certainly doesn’t advance exponentially the way technology does. Personally, I don’t find it difficult to imagine newly minted office buildings sitting vacant long after the intended function transcends the building’s usefulness. The 2D web changed things quickly, but virtual worlds will be quicker.
Next up: Characteristics and opportunities of virtual environments worth considering when developing a virtual workplace.
Filed under: architectural resources, mixed reality, second life, virtual architecture, virtual workplace | Tags: architect, architecture, bedouin, collaboration, commute, crescendo design, facility planning, home office, jon brouchoud, keystone bouchard, mixed reality, office, remote office, remote work, second life, telecommuting, telework, virtual reality, virtual workplace, virtual world, web worker, workplace
I’m often asked if it is actually possible to make a living practicing virtual architecture in Second Life. As it turns out, I have indeed become quite a virtual Bedouin lately, and have been lucky enough to derive an equal or greater income working in Second Life than I could ever earn in real life practice. However, virtual consulting isn’t immune to the inevitable ‘feast or famine’ phenomenon real life practitioners face, and I still enjoy balancing virtual work with real-life practice.
As common as this might sound to thousands of others who also work virtually, it can be a shocking, perhaps unbelievable reality to the uninitiated. It certainly took some getting used to, and tuning in to the process and methodology of virtual work has been an unusual experience, to say the least. However, it has shed light on the potential for virtual interaction with clients and colleagues in ways I would never have understood any other way. I write plenty about virtual architecture itself, but there is as much to be said about the roll of the virtual experience itself.
To start with, there is something almost magical about virtual interaction and embodiment. Once the learning curve is behind you and the interface fades from the forefront of your consciousness, the experience can become incredibly immersive and engaging. It doesn’t take long before you achieve the sense of actually existing ‘inside’ a space with other people present, though you may be thousands of miles apart. This sense of presence and enhanced communication are key characteristics of the virtual environment that lead me to believe, with increasing confidence, that virtual workplaces are absolutely right for virtual worlds.
I’ll step even farther out on that limb and suggest that, of all the growing markets in virtual worlds, I think the advent of a truly virtual workplace will have the most immediate and far reaching impact on the shape and quantity of the physical architecture that has traditionally supported it. Everyone knows that kid-worlds and entertainment are the next big thing for virtual worlds, but when it comes to the impact virtual worlds will have on physical architecture, the real world workplace is in for a major face-lift, imho. Of course, it will be the continuation of an existing trend toward remote workplaces, but I believe we can expect to see an even more dramatic transformation in the workplace architecture of the real world in the (near) future.
I definitely cannot claim to be any kind of authority on the subject of workplaces, but working virtually with clients and colleagues on a regular basis has been quite illuminating. I’ve also done my best to track advances in the virtual worlds and their affect on real-life architecture for several years now, since devoting my Master’s Thesis in Architecture to the subject. I even had the opportunity to help design and build a fairly comprehensive virtual workplace for a company using Second Life to augment (and at times replace) their real life offices while working at Clear Ink. The success of these efforts has been mixed, but I’ve certainly learned a lot, and have never been more sure of the value virtual workplaces can bring to any organization.
As is the case with just about everything I read (and write) about virtual worlds, there will be some that yawn at this proposition, knowing full well this is going to happen (or is already happening). Yet others will dismiss the idea as total lunacy. Such dichotomies are the stuff of life on the virtual frontier, I suppose – but I’ll go on with my manifesto nevertheless, in case anyone is still reading. 😉
We can see that workplaces are already in the process of total reinvention in the wake of the telephone and 2D web, and hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent in the process. The new lexicon describing the ‘teleworker’ phenomenon brought us words like office-pooling, JIT spaces, hoteling, and hot-desking – words that have boomed and faded then boomed again. These workplace transformations continue to impact workplace design and are doing so in an alarmingly brief space of time. The transformation isn’t limited to the office either, it is also changing our homes. As more people begin working from home, many remote workers have been forced to re-think their residential space, converting dining rooms and basements into home offices, or building additions to support these new space requirements. This is nothing new. The advent of remote working is already transforming physical architecture in a big way.
As the web extends into a third dimension, I think it is safe to assume we will see a similar transformation resulting from the advent of the 3D virtual workplace that will require new kinds of spaces, and new terminology. Some of it will borrow and build on existing trends, but this time around, the added dimension will require us not only to examine the impact on the physical workplace, but to also consider the architecture of the virtual ‘places’ as well. The current generation of teleworking challenged technologists, graphic designers and web developers to examine how web-based 2D communication channels can assist remote workers, but what will happen, and who will be called upon, when the virtual workplace transforms from a 2D page into a 3D place?
Having worked on several real-life facility planning projects, I have seen firsthand the amount of time and money companies need to spend in the development of the most efficient and appropriate office environment. Teams of in-house managers, architects, interior designers and facility consultants are brought in to carefully examine existing work-flow patterns, team structures, traffic movement, impromptu social habits and more. Designing an efficient workplace requires the team to carefully consider each of these characteristics, interview key staff members, and design a new workplace that is right for the organization. A well crafted crafted workplace is designed to accommodate and reinforce the organization’s core goals and values. I think, as an architect of the virtual world, it would be wise to start borrowing from this process and employing the same comprehensive research and design methodology to the 3D virtual workplace, finding ways in which virtual architecture can also serve to reinforce a company’s values and encourage efficiency.
In the next post, I’ll examine some of the benefits and catalysts I think will contribute to the growth of the virtual workplace. I’ll follow up with some of the characteristics and opportunities of virtual environments that I think are worth considering when developing a virtual workplace.
This post’s title was inspired by Edward Castronova’s insightful book ‘Exodus to the Virtual World.’