How XR will transform workplace collaboration

The office of the future may not have a physical location. The immersive power of XR, or extended reality, will eliminate the problem of distance and bring employees together in a new kind of decentralised workplace, where augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) are the norm.

In many companies, XR is already enabling employees to collaborate with one another in new ways, fundamentally shifting the way post-industrial businesses operate. This trend will continue on an upwards trajectory, according to research from the management consultancy Accenture, which found that 80 per cent of executives believe it’s important to leverage XR solutions to close the gap of physical distance when engaging employees and customers.

Compared to an email or phone call, this way of working is a much more human experience

“It will essentially call for an end to distance as know it,” says Ben Bennett, founder of Luminous Group. “The ability to collaborate across cities, countries and even continents will be enhanced dramatically.”

Luminous Group, a Microsoft-accredited mixed reality partner, delivers digital transformation to organisations through the use of XR technologies. Increasingly, companies such as these will emerge as established organisations look to implement XR strategies as part of a shift to new, more remote ways of working.

How XR is transforming remote working 

At Deloitte, XR is being used in this way. Ed Greig, chief disruptor at Deloitte Digital, says the global management consultancy is shifting to a remote-first approach. This means the first option is for an enterprise solution to be used by a remote worker, rather than initially designing an office experience and then downgrading it.

“These XR tools mean making this experience feel natural and enjoyable is getting easier all of the time,” says Mr Greig. The company has already made strides in implementing mixed reality into its collaborative processes.

With teams stationed around the world, meetings are often held in virtual spaces with attendees appearing as avatars. “These virtual meetings allow us to collaborate in a workshop-style setting, as opposed to a standard voice or video teleconference,” he says.

More companies are expected to look to XR solutions to bolster their remote working options. Accenture’s 2017 report on the key technologies driving corporate change found that companies are increasingly turning to XR as a new way to address problems around distance. The report also found that 27 per cent of executives think it’s important for their organisation to be pioneers in XR solutions.

The true power of XR comes when a range of tools work together

Successful collaboration comes from effective communication of ideas,” says Karl Maddix, chief executive of VR collaboration software development company Masters of Pie. “This is not something XR has a monopoly on, but it can definitely improve.”

Mr Maddix says a suite of XR tools will be essential for versatile collaborative processes that remove friction for employees. “AR is fantastic for contextualising 3D data, while with VR the real environmental information is lost, but full immersion can be achieved,” he says.

The sweet spot is when a range of XR tools work together in different stages of a project. Mr Maddix uses an example of a new manufacturing robot, which could be measured up for the factory while the designers are still at the conceptual phase. 3D-design data could then be shared with an on-site factory worker who could make suggestions based on the holographic overlay in the physical environment.

Real-time collaboration would then enable design adjustments to be made on the fly and enhanced by input from outside expertise. By adding simulation support and VR into the mix, a team could have non-experts adjust the way the robot moves in real time.

“Sharing real-time data across multiple devices in this way can dramatically improve the way teams can work together on complex problems, whether they are located together or spread out across the globe,” says Mr Maddix.

Using XR in this way will enhance human connection, not diminish it

Experts agree that for a scenario like this to become reality, there needs to be extensive cross-organisational buy-in first. While all the indicators point to XR being ingrained in the future of work, cynicism nonetheless remains around how it compares with face-to-face communication.

“People quite rightly worry about removing the human element from our interactions,” Mr Greig says. “However, compared to an email or phone call, this way of working is a much more human experience.”

Mr Bennet concurs: “There’s no doubt that there is still very much a time and place where face-to-face communication is essential, but over time, as the technology develops, formalities may be replaced by practicality.”

While Mr Maddix concludes: “XR offers a bridge between the traditional telephone call and face-to-face interactions, allowing people to feel like they’re in the same place when it’s logistically impossible.”