Virtual Office Design

Imagine that you have an office job (as most of you do). Full of meetings, memos, reports, proposals, phone and email ping pong, informal gossip in the hall or over lunch, etc.

Now imagine that you work in a virtual office. That is, while you are actually lying at home in your VR pod (or being an em brain in a data center), you experience yourself as sharing a virtual office complex with your work colleagues. Sitting at your desk working at your computer, talking in a meeting, chatting with a neighbor in his doorway, or perhaps walking the cubicles to feel the buzz.

OK, now ask yourself: how could we design more effective virtual offices, for the purpose of making an efficient workplace not needlessly taxing its workers? For example, what features of office spaces today would we jettison if we could, since they mainly deal with physical constraints that need not apply in virtual reality?

Maybe each person would feel the temperature and humidity they like best. Maybe walls would glow, instead of all light coming from glaring overhead lights. Maybe you’d always feel like you were walking barefoot on soft grass. Maybe all surfaces could be of the most luxurious textures and styles. Your computer “screen” might fill up a wall, or be 3D in a vast warehouse-sized space. But what else?

People might just appear in each other’s offices, instead of having to walk there, but that might feel disruptive. Perhaps hallways could be lots shorter, with each person having a huge personal corner office looking out on a spectacular view. But would it be ok if the shapes and views of offices and halls made no sense relative to each other?

In meetings it might be possible to let each person see and hear others in great clear detail, even adding biometrics on if they felt scared, tired, etc. You might even be able hear their thoughts if you wished. Or at the other extreme, each person might instead be able to project a pleasant attentive appearance no matter how they actually felt. You might even appear to be in several meetings at once. Where along this spectrum would typically make for the most productive meetings?

If each person could make the walls etc. look however they want to, then how will other people know what they are seeing in order to interact smoothly with them? Would you like the ability to look out at any time and see dozens of people as they work, if the cost were that dozens of people could you look at you at any time?

I’ve read a lot about speculation about virtual reality over the years, but I’ve not seen much that took these sort of questions seriously.

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  • ravi

    spend some time on Second-life. It is very very primitive arguably, but they also have an economy and so on. One can teleoport and change avatars and so on. This will give you a good “feel” for virtual living.

  • http://webtrough.wordpress.com DW

    Privacy is an interesting problem. Putting aside high-performance environments, employers want less because it conceals slacking, employees want more for the same reason.

    I imagine employees will overstate privacy’s (genuine) benefits to bargain for unlimited control over ‘engaging’ privacy systems.

  • value

    Teach the agents to see value in saving the ozone layer instead of managing mass production efficiently. They’ll be contented about doing nothing.

    • Doc Merlin

      “Teach the agents to see value in saving the ozone layer instead of managing mass production efficiently. They’ll be contented about doing nothing.”

      And thus is the danger of any false morality. It competes with a true(er) morality.

  • value

    And you don’t have to feel comfortable. Just grow your brain to communicate each day with the other 7 billion people to get info and utility. There is a space for so much improvement that current US economy seems obsolete.

  • value

    Maybe in virtual reality the framework of people identities is obsolete and especially American individualism? Perhaps there is more space for collective forms and valuing different things?

  • value

    And instead of philosophical dispute just check how people start using online outsourcing websites like http://www.odesk.com.

  • Ely

    This reminds me a lot of the detail with which David Foster Wallace described the rise and fall of generic consumption video teleconferencing in his 1994 novel Infinite Jest. His predictions weren’t very good (I’m not sure they were intended to be good predictions) but he considered extremely specific details in the same spirit.

    I also know an acquaintance who worked at Linden Lab (makers of Second Life). He said they conducted virtual meetings in the Second Life game engine. Employees could have any avatar they wished (cartoons, different appearance, etc.) He had funny stories about how his boss would invite them to actually “sit down” in these virtual meetings, and so people would enact whatever button presses were needed to make their avatar actually appear to sit down.

    My question is whether realism is the best approach to successful meetings. Maybe there are types of meetings where extremely unrealistic physics actually makes for more productive collaboration. Bosses often think about trips that can be used for team-building purposes or bonding experiences. These could be heavily tailored to individual preferences and state of the art psychology.

  • Nick

    Face-to-face interaction is often important, but the 3D simulacra (walls, rooms, etc.) are gratuitous. There will instead be an endless elaboration of different kinds of shared work tools: shared spreadsheets for accountants, shared code editors for programmers, shared Lexis search pages and brief editors for lawyers, etc. etc.

  • Vaniver

    The first sensation upon rebooting is the void, which fills with stars as my connections re-establish. Satisfied by the galaxy’s familiarity, I refold space, stars whirling as priority replaces ping. Three nearby stars, two of which were previously barely visible but now close, blink rapidly. I stretch out tentacles to each.

    My lover receives -3 of my mass, and together we simulate drinking tea in elegant kimonos, the windows looking out onto a roiling ocean and a mountain. One thousandth of the mass is used to update each other on our experiences, and the rest is used to simulate the ocean with centimeter-cube cells. This extravagance is what sets him apart from my other allies, though I must admit it is not quite to my tastes, but the tea is maximally pleasant.

    The design market receives -6.9 of my mass. Like all users, I pay for the data by taking on the cognitive and bandwidth load of the market. To protect confidentiality, the mass must be detached from my memory. My tentacle is stretched somewhat unpleasantly by this- it is thin as a pencil near me but tapers outward, fat where it wraps around the other star. I have enough mass after my commitments to actively memory the data coming from the market, twitching bids along the tentacle when I notice opportunities.

    The third star is the design foundry, with the frequency signature of my superior. That tentacle gets -9 of my mass, a significant reduction from earlier requirements made possible by my recent relocation. I’ve actually increased the detail on my simulation in their offices, which is noticed and logged by the receptionist as my avatar steps through the primary portal. With her white gun she opens the way to the conference room, where I see the team assembled. I acknowledge them in the appropriate order, and direct myself to send another tentacle to the star suggested by my clanmate. The more individualist clans are more successful in the design business, but we still share many experiences and tips to keep our competitive edge. Having been dark, I have nothing to give him, transferring clan karmic balance accordingly.

    The remaining -0.05 of my mass has been reorganizing myself to be better suited to my new location and dealing with my accumulated messages, which I perceive as comets orbiting me. I form many small tentacles to pluck from the sky and consume them. Among other things, my prioritymap is resorted with my new ping data, and I send off comets greeting those that I now wish to be my friends and regretfully saying goodbye to those that are now too distant.

    I’ve processed enough of my backlog that I get to the direction to a new star; it’s close, and I send out a tentative tentacle.

    I find there that I am a ghost in a warehouse full of puzzles in boxes. I recognize the style- it’s a pedagogical exercise designed by the patriarch of my clan to teach the insights from his latest project. I surge the tentacle, giving it -5 of myself, and attempt to clone a hundred time; the warehouse limits me to three. I set about solving the first three boxes, each of which transports my ghost to a conceptspace.

    The teacup clinks as I set it down, feeling the excitement of puzzles to solve. My lover smiles at my exuberance, and I smile at his smile. Beyond the window, a wave crests, and I favorite this experience.

    The meeting begins, progresses swiftly. I am attentive, my sole focus my superior. He concludes the meeting. My tasks involve collaboration with both Mark and John, and so I clone myself, increasing this tentacle’s mass to -8.5, and follow each as we walk around the foundry’s park. Eventually we need visual aids, conjuring whiteboards that float with us or higher-dimensional models.

    I reserve -5.809 of myself to maintenance processes, and devote the remaining -.0627 to generating insights on the design problem, which I present to Mark and John in our conversations.

    I have my copy of my clancestor’s memories of being human filed carefully in my memory. One of the last memories is uncertainty about the new form’s mental divisibility and locality. I find it comparable to the human experience of having both eyes and ears and hands and feet and lungs- one feels them all at once, and one is used to doing so.

    • Vaniver

      Non-story commentary:

      I think em clones will be different appendages of the same entity, not different entities. You wouldn’t have Doctor Watson running on every terminal in every room in every hospital in the world; you would have it running in a data center somewhere, connected to each terminal by the internet. (Possibly, there would be an emergency copy in each hospital for connectivity issues.) So what would Doctor Watson’s internal experience be like? Would he model offices for his competing hypotheses to argue in? No, that seems superfluous. Data would come in, it would interact with matrices in memory, recommendations would flow out.

      The receptionist seems like an example where that might not be the case. You could have Mei, the global receptionist who will remember everyone who walks in your door (because she has the global census in her data center), or you could have a local copy of a generic receptionist, to keep your client data private. But that local copy will probably not have a unique avatar in whatever representation of your office you make.

      For creative ems, it’s not clear how things will cash out. Do you want fully formed separate entities, or do you want multiple personalities experiencing the same data, and just coming to different conclusions about it? The multiple personalities seems like what humans already are, on a limited scale, and so being able to import the relevant heuristics of someone you respect into your mind seems like the way to go. So, again, different appendages of one entity is what I’d expect.

  • http://bur.sk/ Viliam Búr

    Even if it would be possible to design perfect virtual offices, I am sure there would be some reason why company policies prevent that.

    In meetings it might be possible to let each person see and hear others in great clear detail, even adding biometrics on if they felt scared, tired, etc. You might even be able hear their thoughts if you wished. Or at the other extreme, each person might instead be able to project a pleasant attentive appearance no matter how they actually felt.

    My guess: If you are higher in company hierarchy than the person you talk to, then the virtual reality with show you in great details all their biometrics and thoughts, but to them it will show a perfect pleasant projection of you (though you are allowed to change on a scale between pleasant and scary).

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      Your rank revelation hypothesis makes sense.

    • Mark M

      Detailed biometric feedback, and especially mind-reading, doesn’t seem practical for most businesses. For the most part we don’t accept the idea of our employers as masters of our minds and bodies. There would be sufficient rebellion at the practice to prevent it from being common, at least in the United States. We may even outlaw it.

      • Jeffrey Soreff

        counterexample: drug testing

  • Stirling Westrup

    I think the one thing that virtual offices could provide (if they had sufficient access to the user’s brain) was a measure of how costly it would be to interrupt a worker right now.

    If you work in software, like I do, it can take an hours work to get enough of the right information in your head before you’re actually being productive on a problem. The last thing you need is to have someone interrupt you ‘just for a minute’ the moment you’ve started making progress.

    On the other hand, when you come down from a bit of difficult coding and need to give your brain a rest for a moment is a great time to be interrupted or to interrupt others.

    If there was, I dunno, a colored bubble around each virtual office that required effort to penetrate proportional to the disruption it would do to the person within, then interruptions would go way down, but you could still have an active community of folks talking with each other. You could just look around and see who was open to talking at any one time, and you could go talk to them.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      It seems we could do this today except for the fact that your yourself usually aren’t sure what state you are in. But if there are simple ways to look at your facial expression, eye focus etc. to guess this well then we could have this within a few years.

  • Mark M

    It’s hard to beat personal interaction and proximity of team members. You might want a virtual office to be a kind of bull-pen where small teams seem like they are all in the same room and all the team members can see and hear each other. When I managed a team building a data warehouse, moving my desk into the same area as the team was a tremendous benefit for all of us. That drove more collaboration and helped work through issues quicker than anything else. Prior to that I was just across the hall – only five steps further away, but it made a world of difference.

    Even in a bullpen, sounds from nearby teammates can be muffled to minimize distractions. When your name is used, that voice (or all voices) can be brought to full volume.

    It’s hard to imagine doing any MBWA (management by walking around) in a virtual office. There isn’t any reason all the offices and bullpens can’t be connected by virtual hallways, but it’s just hard to imagine a reason for setting this up. Who would use hallways when you can just “pop” into a meeting? Eavesdroppers, that’s who. Anyone walking the hallway would be looked upon with suspicion.

    You could create virtual doors between rooms. Instead of “popping” between rooms, a doorway near you will open into a doorway in your destination room. (New doorways may need to appear if the existing doorways are being used). This preserves the virtual reality illusion, since you “walk” to your destination. It also gives you a door to knock on – just because you are standing at a doorway doesn’t mean you can open it. An office may have a single door, and the new doors open into an anteroom outside the office.

    Bullpens for different teams can be merged or simply placed next to each other for short-term collaboration projects. You can just call out to someone instead of phoning or e-mailing them.

    Background and scenery can be different for each person, but all company approved. The environment should be relatively free from distraction, so it can’t just be whatever the individual wants.

    • value

      In Poland we are not trying to beat personal interaction. We are still happy consuming your US electronics manufactured in China. We happen to think of ourselves and value to us as similar people to Americans (which may be discussed). Consider that some people’s jobs are to maintain and develop global civilization institutions and not assemble something in an office. This is sort of virtual for the rest. Sorry for drifting.

  • http://venturamovingandstorage.com Janey Smith

    Thanks for the info, I believe this is probably how its gonna be like in a few years

  • Anonymous

    The most important feature for me would be that others can see if and when I’m actually working, as opposed to procrastinating.

    I’ve worked from home for two years, with completely free choice to when and how much I work; it was the most unproductive and horrible experience ever.

    • value

      Ha you lacked a culturally expected supervisor, boss through years of training. If you can’t switch your own brain onto many levels – organizing system and wider civilization, evaluation, appraisal and actual work, an “em”-boss may be helpful. In the time horizons that Robin usually discusses I don’t think it is a general rule of conflicting home and work values – 1) you can redefine your inputs, goals and role in the USA or on this planet so that you are still somewhat happy 2) resource availability and mode of production will be changing 3) by training you can adapt to measure your productivity at home, communicate something to your family to pretend having normal values, communicate something to your clients to pretend being normally engaged with their work.

  • Michael Wengler

    Second Life was the first thing that came to my mind.

    We’d get around primarily by flying. It is more fun, faster, and easier to code.

    We’d have non-physically realizable building layouts. My office would be “next to” whoever else’s offices we decided, without regard to the limitations of 3d.

    Certainly a broad range of low-probability-of-group-interaction items would be completely personalized. My conference room would be the one next to 10-forward while some of the people I would be meeting with might be backstage at a Stones concert, in a strawberry field, or under the waves. If a non-consonant environmental feature got brought in to mutual interactions, there would be clever splines that would morph us to recognize this.

    Everybody would be good looking in my world. At least at first.

    Transcripts would always be available of all verbal interactions.

    • Jeffrey Soreff

      Transcripts would always be available of all verbal interactions.

      I’ve only had a brief use of Second Life, but the way it highlighted
      who was speaking was the single most useful feature I noticed.
      Transcripts with speaker identification would make audio
      conferences significantly less confusing and more useful.

  • Michael Stack

    Here is somebody that has been thinking about exactly these issues. His name is Bob Christopher, and he has developed a robot that attends meetings for you:

    http://www.geekologie.com/2010/05/a_robot_that_attends_meetings.php

  • Steve

    I want to race down the hallway on a fast motorcycle.

  • Dave

    Everyone is too intellectual, as usual.So they probably don’t have a real office.
    I want an office where,if you fart, no one will come in until the air system has removed all traces. A virtual office will do.

  • Robert

    Ems would likely be programmed as if they were on something that made amphetamine look like coffee. The details of the comfortableness of their office would be unimportant.

  • Captain Oblivious

    Would you like the ability to look out at any time and see dozens of people as they work, if the cost were that dozens of people could you look at you at any time?

    That depends – are we talking about dozens of others looking at the virtual me (who is always calm, cool, and collected – not to mention dashingly handsome), or the physical me (who is probably picking his nose or scratching somewhere).

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  • Adam

    I would be interested in reading a case study about Virtual Offices. I am still on the fence, no doubt they save money and if used correctly can increase productivity, but I question how my own personal progression would suffice as I learn a fair deal from my colleagues. Still I can see a lot of potential with ever progressing technologies.

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