Slug: an-update-on-the-virtual-office Date: 2008-09-20 Title: An Update on the Virtual Office layout: post

6A Staff Mtg

I spent 45 minutes or so today in IRC this morning, in a staff meeting. It was pretty effective, actually, just missing some faces to make the experience a little more personal. Due to technical difficulties the meeting was not conducted over XMeeting as planned, but if it had been, the experience would have been about as close to the Virtual Office as I’ve ever gotten.

Future Imperfect

For years in the late 90s and early “aughts”, I kept reading about, talking about, and waiting for the Virtual Office. In this paperless digital utopia we would communicate effortlessly, transfer 10s of megabytes (Megabytes, I say!) of pure information at light speed around the aether, hold meetings in virtualized 3d environments, etc.

I’ll wait while you clean up the coffee you probably spit out your nose at that thought.

Yes, so the Virtual Office we all envisioned so na&iumlaut;vely back then never quite materialized. Or, immaterialized. Second Life aside, really working remotely never quite “got there” for most of us. There seem to be a few reasons for that, some technical, some business, and some personal.

Technologically, most places in the world don’t have the bandwidth for the real-time connunication that effective distance working requires. Bandwidth in the US, for example, has only barely grown at the rate needed to handle real-time two-way audio and video, and the quality is nowhere near the immersion we expected 10 years ago.

There’s also the problem that most of our communications mediums (email, blogs, IM, IRC, Skype) are not particularly effective at providing the human-contact experience that we depend on to really feel like we’ve understood another person. Face-to-face contact is so incredibly high-bandwidth that there’s almost no way to reproduce it technologically. Think about the things that we perceive in a conversation that communicate something about the situation and the person we’re deal with: how they look, how they’re dressed, their demeanor, are they harried or relaxed, eye contact, their tone of voice, subtle facial expressions… All these and more communicate much more to us than their words do.

And it’s because of this loss of bandwidth that most businesses (even “internet” businesses) still insist that most employees be onsite.

Imperfect, But…

I’ve been very fortunate to be allowed to work from home; I’m learning that at least for some of the more technically savvy of us, working remotely (“virtually”?) can be effective and fun. Some thoughts on my first week working for Six Apart from home:

  • IRC/IM really does, for me, provide a lot of interpersonal interaction, especially if I’ve met the person I’m dealing with (which I’ll be doing next week as I visit SAS in NYC).
  • I was surprised - pleasantly so - at the quality and effectiveness of XMeeting. It uses SIP and H.323, and while the video was rather small (320x280 I think) it was extremely smooth and the audio quality was goo enough to feel like I was having a conversation with a real person.
  • New technologies like blogs, wikis, etc can all provide a kind of shared company context for employees both on-site and remote: it’s not a shared space, but it is a shared experience.

Working remotely via today’s technologies may not be the mythical Virtual Office, but it’s working pretty well, and it’s only going to get better.