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See you in the virtual office: What will happen to work when reality is no longer real?

For several years now, we have been hearing about Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR).  Most of us do not yet actually feel the implications of these technologies and even if we’ve have heard of them, we think of them as gaming devices. Virtual reality is mostly known in the form of headsets which transport us, through many of our senses, into another world. Augmented Reality, think Pokemon GO, is the ability to draw the digital world onto the real one and combine the two. In the coming decade, these technologies are very likely to redefine the way we experience reality and perhaps reality itself. And with it, the world of work. With that vision in mind, this is the time to ask ourselves what needs to be done today to be ready, at all levels: In our own careers, within our jobs and organizations, and maybe even at the broader ecosystem.

It is hard to grasp the future. It helps to think backwards and realize what our smartphones have done to our lives. A little over a decade ago, the iPhone arrived and brought with it the apps, access to the web, the cloud and all our information in our pockets, and changed the way we live, buy, communicate, work, and consume.

In the world enabled by these technologies, instead of searching for the answer on Google, the explanation will appear in front of our eyes or in our ears. If you feel like learning, you can shift into learning mode and wherever you look, you will get a lesson in physics while watching sports or lessons in history enabling you to see what the world looked like 100 years ago. If you are on a trip overseas you can choose tourist mode and enjoy a personal guide, who will tell you about every site, every era, all you wanted to know, according to your preferences. More history? Archeology? Design? Or maybe a restaurant recommendation? And yes, you will get real time translation into the local language to help you get service.

Now imagine easy-to-use and easy-to-carry devices that allow us to choose which world we want to see, which enable us to change perspective, and add layers on top of reality, chosen by the relevance of what we want to do right now. Imagine, for example, that you are going shopping and you have the ability to paint the digital world into real life. The store will only show you what’s on your shopping list, the items that you need or the brands you prefer. You can filter what you see by prices, colors, categories. Shopping for clothes? See only items available in your size. No need to collect them and try them on, you can already see what you look like when you wear each item. And that new desk you purchased and has just arrived at your house but needs to be assembled? No problem, your AR lenses will show you where each part connects.

Deloitte simplifies the core elements and technologies of AR into three components. The first one is the source of information, which includes cameras, sensors, and all other devices connected to the network. The second element has to do with how the information is presented for our use, which could include visual overlay on top of reality, or using audio or video. The third element is where we will feel the biggest impact, in the way we, as consumers or employees, work with these tools. Contrary to how we use screens today, think phones, tablets, laptops, in this new world we will communicate through movement by hands, eyes, head, speech and maybe in the future, even thought. As this develops, these devices are likely to transform how we work and interact with the digital world, with machines, objects or even information. And as a result, we will probably discover products, services, capabilities that we couldn’t tap into before.

Imagine a world, in which you can access  the information you need as soon as you need it, where it becomes possible to process the ever increasing amounts of data and complexity. And with this, imagine think of what is possible in terms of access to the skills you need, the learning, the guidelines, the examples, maybe even the knowledge that will allow you to become experts in about everything at the right place and time. Or where we can interact with experts, who can see the problem we are trying to solve and not only hear us describe them. And are then able to explains, step by step, visually and in real time how to do what needs to get done. These capabilities will make it possible for us to do a much larger range of activities and services compared to what we can do ourselves today, certainly compared to what we could master and learn. But they will also change the way services are provided, including jobs and roles and professions.

Creating new worlds

And this is where we arrive at the implications for the world of work. Deloitte claims that these tools will change the way we work and we have already begun seeing how we can use them. To know where you yourself stand, ask yourself two questions:

1. What do I need to know to do my job (the complexity of the knowledge)?

2. To what degree do I need judgment and intuition in my role (the variety of activities)?

If we don’t use a lot of information and don’t do a great variety of things, then these tools will just help us do what we do, just a little better. Think of a firefighter who can now see more clearly through smoke and fire.

If our tasks are not diverse, but require large amounts of information, we have now been given a brain extension, the ability to process infinite amounts of information. For example, an aircraft technician, who needs to repair a wide variety of tools, possible malfunctions, maybe even different types of aircraft. Instead of having to remember all the details of all these combinations, the new capabilities will make it possible for him to have the information and instructions he needs when he needs it.

If our work is very diverse but we don’t work with a lot of information, the new tools will allow us connections that are not possible today. Think about communicating in a “see what I see” style, such as a specialist physician, who can instruct a doctor elsewhere how to perform a complex procedure without being there herself. In this scenario, it’s not important what the local doctor knows, it’s more important that he can collaborate with someone who does.

And finally, we have the jobs that are characterized by great complexity both in terms of information multiplicity as well as in terms of a variety of actions. In this space there are probably professions and services that do not yet exist because today they are not even possible. Here, the person and the machine become a team and the AR tools make it possible to connect a complex network of constantly changing operations and information, such as inventory, traffic or delivery management, in a visual manner that will be used for real-time decision making based on the changing data. Imagine systems and information security professionals who can simply ask the computer if there is anything unusual about the network today and the computer not only detects the suspicious activity but also already knows what to do with it to protect the network.

We are entering a new decade where AR will change our world and also our work. Imagine your day at work. If you are physically in a work location, upon arrival, recognition devices will allow you entry. If you’re driving a car they will direct you to a free parking spot. Within the building, they will show you to a desk or an available room or find whoever you are looking for. These tools will provide you with information about people, projects, products, strategy, market, competitors, etc. Imagine having the information you need right there for you when you are in a meeting or when you meet someone in the hallway or during a conversation, answering a question. At a professional conference, you will be able to recognize the person sitting next to you, where they are from and from what company or field. Maybe, even who the right people are for that job or partnership you are looking for. And then there is the ability to design the environment as you want it, the color of the walls, the style of the photos and even the view from the window, even if that view or even the window aren’t really there.

And in such a world,  we should probably ask why we would even go to a physical workplace. To work together, we can simply connect with AR tools and reach a virtual office, a conference room, a client meeting, a convention, even a coffee conversation, without leaving the place we choose to work from. The information, the training, the tools can reach us when we need them at the right time, in the right language, in a way that is most convenient for us to use.

Over the next decade we will all be partners in creating and using new worlds, combining reality with what isn’t. It may not be very different from the stories told around a campfire, on walls, in books and in pictures and movies, but the way the boundaries will be blurred is not like anything we have ever known. And one more thing. The stories we will devise in this new age will evolve and edit them in real time because these technologies will allow us to control what we see, for better or worse. For sure, there are so many open questions here that technology alone will not be able to handle and we humans will have to define in the coming years. Like how do we discover new things if we cannot see them? How do we distinguish human connections if there is no meaning to the background and depth of familiarity? What will happen to reality if it is no longer real? And who will control it all?

The only certainty is that the next decade will redefine our world.

Published by Globes, Israel business news – en.globes.co.il – on January 15, 2020

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Nirit Cohen

Nirit leads an innovative conversation on the future of work and the strategies required to transform careers, organizations, management as well as broader economic and social systems such as education and civil service.

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