I’m playing online Pictionary while chatting with five people I’ve never met. This is not at all how I usually spend my Thursdays. We’ve all dropped into a virtual meeting space on a site called gather.town, which provides free customisable spaces for anyone who wants to organise a get-together without using Zoom. Gather is a virtual world and you choose an avatar before entering it: imagine a mid-80s Super Mario game in which, instead of jumping over his enemies, Mario has to go to the office. There are pixelated potted palms dotted about my screen, a couple of banks of desks and a sofa area, all rendered in that very specific 2D map style common to early computer games. I’m represented by a tiny, blocky avatar: a collection of dots arranged to look a bit like a person. As I move it around with keyboard keys, I can enter and leave conversations – when I do so, a small live video of whoever I’m talking to appears above the main screen.
It might all sound mad, but Gather is 18 months old, has 4 million users, and recently raised $26m in investment. Universities use it to create virtual campuses; individuals use it to host games nights; groups of friends throw parties on it – and workers are collaborating on it. It is trying, like hundreds of other new platforms, sites and apps, to provide us all with a solution to a very 2021 problem: despite being ubiquitous since early 2020, video calls aren’t necessarily helping us work or stay connected effectively.
Recent research from Stanford University provided evidence that the “Zoom fatigue” many of us feel is real. The study showed that the cognitive load of video conferencing is far higher than phone calls or in-person conversation. Where normally we pick up and give out valuable non-verbal cues from body language, they’re missing from video’s flat, sometimes delayed and often blurry images. We find the sustained, but often off-kilter, eye contact inherent in video calls hard to tolerate. When do you ever stare at multiple looming faces, all at once, for an hour, in real life? We find seeing ourselves on screen stressful, too, and being tied to a screen cuts down our mobility (unlike a phone call, during which we can move).
James Bore, a cybersecurity expert who runs Bores Consultancy, hosts this open office for a couple of hours every week, inviting anyone working in his field via Twitter and LinkedIn to drop in to discuss issues or make new contacts (he also has a remote office for his own team, and hosts a “pub” night in a separate room for more informal networking, as well as helping other businesses organise events online through his company ReuniVous). Inviting people to play games such as Pictionary lightens the tone.
Why do Bore and his guests prefer Gather, given that it does also have a video component? “Almost every other video platform is very one way,” he says. “You’ve essentially got someone delivering stuff to a group of people, so you can’t have natural interactivity.”
Have you noticed that if two people try to talk at the same time on most video calls, one voice cuts out? Not on Gather. “People can talk at the same time,” Bore says. “If you move your avatar farther away from someone, their voice will get quieter but you can still catch a bit of the conversation. You can walk up to people, go sit at a table with people, jump into a private chat, play games. You can also walk out of a conversation. It’s more natural.”
Despite attending real-life industry events for years, Bore reckons he’s gained far more useful connections in this open office with its random attendees. While some remote workers mourn spontaneous chats and water-cooler moments, “serendipity actually happens here”, he says. “Almost all of the video-conferencing software requires a reason for the conversation. You can’t just pop in and say, ‘Let’s have a chat’ like you can here.” Gather’s other neat trick is keeping the video component low-key – the videos are ranged across the top of the screen, rather than dominating, which forces you to look at just one person at a time as they speak, rather than everyone at once, just as in face-to-face conversations.
There are hundreds of other sites, platforms and apps vying to become the next Zoom or Microsoft Teams, offering remote workers more than just a gallery of faces on a screen. Some are small, such as the micro-social network phone app Totem, developed to deepen connections within a business and used by companies such as John Lewis as a sort of private Facebook; staff are encouraged to share team successes alongside photos of pets (it also churns out data on engagement and morale). Others are larger, such as Wonder, which provides a simple webpage full of bubbles, each containing a photo of a guest, moving between white circles meant to represent tables on which people can video chat with each other; Wonder raised £11m in seed funding late last year, and counts Deloitte and Harvard as users.
Ninety-seven per cent of training now takes place online and, although 70% of it is done via Microsoft Teams, according to research by HR analysts Fosway, companies including insurers Hiscox and the restaurant chain Leon are using gamified training apps. These can allow staff to be put into situations that would be hard to replicate in real life (or on a video call), while also handing out dopamine-inducing micro-rewards, as stars or points.
But is more screen time what any of us need? It has increased by a third, to an average of 40% of our waking hours, during the pandemic. Rahaf Harfoush, a digital anthropologist, is director of Red Thread Institute of Digital Culture and an adjunct professor at Sciences Po in Paris. “The digitalisation of in-real-life [IRL] experiences is what a lot of companies rushed to do when the pandemic struck,” she says. “Their thinking was: ‘If we did it in person, let’s do it on Zoom.’ Many of these applications don’t make sense and can add to technological fatigue.”
Professor Gary Burnett, from Nottingham University, was keenly aware of this risk when he moved one of his engineering degree modules online last autumn. Rather than defaulting to the better-known platforms, he spent much of last summer trialling different fully virtual worlds to host his classes, before settling on Mozilla Hubs, a 3D-rendered meeting space used by Nasa. As I click a link into “Nottopia”, Burnett – or rather his cartoon-like avatar, a floating, hoodie-wearing, grey-haired head and torso – meets me in the “lobby”, a semi-open air vaulted space, next to a large digitised lake.
He leads me, still floating, into the virtual pavilion where he’s about to hold a product design lesson in creating a driverless taxi. My avatar is a small, red cartoon fox, but I could have chosen from thousands of options, or built my own. I’m also floating; I move by using the arrow keys on my keyboard, changing my gaze with the cursor so that I can look around the large room, which has a mixture of bare brick and white walls, and a pale grey floor. Sunlight seems to pour in through the glass roof, casting natural-looking shadows, and most spaces have a view towards blue sky and realistic clouds. Steps and doorways lead into other spaces – a smaller area with armchairs for more private meetings, and other larger rooms for exhibitions; one huge wall is taken up by a virtual fish tank. There’s no video here – we speak via our avatars, who wobble or move in a human-like way to show who is talking.
This is a virtual world where practically anything is possible, so Burnett can conjure up a 3D taxi that hovers in the centre of the group as they discuss its features. At one point, several students enable flying mode and hover high above the car. To examine another bit of tech, they all pile inside the taxi, laughing. (It’s all the funnier as one student’s avatar is an astronaut, another’s is a parrot, and a third’s seems to be a rainbow-coloured ghost. Burnett says the students often choose avatars that reflect their personalities – the person with the parrot avatar likes ornithology.)
There’s no live video involved, and no PowerPoint or slides, just genuine and playful interaction. When a chart appears on the wall, the students whip out virtual pens and start annotating it, and Burnett has placed 3D objects around the room for them to use as they experiment and discuss. Three-quarters of his students report that Mozilla Hubs has helped them with social isolation, Burnett says. “You can see that in the way I teach – it’s not a one-way flow of information.”
His students like Nottopia so much that they come here, via a link, outside lessons and show their friends around (occasionally leaving behind vast joke 3D models, or virtual replicas of Nottingham’s famous Canada geese). “Joining in as an avatar gives you a veil of anonymity that has made everyone less awkward about speaking up in class,” says Rebekah Kay, who is doing a master’s in mechanical engineering. “In some ways, I feel more present than if I was physically there.”
Hubs and Gather are genuinely fun to use (and currently free). But there is a more corporate side to virtual life, too. The UK’s in-person events and conferencing industry was worth £42.3bn in 2018(£800bn, globally) and, one way or another, the industry wants to get back some of that revenue. “At the beginning of the pandemic, there were probably six platforms for virtual events, and now there are more than 100,” says Vanessa Lovatt, chief evangelist (her real job title) for Glisser, one such platform, which runs events for Facebook, Uber and the NHS. When we speak she is about to rehearse an online event for 47,000 people; they’ve tested the site with an audience of 170,000.
The question is, do virtual conferences work? And do we really need to replicate awkward IRL networking experiences while adding to our digital cognitive load? As with much of the so-called future of work, it’s still early days, both for the tech and, perhaps, for its users. This was painfully evident at the Tory party’s virtual conference last October, which was plagued by technical glitches, and criticised by everyone from attendees who couldn’t log on and speakers who had no audiences to thinktanks and exhibitors who paid for virtual pitches, at least one of whom reportedly requested a refund. At the time, MP Tim Loughton told PoliticsHome: “My first fringe meeting, we had to wait over 10 minutes for the panel to be let in; then we were all cut off and had to be sent a new link, meaning we started again almost half an hour later… [Then] it turned out in the first part we had just been talking to ourselves and there was no audience.”
A slicker attempt at recreating in-person networking has been made by the Virtulab, a British digital technology company that has developed an immersive virtual venue rather like a digitised version of the Edinburgh International Conference Centre. It can be hired in exactly the same way, and already has been by TEDx events and the Instituteof People Management. But as an avatar version of me strolls through the cavernous digital hall on my laptop screen, my non-gamer head is spinning. There are realistic-looking bot people on hand to help me if I get stuck, booths to walk into – just as at a real trade show – staffed by other avatar people who I can speak to in real time (with or without video). There are speed-networking zones and branded video screens on the walls. I can chat with the avatar people I pass and walk around the venue, or teleport between different areas. There are auditoriums where speakers can present to an avatar audience either as their avatar selves or via live video links.
The experience is pretty smooth, if disconcerting – it’s strange not knowing who any of the avatars around me might be (or if they have people attached to them at all – the auditorium auto-populates to fill all the seats, so no one has to give a talk to an empty room). But isn’t one of the great things about being forced to work from home that we no longer have to go to corporate spaces like this? Perhaps I’m a misanthrope, but I like no longer having to visit exhibition centres several times a year. (I write a lot about hospitality and, pre-Covid, often travelled to the ExCeL centre in London’s Docklands to attend expos about things like packaging, food technology or free-from foods.) I can see how this would be great for brands and event organisers, but I’m not totally sold that it’s good for the rest of us.
Dave Cummins, executive director at the Virtulab, disagrees. For him, this isn’t a temporary fix while we wait for the pandemic to blow over. “We see this from an eco perspective, via the reduction in travel – there is a cost in server burn, but it’s nowhere near what you get from an event.”
If a virtual reality conference sounds a bit out there, imagine logging into a virtual reality office every day, from home – another Virtulab offering. If you’re yearning to get back to the office – with its random conversations and predictable routines – this could be your answer. Although subscribers can build any office they want, the immersive version I visited, via my laptop screen, created for two clients, an events company and a petrochemical company, looked exactly like a normal, grey office building. It’s as if they got their best designers to perfectly recreate a business park in Reading.
Unlike conventional remote-work platforms, this one also uses lifelike avatars: mine arrives at the building and walks along a corridor, before opening a door, entering an office and choosing a desk. If I was working here for real, I’d be able to access things like my company’s storage drives, too. “The idea is that you come into the platform, open up your browser and start using it just like this is your office,” Cummins says. “If you’re not in a meeting, you can open the door so avatars can just walk in. We’re trying to empower that water-cooler moment. If you would come and see me at 10 o’clock in the morning in real life, then you would come and see me here.”
Businesses such as Green Building Council SA, an association for green companies, and AI Laith Dubai, an events company, are early adopters of the Virtulab. (Other organisations are working on VR offices: Facebook is developing a remote office requiring a VR headset, slated to launch later this year.) For me, the best part is that it recreates access to colleagues: as long as they’re logged on and available, you can talk – as the avatar, and with your voice rather than video – whenever you fancy, with no need to create a link or calendar invite. There could be downsides, though. A virtual office can create the expectation that you will be digitally present for a traditional eight-hour day, robbing homeworkers of the flexibility they have enjoyed in recent months. Remote-work tools and platforms could easily shade into digitally surveilling employees, even if only in terms of tracking how long you are at your computer. (As well as raising multiple privacy issues, this can be detrimental to engagement and retention: a 2017 study showed that monitoring makes employees feel their organisation is unethical.) “One of the best ways for a business to create an insider threat – people who will attack your company from within, whether maliciously or through negligence – is failing to trust your staff,” Bore tells me. “When people feel constrained, they will find ways around it. When they feel trusted and accountable for what they’re doing, you prevent insider threats – not by saying you must be at your online desk from nine to five.”
As many as one in five businesses already use surveillance software to monitor staff as they work from home, including French company Teleperformance, which employs 380,000 people in 34 countries. In March, it launched a webcam security system called TP Observer, which uses an AI system with the ability to watch home-working call centre staff, or to track unauthorised phone usage or “unknown persons” appearing at the desk, and to send screenshots to supervisors. The company insists that webcams for UK staff would be voluntary, and would be used only for meetings and training, or pre-scheduled desk checks, and would not be used for random surveillance, but adds that levels of scrutiny will vary in other countries.
Of course, you don’t necessarily need new tech to watch your staff – Microsoft Teams, for instance, logs screen minutes, number of calls, chats or meetings, collating them into a handy graph for managers.
The Virtulab doesn’t expect its remote-office platform to be used to track staff attendance (although that’s up to the end user). But it does want to keep you in its virtual world. “We’re looking at gamification,” Cummins says. “During your lunch break, you grab a sandwich and come back to your desk, and race cars, or play golf, or do an escape room. It’s a chance to team-build, and get away from the monotony.” He says there are also art galleries and gardens to amble around, though I think I’d rather spend my lunch break in an actual park. Could this increase employees’ screen time? “We do our own health and safety assessments as a company – seating positions, desks, chairs and so on. For remote work, it’s an employer who would be taking this package, so it’s their responsibility to ensure screen time is being monitored and assessed.”
These platforms are meant to improve remote work, but is a virtual experience that fills the entire day better or worse than spending a couple of hours on video calls but being otherwise generally invisible? “Employers probably want to help people gel, but they risk trying to do too much,” says Dr Linda Kaye, who studies the psychology of gaming and online behaviour. “I’m notsaying it’s not useful in a work context, but when you force it on people it becomes inauthentic.” Her research reflects the fact that valuable social connections can be forged online. But just because we can create virtual worlds to work in, should we?
Ellie Gibson, a games journalist and host of the Extra Life gaming podcast, is enthusiastic about avatar games where she gets to create an alter ego. “I play as a 7ft tall Viking called Avril who is nothing like me. I wouldn’t want to be myself, a 43-year-old woman from Catford.” She worries about the implications of coming up with an avatar version of yourself in a working environment – where presumably the expectation is that you try to represent yourself realistically. “For people who have issues with body image, I can imagine this being anxiety-inducing. If you’re a larger person thinking: ‘I’m going to a meeting, and I’m supposed to create this avatar of myself. How am I supposed to do that?’ Would there be a temptation to make yourself look fatter, to be the first to make a joke of it?”
“That’s why the avatar isn’t a 360 capture of your body,” Cummins says. “It can look like you or someone else. If you’ve got a harsh workplace, it could be an issue.”
Much depends on the type of workplace you’re in – its culture and the sector in which it operates. While Hubs, the platform used by the engineers at the University of Nottingham, could work brilliantly for design, technology or architectural businesses, I’m not sure I can see social workers holding a case conference in a virtual world. Would it feel appropriate for a legal firm dealing with serious crimes to hold their meetings as avatar versions of themselves on Gather? Similarly, it’s hard to imagine holding a disciplinary session as a cartoon version of yourself. For some teams and clients, working in a virtual office could feel even more torturous than video calling already is.
Aspects of the online work boom will inevitably disappear as pandemic restrictions ease and we are able to pick and choose rather than being forced online. It could be that platforms with fewer frills prove more enduring. One online space that has exploded since launching in spring 2020 is the invite-only social audio app Clubhouse, which already claims to have 10 million users. Social audio is exactly the same as social media – you follow individuals and join groups – but with live speech rather than text or images. Clubhouse is a simple platform where users create “rooms”, to have real-time, audio-only conversations about anything they want; Twitter is close behind with its new creation, Spaces.
Michael Liskin is an LA-based virtual facilitation expert who has worked as a beta tester for social audio apps. “The next big thing isn’t as fancy as we might think,” he tells me. “There is potential for social audio to provide a kind of middle ground, one between fatiguing video conferencing and text-based interaction like Slack, which can be labour intensive and not as intimate.” Rather than using virtual-world platforms, he is helping teams connect using Clubhouse. “There will soon be a bunch of social audio apps optimised for happy hours, workshops, team-building, book clubs, mentorship and much more. Social audio fosters intimacy.” And, as Liskin points out, because it’s audio rather than video, “it can be in your pocket while you’re out on a bike”. There are even rooms on Clubhouse where people meet to work, mainly in silence, collectively but remotely.
Back on gather.town, we’ve moved on to the pub, much as you might at the end of a traditional working day, and a tiny snowman avatar is playing – really – the pub’s piano. Bore has no intention of calling time on his pub once the real ones reopen. “It has put me in contact with people in my field who I would never have been able to reach otherwise, people from all over the world,” he says. It’s still going to sound mad to most people though, isn’t it? “It’s almost impossible to explain unless you’re doing it,” he laughs. “The moment you’re in here, it immediately makes sense.”
Facebook’s semi-independent oversight board says it will review the company’s “XCheck” system, an internal program that has exempted high-profile users from some or all of its rules.
The decision follows an investigation by the Wall Street Journal that revealed that reviews of posts by well-known users such as celebrities, politicians and journalists are steered into the separate system.
Under the program, some users are “whitelisted”, or not subject to enforcement action, while others are allowed to post material that violates Facebook rules pending content reviews that often do not take place. The Xcheck system, for example, allowed Brazilian footballer Neymar to post nude pictures of a woman who had accused him of rape, according to the report.
Users were identified for additional scrutiny based on criteria such as being “newsworthy”, “influential or popular” or “PR risky”, the Wall Street Journal found. By 2020 there were 5.8 million users on the XCheck list, according to the newspaper.
The oversight board said Tuesday that it expects to have a briefing with Facebook on the system and “will be reporting what we hear from this” as part of a report it will publish in October.
The board may also make other recommendations, although Facebook is not bound to follow these.
The Journal’s report, the board said, has drawn “renewed attention to the seemingly inconsistent way that the company makes decisions, and why greater transparency and independent oversight of Facebook matters so much for users”.
Facebook told the Journal in response to its investigation that the system “was designed for an important reason: to create an additional step so we can accurately enforce policies on content that could require more understanding”. The company added that criticism of it was “fair” and that it was working to fix it.
A representative for Facebook declined to comment to the Associated Press on the oversight board’s decision.
The Philippines has become the latest nation to impose a digital services tax.
Such taxes require the likes of Netflix and Spotify to pay local sales taxes even though their services are delivered – legally, notionally, and physically – from beyond local jurisdiction.
The Philippines has chosen a rate of 12 per cent, mirroring local value added taxes.
“We have now clarified that digital services and the goods and services traded through digital service providers should generally be subject to VAT. This is just a matter of common tax sense,” said Joey Salceda, a member of the Philippines’ House of Representatives and a backer of the change to the nation’s tax code.
Salceda tied the change to post-pandemic economic recovery.
“If brick and mortar establishments, which are the hardest-hit by the pandemic, have to pay VAT, the giants of e-commerce shouldn’t be exempt,” he said.
However, local companies that are already exempt from VAT by virtue of low turnover won’t be caught by the extension of the tax into the virtual realm.
Salceda’s amendments are designed to catch content streamers, but also online software sales – including mobile apps – plus SaaS and hosted software. The Philippines’ News Agency’s report on the amendment’s passage into law even mentions firewalls as subject to VAT.
But the taxes are controversial because they are seen as a unilateral response to the wider issue of multinational companies picking the jurisdictions in which they’ll pay tax – a practice that erodes national tax bases. The G7 group of nations, and the OECD, think that collaborations that shift tax liabilities to nations where goods and services are acquired and consumed are the most appropriate response, and that harmonising global tax laws to make big tech pay up wherever they do business is a better plan than digital services taxes.
While returning to the office is now possible for many, some workers might still want the option of flexible working some of the time. Here’s how to broach the subject.
This week marked the beginning of a phased and staggered return to workplaces for many employees in Ireland.
It essentially marked the first official green light for employers to ready their offices and start putting plans in place for their staff’s return.
However, HR body CIPD Ireland urged employers to be mindful of anxious workers as they face “another round of upheaval” with the return to offices.
So, while employers are finalising plans about how, where and when their teams will work, some employees may be wondering how to go about expressing their preference, worried that it’s not in line with what the company wants.
While there have been plenty of discussions and remote work advocates calling for leaders to be more flexible and recognise that the future of work will be hybrid, the reality for individual employees can feel very different.
While big-picture debates around the right to request remote work are happening, how do you ask for what you want in the here and now, when your boss is determined to have a full return to the office?
Explain your reasons
If remote or flexible working isn’t something your boss is already willing to give you, then you must treat it like a pay rise request.
Explain clearly and concisely the reasons why you want more flexibility, how it will benefit you and make you a more engaged, happier worker.
While family commitments might be an important factor, so too is work-life balance and getting rid of long commutes. And, while there is light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, Covid-19 is still a very real concern, so don’t be afraid to express your reservations about this too.
Make a business case
When you ask for a pay increase, you provide proof of the value you have added to the company. Take the same approach here and explain to your boss how flexible working will actually be beneficial to them.
Some managers who resist remote working might still have an office-based mentality where presenteeism is key. But there are numerous studies that show that knowledge workers are more productive when working remotely.
And, when done as a purposeful business strategy, remote working can help teams prioritise work more clearly as well as allowing for more downtime and work-life balance.
Depending on your manager, your team and the work you do, it may not be feasible to ask to work from home five days a week.
It’s important that you are realistic about asking for what you want and also realistic about what you can deliver in return. Remote workers can be more productive but they can also be in danger of burning out so be thoughtful about what strategy will work best for both you and your manager.
Listen to their perspective
While conversations around remote working appear to be mostly positive, it can be a different situation behind the office doors.
Many managers and leaders are still hesitant about moving to a fully flexible working strategy and this can lead to workers feeling like they are not being listened to.
However, one of the best ways to combat that hesitancy from managers is to listen to their concerns and address them in a problem-solving manner.
Being able to alleviate some of your manager’s worries might make them more amenable to allowing for more flexibility.
Make expectations clear
If you do convince your boss to allow for a more flexible working plan than what they had originally considered, it’s important that both sides understand what is expected.
Without clearly defining the outcomes of the new set-up, misunderstandings can lead to disappointments and feelings of mistrust in the idea of flexible working.