Avatars Improve Collaboration in the Virtual Office

aNewDomain.net—With remote technology maturing, more employees are telecommuting to their jobs. And they like it that way. For companies managing a remote staff, fostering collaboration can be a challenge. With the help of avatars these issues can be minimal.

According to Microsoft Small Business Resources, these statistics indicate working remotely is here to stay:

- 72 percent of employees say they “prefer” working at home.

- 52 percent say they’re “more productive” when working remotely.

- 60 percent say working remotely improves their “work/home balance.”

But working remotely creates a new set of problems with the virtual office says Riva Lesonsky, who partnered with Microsoft on an ebook “Work Without Walls.” The main problem is communication. The subtlety and nuance from facial expressions and tone of voice is lost in the virtual environment and virtual meetings in particular. “It’s all too easy for communications breakdowns to occur between business owners and their staffs, as well as between the employees themselves,” says Lesonsky.

Beret Avatar

Inc. Magazine tried it for a month in April 2010. Employees said they missed the day-to-day interactions with fellow employees. Yet the trend continues because the savings are so marked. Inc. Magazine estimated that if its employees worked half the time from home, it would gain 100 hours in productivity that are normally lost in the commute. Microsoft found that “businesses can save an average of $20,000 annually for each full-time remote employee.”

One way to augment the remote experience and avoid misunderstandings is to employ avatars in a virtual environment. An avatar is a graphical representation of a person controlling it in a virtual environment. See Second Life.

Using avatars instead of simple chat rooms forces people to be courteous with one another because there is less a sense of anonymity. According to New York Law School’s DoTank, “the ability to visualize oneself and the larger community of practice congregating to engage in rulemaking enhances civility and a sense of commitment to the process. Virtual worlds take videoconferencing to the next level and bring it to everyone’s desktop. People tend to be more civil when confronting another person, even in the form of an online avatar.”

How to Use Avatars

The technology is not yet mature, at least as far as Steve Ballmer is concerned. The Microsoft CEO told an audience in Delhi last year that in the coming years, “Avatars will be needed to emulate human action on screen.”

Microsoft is just one tech company building software platforms for virtual offices. IBM has worked with Second Life on collaborative initiatives, Avaya has a platform and a start-up called Rabbit will use its gaming background to virtualize environments. TeamOrlando’s mission is to improve human performance through simulation.

But how do you overcome the communication problems and create an environment similar to the office water cooler?

The idea is to think of using avatars as more than a substitute for the flesh and blood person they represent, but to imagine them as whole new ways to collaborate and communicate. It’s not cartoon characters sitting around a table chatting, but using the avatar to graphically communicate a lot of information at a glance. For example, a shirt color reveals what part of the project the team member is working on or what stage of completion he or she is at. A badge could display if they’ve read and responded to the latest documentation. This is all done even before discussing the project.

When the environment is virtualized graphically and shows the stage of each component, the project manager and other management can help with resources and identify areas that require attention.

More than 1,700 people attended the National Defense University’s iCollege’s demonstration on the future of avatars, and they all did it virtually.

Attendants watched avatars in life and death dramas simulated in real time. The training prepares real-world EMTs and military personal for professional eventualities.

Like the EMT and military training–the enterprise which is slowly becoming virtualized–is itself turning to virtual environments to graphically unite large numbers of people who are otherwise geographically disparate. It teaches, learns and collaborates. And because it can literally put a name to a face, participants are more likely to be civil and constructive.

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Based in New York, Dino Londis is a senior commentator at aNewDomain.net, IT Pro alum National Lampoon and teamBYTE. Email him at [email protected]

Jeremy Lesniak
Based in Vermont, Jeremy Lesniak is managing editor at aNewDomain.net and founder of Vermont Computing, Inc. and whistlekick.com. Email him [email protected]
Jeremy Lesniak
Jeremy Lesniak
Tags: Business,Business Management,BYOD,Productivity