Dino Londis: On Avatars and Telecommuting

aNewDomain.net—Telecommuting is on the rise. In April 2010, Inc. Magazine  found that if employees worked from home half the time, they stood to gain back 100 lost productivity hours. Employees enjoyed working remotely, too, except for one thing. They missed the day-to-day interactions with fellow employees. Avatars are an intriguing way to augment the remote experience and avoid misunderstanding in the virtual workplace.

Most companies rely on basic chat rooms for remote collaboration — but these create a sense of anonymity that encourage less than courteous behavior. Avatars, user-controlled, graphic representations of a person, ala Second Life — would improve that.

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.

Riva Lesonsky, who partnered with Microsoft on the ebook Work Without Walls agrees. The main problem with the virtual office is communication, Lesonsky says.

Remote meetings, in particular, tend to suffer from the lack of subtle nuances in facial expression and tone of voice. “It’s all too easy for communication breakdowns to occur between business owners and their staffs, as well as between the employees themselves,” says Lesonsky.

avatar illustration aND

Despite its shortcomings, telecommuting seems unlikely to go away any time soon. According to stats from Microsoft Small Business Resources, 72 percent of employees “prefer” it, 52 percent say it makes them “more productive” and 60 percent say that working remotely improves their “work/home” balance. Businesses approve, as well, since they “can save an average of $20,000 annually for each full-time remote employee.”

For avatars to significantly improve communication, the technology will have to mature — at least so far as Steve Ballmer is concerned.

“Avatars will be needed to emulate human action on screen,” Ballmer told an audience in Delhi last year.

Microsoft is one of several tech companies building software platforms for the virtual office. TeamOrlando, for example, is working to improve human performance through simulation. Avaya’s platform and start-up Rabbit is using its gaming background to virtualize environments. And IBM has worked with Second Life on collaborative initiatives.

How could these companies — and others — overcome communication problems and create a virtual water cooler environment? The prevailing idea is to re-imagine avatars as more than just a substitute for the person they represent — but also as information-rich icons that facilitate collaboration and communication.

office avatar aND

For example — say you’re sitting around a virtual table. The person to your virtual left is be sporting a color-coded shirt that tells you what part of a project she is working on. A badge on the person to your right tells you that he has read and responded to your latest memo. Now let’s say you want to propose a meeting to discuss your next project and — ping. A little icon appears above your head to indicate the suggestion.

Such graphic representations could create an entirely new way for employees to communicate in the virtual workplace. Managers would also benefit from the ability to track each stage of a project. They’d be able to identify areas that require attention at a glance, and respond more efficiently to the needs of their employees.

The practical applications for avatar technology don’t end with the enterprise. For example, at the National Defense University iCollege’s demonstration on the future of avatars, more than 1,700 people were in attendance — virtually. There, EMTs and military personel received real-world training by watching avatar-based, life and death dramas in real time.

In the same way, business is turning to virtual environments to graphically unite large numbers of people who would otherwise be isolated geographically. And because the avatar can literally put a name to a face, participants are more likely to be civil and constructive.

Images credits: Wikimedia Commons.