Virtual reality, a technology normally associated with gaming, promises to enhance remote collaboration, further reducing the necessity for physical meetings and the need for workers to commute. If virtual reality (VR) successfully builds upon technological advantages that have enabled remote work, it could help put a dent in greenhouse gas emissions attributable to in-person commerce.
Although the term telecommuting was coined all the way back in 1973, the practice required technological progress, and, sadly, a global pandemic to come into its own. Businesses, non-profits, and government agencies in the early 1970s lacked personal computers, had rudimentary telecommunications capabilities, and relied heavily on physical files for information storage. Workers needed to be physically present just to obtain and share information.
The rise of personal computers (PCs), the internet, digital video cameras, smartphones, and cloud technologies have enabled most knowledge workers to exchange information and complete tasks from almost anywhere. Meanwhile, categories of work not traditionally thought of as knowledge or office work have come online.
Over the last two decades, online collaboration software has proliferated and improved. But online meeting tools don’t fully capture the interpersonal dynamics of physical meetings. And for many users, they can be tiring. Stanford Communications Professor Jeremy N. Bailenson has researched the phenomenon of “Zoom fatigue.” He considered four possible aspects of online meetings that could cause participants to become fatigued:
- Excessive amounts of close-up eye gaze,
- Cognitive load arising from difficulty in sending non-verbal signals,
- Increased self-evaluation from staring at video of oneself, and
- Constraints on physical mobility.
New technology promises to reduce some of these drawbacks by making online meetings less stressful and tiring. Meta (formerly known as Facebook) is beta testing Horizon Workrooms, which leverages the company’s Oculus Quest 2 VR headsets to create a virtual workspace. Currently, Meta’s workroom service is free, but to get the full benefit, participants need to have the headsets which cost $299 each.
Instead of staring at colleagues’ video headshots on Zoom, participants in a Horizon Workrooms meeting view their coworkers’ avatars around a virtual conference table, a configuration that demands less one-on-one eye contact. Avatars can move around and share virtual whiteboards, mimicking a common tool used for planning, ideation, and product design in physical meetings.
Reviews suggest that Meta’s VR workroom will face barriers to adoption. The headsets are heavy and extended use can cause discomfort. But these issues should be ameliorated through technological innovation. For example, the Quest 2 headsets weigh 12% less than their predecessor, following the trajectory of laptops and other electronic devices that have become lighter over time.
In the wake of Facebook’s name change to Meta, the company’s emphasis on virtual reality and the metaverse has been subject to derision not unlike that directed to older platforms such as Minecraft and Second Life. But those who dismiss VR may not have a full historical appreciation of the process from obscure technology to household name. Technologies that seemed solely fit for recreation have become mainstream. Consider, for example, how Robinhood attracts younger investors by “gamifying” the task of portfolio management. iPads and other tablets originally targeted at home users are now commonly used for point of sale applications. With heavy investment from Meta, Microsoft, and others, there is reason to think that VR will enter the mainstream later in the 2020s.
The idea that telecommuting has environmental benefits goes back to at least 1979 when economist Frank Schiff wrote in The Washington Post about the possibility of remote work reducing gasoline consumption, congestion, and air pollution.
Now, with VR joining a stable of older enabling technologies, remote work appears to be on its way to becoming commonplace with or without policy change.
The San Francisco Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) considered mandating large employers keep at least 60% of their employees at home by 2035. The mandate would have applied to all businesses with 25 or more employees in jobs eligible for remote work. But the idea was criticized by transit advocates concerned about ridership impacts. Ultimately, MTC watered down the mandate, instead recommending that employers implement trip reduction programs “to shift auto commuters to any combination of telecommuting, transit, walking, and/or bicycling.”
But, from a climate perspective, mass transit travel is not a full substitute for telecommuting. Even trips completed on fully electrified transit modes are not fully green. The Bay Area’s utility, Pacific Gas and Electric, generates one-third of its electricity from renewable sources and hopes to reach 60% from renewables by 2030. But this means a sizable proportion of electricity is, and will continue to be, derived from burning fossil fuels.
In any event, the Bay Area could reach the now discarded remote work target without a mandate. In July, the Bay Area Council found that 68% of the employers it surveyed expected a typical employee to go into the office three days or less post-pandemic. A Bay Area News Group poll found “that 70% of those able to work from home now want to stay out of the office most, if not all, of the time once the pandemic is over.”
So, at least in one large metropolitan area, a transition to remote work appears to be inevitable without government funding or encouragement. That said, government policies that could potentially slow this climate-friendly development deserve more careful scrutiny. These government policies include explicit and implicit subsidies for physical travel. For example, fares covered less than 10% of the cost of operating public transit in Santa Clara County before the pandemic. If this 90% travel subsidy was reduced or focused just on students and low-income passengers, more white-collar employees and their employers might opt for remote work.
On the other hand, policies that reduce the cost of accessing broadband networks can make it less expensive to work from home while taking advantage of advanced technology like VR. That said, direct broadband subsidies in recent federal legislation could result in waste. Encouraging greater competition among private providers is a more fiscally sustainable approach.
But, as long as governments do not get in the way, we can expect the megatrend of remote work to continue—yielding unexpected climate change-related dividends with minimal costs to taxpayers. The further development of VR and other advanced technologies promise to accelerate this welcome trend.