March 23, 2020
Remote work is a hot topic right now, as professionals around the world are currently working from home not by choice but out of necessity in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19 in our towns and cities. Before the quarantine, I had actually been doing a lot of research around remote work for working mothers in preparation for an upcoming blog post. Remote work has been positioned as an answer to several global issues, including economic inequality and even climate change (a climate-friendly alternative to daily commuting). Here are some thoughts, statistics, use cases and more that I found:
First and foremost, I’m not talking about just any kind of remote work. We are an augmented and virtual reality events company and so I’m particularly interested in the future of AR/VR-enabled remote work, which was perhaps one of the earliest recognized use cases for enterprise AR. A number of early Google Glass Explorers (circa 2014) created proofs of concept in which Glass enabled workers to connect with a remote expert (service technician and SME, doctor and specialist, etc.). There are many terms for this – remote assistance, remote guidance, remote collaboration – but it’s essentially telepresence, using the front-facing camera and microphone in a pair of smart (AR) glasses to share one’s view of a situation with a remotely-located expert, colleague or customer via live audio and point-of-view video.
Many of those early remote support cases revolved around enhancing service efficiency in the field, where technicians spend their days responding to issues as they arise. With a global shortage of skilled technicians, AR-enhanced remote support or see-what-I-see has allowed less experienced employees to show issues to remotely located veteran techs in real time. This allows remote over-the-shoulder coaching, and has helped increase first-time fix rates, reduce travel costs, decrease downtime, and train new technicians on the job without jeopardizing customer satisfaction.
The ability to share your view and collaborate in a virtual space with people in different locations will transform how many of us work. It’s not just about saving time and money, cutting down on travel, providing better customer service, or remaining productive when practicing social distancing. Remote working via AR/VR, from collaborating on a design in mixed reality to business meetings in virtual reality, might be the answer to a number of employment issues, including stagnating wages, the rising cost of living, and the child-care crisis.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg recently said: “By 2030, AR and VR telepresence could allow employees to work remotely from anywhere in the world, alleviating the affordable housing crisis of increasingly populated cities.” Considering the high cost of living, Zuckerberg's words hit home: “The ability to be ‘present’ anywhere will also help us address some of the biggest social issues of our day—like ballooning housing costs and inequality of opportunity by geography. Today, many people feel like they have to move to cities because that’s where the jobs are. But there isn’t enough housing in many cities, so housing costs are skyrocketing while quality of living is decreasing. Imagine if you could live anywhere you choose and access any job anywhere else.”
Women, especially working moms, would greatly benefit from the kind of XR-enabled remote working that Zuckerberg predicts. Consider the following:
- · On average, mothers make less than fathers. The 80 cents a woman earns to a man’s dollar drops to 71 cents for mothers across age groups, education levels and occupations. Fathers, on the other hand, earn more than men without children.
- · The pay gap for a heterosexual married couple doubles between the two years before the birth of Baby #1 and the year following that child’s birth, and then continues to grow for another five years.
- · African American and Latinx mothers earn around half of what a white dad earns.
- · Single mothers earn less than married moms across race and ethnicity.
This employment discrimination goes beyond gender: The U.S. is far behind other nations in terms of providing adequate workforce support like paid leave, affordable childcare, etc. This penalizes women with traditional care-giving responsibilities, who are only able to participate in the workforce if they have access to work-family support like childcare. Hence, working mothers are more likely to work part-time for lower pay and few (or no) benefits, single mothers have a higher unemployment rate, and women with children under five are more likely to quit or greatly alter their job (by cutting hours, for example).
In an economy (and society) that devalues care-giving, women do paid labor and a disproportionate amount of unpaid labor within the home. Though not viewed as economic output, this unpaid labor is essential to the overall functioning of the economy. New realities, however, could break down traditional work requirements and help create a more equal reality by allowing women to work flexibly and hold down good jobs from home. In an ideal world, remote work technologies would allow women to work for any company in the world from any city in the world. Employers would benefit, too: Not only are women incredibly valuable to the economy (if every woman in America stopped working for a day, it would cost the GDP over $20 billion) but flexible work arrangements make a company more competitive at a time when skilled labor is in high demand.
Bill Gates, another strong voice in tech, once predicted that as competition for talent gets tougher, “companies that give extra flexibility to their employees will have the edge.” Of course, remote support is not the same as remote work-from-home (WFH). I’ve seen several proofs of concept for virtual trading desks in finance and there are existing virtual reality business meeting and collaboration solutions like Spatial and MeetinVR (also personal computing VR/MR platforms), but outside of design and industrial service professions, XR-enabled remote working hasn’t taken off. Now, a global pandemic is showing that the technology isn’t really there for office workers and that AR and VR for more everyday work tasks has been largely overlooked.