Since the rise of the Internet, we report working from home more than we did before. But computers and smartphones didn’t replace the office—they’ve just kept us tethered to it when we’re not there. The vast majority of us still travel to work most days: only about 2.8 percent of the total workforce says they work from home “at least half the time.” It’s a reality reflected in commuting data: Since 1980, when the U.S. Census Bureau started collecting data on this issue, the average daily commute of Americans has increased roughly 20 percent, with the typical worker now commuting over 26 minutes each way. According to data from Waze, Google’s traffic app, there are regions like Sarasota, Florida, and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where the average worker commutes over an hour and half.
Commuting wastes resources. It’s bad for the environment. It’s unproductive time that we’re not paid for. It costs us money. It’s stressful. It’s associated with higher rates of depression, obesity, cardiovascular disease, divorce, death, and a whole host of other maladies. We report we hate it more than anything else in our routines and that we’re happier when we get to more regularly work from home.
Social science points to the importance of face-to-face interaction for worker productivity. The principal-agent model in economics, for instance, stresses the need of employers to monitor and incentivize workers to make sure they’re not slacking on the job. Studies have shown that teams who work together face-to-face, as opposed to via email, are more productive when doing complex tasks. Being physically close helps us bond, show emotions, problem solve, and spontaneously come up with ideas.
Most scholars who study this area, he says, are in agreement that a significant amount of information is conveyed non-verbally. Many of these non-verbal channels, like body language, facial expressions, and eye movements, are lost with email, instant messaging, and even Skype. This is especially the case when meetings involve multiple people.
But Bailenson, who founded and directs Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, has spent more than a decade studying a technology that he believes could finally overcome these limitations: virtual reality (VR). When it comes to creating a virtual office so good it could eliminate the need to commute, Bailenson says, the Holy Grail is achieving what is known by psychologists as “social presence.” That’s the state of mind in VR in which users are able to experience digital avatars of people as if they’re actual people.
Bailenson and his associates have spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to increase social presence in virtual reality. They’ve found, for instance, that people perform tasks better when avatars look, sound, and even feel like flesh-and-blood human beings. Their findings support the idea that the virtual office could become a more solid business model. “If we can nail what I call ‘the virtual handshake,’ the subtle, non-verbal pattern of eye-contact, interpersonal distance, posture, and other critical nuances of group conversations,” he says, “then we finally have a chance to put the commute in our rear-view mirror.”