Three years from now, I sit down in front of my computer at precisely nine o’clock. Not 9:01 or, god forbid, 9:05—it’s company policy that my webcam is on from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (We use Zoom version 101.4, but my friend’s company uses one by Google, another friend, from Microsoft. After the pandemic, every tech giant quickly jumped into the corporate video conference game.) My own avatar greets me: block-shaped brown hair and exaggerated blue eyes on a round bobble head that dwarfs my body, draped in a pink dress that, thanks to my spotty internet connection, gets pixelated real fast.
On my screen, a neatly arranged office emerges. My fellow coworkers’ Animal Crossing-esque avatars sit at wooden desks in a row—one even has hers adorned with virtual peonies. Floor to ceiling windows show rolling hills in the distance, and there’s even a lovely rock garden in the center of the floor. My editor’s virtual form skips over. “Want to chat?” She types. “Sure!” I write back, accepting her invitation. A video chat screen pops up, and she morphs into a real person. Our faces hang against the same navy blue background—standard stuff in corporate America nowadays: after wealth discrepancies between the C-suite and the average employee became painfully apparent, showing the inside of your home became a workplace taboo. (Even more so than sharing your salary.) “So let’s talk about your most recent story,” she begins.
Twitter made headlines when, in May, it announced its “work from home forever” policy. Facebook soon followed suit, with Mark Zuckerberg projecting that 50 percent of Facebook employees could be working remotely within the next 5-10 years. Shopify CEO Tobi Lutke tweeted that his company was now “digital by default.” The coronavirus, it seems, accelerated an inevitable trend.
In many ways, the digitization of the corporate American office seems like a win-win: Companies—especially those based in prohibitively expensive cities— can save money on real estate. Employees, in turn, don’t need to live in those prohibitively expensive cities, and can skip their dreaded commute. Plus, the arrangement gives workers, especially those with children, a more flexible schedule beyond the rigid 9 to 5.
And perhaps it would be WFH utopia if working remotely wasn’t, well, so . . . terrible. Zoom fatigue is real. (having to engage in a “constant gaze” makes us uncomfortable — and tired, found the Harvard Business Review.) A 2020 study found that remote workers struggled with collaboration and communication, as well as loneliness. Then there’s the self-complexity theory: we give ourselves roles (friend, mother, manager) that we separate cognitively. Now, they’re all occurring in the same space—our homes—and this dissonance makes us unhappier.
But it doesn’t need to always be like this. In fact, says Dr. Jose Luis García del Castillo Lopez, a professor at Harvard Graduate School of Design, our online offices could be more like the one described above.
Del Castillo Lopez teaches computational architecture—or, building by algorithm—as well as the design of digital frameworks. (Essentially—while other contemporaries use pen and paper, he works with data and code to define virtual and physical worlds.) And here’s his thought: what if architects built workspaces that people actually want to inhabit?
“We’re still sitting in front of Zoom six, seven hours a day. That’s really just a physical proxy. Instead, we should be asking— ‘How can we design digital spaces for people to inhabit them, for people to relate to each other, for people to communicate?’ That is the exact same question that architecture has been trying to answer for centuries. It’s never been just about masonry and working stone.”
He continues: “How awesome would it be to create an environment with three-dimensionals forms that you can inhabit? Where you can actually relate to people?”
The technology, he points out, exists. Look at Minecraft, Fortnite, and Animal Crossing, all palatable places to co-exist and socialize within. So what’s stopping us from working like we play? “We create 3-D environments in video games. We walk around and visit people, open doors, walk up the stairs, whatever. There’s no reason we can’t use this technology to create environments that are basically representations of offices,” says del Castillo Lopez.
Will the world’s businesses adapt? Del Castillo Lopez thinks so. In some ways, it’s already started. During the coronavirus pandemic, video games have already become substitutes for IRL social interaction prohibited by the pandemic. Reference Festival, a Berlin-based fashion organization, hosted a fashion show on Animal Crossing. College students with cancelled graduations hosted ceremonies on their island. Travis Scott hosted a concert on Fortnite, which was watched by almost 28 million people. Meanwhile, Balmain’s Olivier Rousteing showed off avatar models in his virtual designs on Instagram. (Some cultures, and their corporations, may be quicker to adapt than others: del Castillo Lopez points out that avatar representation is already much more commonplace in Asian countries.)
But although the changing tides are slow, they also seem inevitable after coronavirus. As del Castillo Lopez puts it, “The whole world has realized that we can have a digital life.”