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Despite More Tech Tools for Working Remotely, Commutes Are Here to Stay

November 3, 2017

Odds are if you worked today, you also commuted.

You are not alone. According to the U.S. Census, over 139 million people traveled to work in 2014. And while the rise of long-distance workplace tools like Skype and Slack might make the end of commuting feel all but imminent for white-collar employees, we shouldn’t anticipate it anytime soon.

Here’s why: having employees work remotely has proved feasible for some businesses—but for many others, there is still no substitute for having workers in an office, interacting in the flesh and collectively creating a company culture. Silicon Valley firms deliberately foster a highly social environment, right down to the design of their buildings, which are meant to maximize chance encounters between employees. As Harvard Business Review notes, teams working on intricate tasks need time together in the same physical space so they don’t miss subtle nonverbal cues and are able to form tighter bonds that foster better performance.

Online tools have yet to replicate these social team experiences. Companies like Yahoo, Bank of America, Reddit, and IBM have tried out remote work programs on grand scales, only to later reduce or eliminate them. When Yahoo brought its employees back to their offices in 2013, the choice was explained thus: “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings.” Eight months later, the company reported increases in productivity and employee engagement.

Remote work has been on the rise over the past decade, but those who work completely from home and avoid regular commutes are still rare. Global Workplace Analytics estimates that just 2.8 percent of the U.S. workforce works from home at least half the time.

To end the commute for more workers, powerful technological tools currently on the fringes of consumer adoption must go mainstream. Virtual reality may be one of them. If VR researchers are able to achieve social presence—the feeling that people around you in VR are real, or at least real enough to be believable—remote work could receive another boost.

As Stanford University psychologist Jeremy Bailenson recently told Pacific Standard, “There’s a long line of research about social presence in VR that suggests that we tend to treat digital representations more or less as we would real people. In fact, even the mere belief that you are interacting with a real-time representation of another human makes you behave differently than you would if you were interacting with a computer algorithm.”

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