Can Virtual Reality Become Corporate Reality?

A technology used mostly for gaming is being introduced to make remote meetings virtual. It comes with great promise—and problems.

Remember in-person meetings? Colleagues could move around the room, draw on whiteboards, and share documents. Remote coworkers could join in via teleconferencing, filling up the meeting with dozens.

A version of all this is becoming possible again—with virtual reality. Although the technology isn’t new and has long been a mainstay in digital gaming, some experts are hoping that the now-prolonged pandemic will force firms to make it a new reality for the corporate world. Just recently, Facebook beta launched Horizon Workrooms, a remote meeting app that allows colleagues wearing VR headsets to choose their own avatars and join a virtual room with others. “The benefit is that it transports you into another world,” says Albertina Vaughn, a Korn Ferry senior client partner in leadership solutions. “The immersive environment feels like you’re in the office, not at your dining room table.”

To be sure, there are limitations and issues. The app uses Oculus Quest 2 headsets, which cost $300 each, and experts worry that many executives will balk at learning a new system, as they did with Zoom when the pandemic first struck. Reviews describe the technology setup as “clunky,” requiring downloading and linking up different accounts and pairing headsets. “People assume that videoconferences are similar to meetings because everybody is there and they can talk,” says David Gibbons, a Korn Ferry senior client partner in leadership development and technology. “But actually, it’s just a series of one-to-one conversations.”

For now, VR is inadequate for large or lengthy meetings. Horizon Workrooms allows up to 16 people (though another 34 can log in via webcam), and many users say the attention span for it is typically one or two hours, not all day. Also, a small but consistent number of people find the headsets difficult to tolerate. “My wife can’t wear them because she gets dizzy,” notes Gibbons.

In the past, companies that set up virtual rooms did so mainly for special projects. For example, a pharmaceutical company might build a virtual lab to train technicians worldwide on how to handle vaccines. Now, Horizon Workrooms opens up access for day-to-day uses like team or board meetings. The rooms incorporate spatial audio, which means you can lean over and quietly talk to the person next to you without interrupting the meeting. Coworkers’ hand motions and fidgeting are visible, but not their minute facial expressions.

Vaughn says the engagement pays practical dividends for those without the luxury of a dedicated, uninterrupted remote workspace. Coworkers can’t see pets, children, or your, ahem, casual appearance. Gibbons adds that VR is often well-suited for group collaborations, seeing or touching prototypes, and both teaching skills and making difficult sales pitches. VR is often valuable for hybrid meetings where equal face time matters. “At the end of the day, the people who aren’t face-to-face are going to miss out, unless there’s some technology that levels the playing field,” says Vaughn.

The key to smart utilization is for leaders to ask themselves what a meeting is trying to accomplish, says Bradford Frank, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Technology practice. Is it an exchange of information? A demonstration? Brainstorming? Face time for a hybrid group? Based on that, he says, a manager can pick what’s most appropriate: phone, videoconferencing, or VR.