Will virtual reality ever be able to replicate meaningful human connection? (Getty Royalty Free)
That all extroverts are outgoing party animals is a common misconception. But it’s true they perform well under pressure and tend to have higher self-esteem than introverts, hence why they thrive in social situations.
So spare a thought for the extroverts of the laptop nomad tribe, who work from home all alone, imbibing office culture and holding down friendships through the digital workplace.
The trade-off is good of course - greater freedom, more time with family, and relief from the daily grind, which explains why regular telecommuting is high on the employee wishlist.
But, while virtual working is on the rise, workplace technology can’t yet fulfill our deep-rooted desires for real and meaningful human connections with our colleagues.
There is just no good substitute for actually being there, yet.
Cue virtual reality, which developers are pinning all their hopes on.
In the years to come, it's likely we’ll all be represented at work by our avatars, inhabiting a highly realistic workplace in the metaverse - no commuting required.
It’s still too early to tell whether extroverts will thrive or wither in this environment, but one small study suggests they’re going to be far needier than introverts.
Facebook IQ commissioned consultancy firm Neurons Inc. to do a study of 60 US adults, which was undertaken in October 2016. They wanted to see how people responded cognitively and emotionally when conversing in virtual reality while wearing an Oculus headset, compared to having a face-to-face conversation.
The study analyzed brain signals and measured the level of comfort and engagement in a conversation with a real stranger in avatar form in a virtual train carriage. The participants, especially the introverts, responded positively to meeting in VR and were able to establish authentic relationships in the environment.
Introverts were more positive about their VR interactions than extroverts, in one study (Getty Royalty Free)
But it found one notable difference. After their conversations, 83% of introverts wanted to be friends with their new virtual train buddy, compared to just 57% of extroverts.
What was it about these interactions that failed to socially stimulate extroverts as much as introverts?
The study mentioned that some participants remarked VR could reduce appearance-based judgments. That’s interesting, as high self-esteem is linked to extroversion. Therefore, it’s fair to guess that introverts with low levels of confidence might perform well socially when shrouded by an avatar.
And you can imagine how confident you’d feel if your work avatar was a nine feet tall glowing semi-giant clad in indestructible power armor.
My guess is that avatars will need to appear far more convincingly 'human' to meet the needs of extroverts, replicating every eye twitch and mouth movement of the headset’s wearer.
Indeed, a 2011 study found that faces have increased motivational significance for individuals characterized by high extroversion.
Until then, extroverts working remotely in the digital workplace will either need to lean more heavily on live video – currently the next best option for meaningful interactions with co-workers – or show up at the office more.
And businesses need to consider, seriously, the impact of distance and isolation for those members of the workforce who rank higher on the extrovert spectrum. More needs to be done by employers to raise awareness internally that remote working is not for everyone.
The good news is that tech makers are on the case. At the recent Oculus 5 conference, Andrew Bosworth, vice president of AR & VR at Facebook, gave a speech on the potential of virtual reality in the workplace in which he emphasized that human connection needed to be at the heart of its development.
In the video above, Bosworth concedes that VR development, until recently, has been mainly focused on its isolationist and escapist qualities, and overly focused on video gaming. But he adds that the true potential of this technology is much bigger and that developers now need to turn their attention to creating deep human connections.
For those of us who consider ourselves futurists, it isn’t hard to see what is on the horizon - a remote workplace that doesn’t feel remote at all.
Whether VR is a new dawn for the age of the introvert, or whether it develops to cater to extroverts, a workplace of avatars with infinite customizations will certainly make casual Friday a lot more interesting.