Axel Springer Tech
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Axel Springer Tech

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MEETING OF THE FREE SPIRITS IN VIRTUAL REALITY

A hybrid-model for remote work in (post) Covid times

The current pandemic situation — lasting for more than a year now — repeatedly confronts companies with various challenges. One of the biggest for sure is the high volume of home office work and the implications that come along with it: presence meetings are hardly possible at the moment, teams are being disrupted and even social isolation in certain degrees is to be observed.

Chris Krauß, Product Lead Immersive Technologies at Axel Springer National Media & Tech GmbH (short: NMT), has a possible solution: VR meetings. He suggests a hybrid-model for the future that embraces remote work also in post-Covid times.

Chris has led numerous innovation projects before and is currently rolling out a platform for immersive meetings in virtual reality to enhance the internal communication infrastructure at Axel Springer.

In this article he describes the execution of a test phase on ‘VR meeting rooms’ with 8 teams of NMT and reports on the partly astonishing results.

Meeting of the free spirits

“By means of ‘VR meeting rooms’ we re-enable team meetings on a meta level: in virtual reality!”, Chris explains. Just by setting up their VR headsets even strongly distributed teams can enter their personal virtual meeting rooms any time. There they can meet with other team members and work on their projects all together — no matter where in the (real) world they are.

In contrast to a video conference, in which events only take place on a flat 2D-monitor, the participants of a VR session have a fully immersive 360°-panorama view and can move freely in three dimensions. With a so-called avatar — a representation of themselves in the virtual world — they can interact with colleagues on a surprisingly high personal level. Overall the experience in VR basically corresponds to the natural perception in everyday’s life and offers an intensive interaction with the surrounding space and people. Furthermore, VR space is equipped with various presentation media such as monitors, whiteboards, notepads and so on. Therewith most of the use cases that come up in collaboration can be covered. It also offers a high level of naturality so that the “wellness factor”, the feeling of really BEING there and of WANTING to be there is quite high.

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Naturality in a virtual environment

And naturality indeed is an indispensable precondition for working in VR. “A VR-platform might have the most useful features and also the nicest usability but if the users don’t feel comfortable in the virtual environment, then they won’t use it”, Chris clarifies. So, at the time it became clear that an internal test phase would be executed to check out if VR meetings might be sufficient for the needs at Axel Springer, Chris and his team had to decide for a collaboration platform.

Therefore, they took a closer look at about 10 respective VR applications. Eventually, it was a platform from Finland named Glue that was favored against the other players. There they found the ideal combination of functionality on the one hand and gamification on the other hand. Next to the intuitive handling it was first of all the naturality which was convincing: “Smoothly modelled environment in the front and atmospheric 360° pictures in the back with little movements all over — that made the difference for us”, a team member states.

Another aspect which was important in the platform decision was the multi-functionality of the virtual rooms themselves. The big advantage of VR is that people are no longer bound to the limitations of reality. Also in this respect Glue reached the full score. The platform does not only offer a set of meeting rooms with chairs, tables and projection walls but also nice gathering places on a lonesome island or on top of a mountain. Putting it all together Chris and the whole team were convinced that Glue had the highest “feelgood factor” and therefore was elected as the VR collaboration platform for the upcoming inquiry at Axel Springer.

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Unleashing the power of VR

After deciding for a platform, Chris and his team kicked off a three months trial phase with roundabout 60 participants from 8 teams in Berlin and Hamburg. During the test the teams executed all kinds of relevant meetings: Scrum dailies, presentations, discussions, campfire talks, retrospectives and workshops of any kind. — This is what they found…

Not surprisingly, in times where teams suffer from Zoom Fatigue Syndrome was that VR is seen as a welcome alternative to 2D video conferencing. More than once Chris had been told by his colleagues: “VR brings back the fun”. He also found that VR can be used for various cases in such way that it is comparable or even better than 2D video conferencing. But the most convincing insight from the test was that the social link — which was about to fade away in home office — really could be re-connected within VR collaboration!

To avoid misunderstandings though, VR is not meant as a replacement of video conferencing but rather as an optional enhancement of the existing infrastructure within the company. The trial phase has uncovered various occasions where 2D video conferencing touches its limits or people are just tired of communicating with their colleagues via 10 square centimeter tiles. For such cases VR collaboration offers a new hybrid-model for remote work. In this regard, there is an important finding: Depending on the individual setup and processes of a team some of the named use cases work better than others. This is because no team is like the other: what works for one team does not necessarily work for another and vice versa. However, there is one use case which is suitable for all of them… the workshops. In workshop meetings VR unfolds its power to a 100%. There the two major strengths of VR can be directly experienced: the “wideness” of the space and the intense level of social interaction. In VR workshops both come together in a striking combination which really unleashes the MAGIC of a virtual reality experience!

“Imagine that”, Chris draws a mental picture: “You are sitting in your home office, alone — then putting your VR headset on… The next moment you find yourself among your colleagues in the middle of a workshop. All of you standing around a whiteboard, discussing issues, collecting your input, putting notes onto the board, importing pictures and 3D-models to visualize connections, maybe taking a little walk with one of the team members — moving away from the group just to chat about a topic, undisturbed and without disturbing the others. Try that in 2D… Kind of a challenge!”

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Insights from the test phase

During the whole test phase which had been split up into two six-week-shifts with four teams each, Chris has accompanied the teams in their virtual reality meetings. Often enough real world processes could not just be transferred 1:1 into VR, e.g. due to lower resolutions in the headsets or due to complete different fields of view in comparison to 2D-conferences. So, adaption was needed: In such cases Chris suggested the respective workarounds to uplift a meeting structure from reality into virtuality.

During VR sessions Chris also acted as a consultant in the background to explain the proper use of the headset or some specific VR features — especially in the beginning. After a while teams became more and more confident with the use of the platform and possibilities VR offers, so that Chris could reduce his level of support step-by-step. However, the whole test phase had been tracked by weekly surveys so that learnings and experiences could be collected over time. At the end of the trial the teams’ feedback had been analysed and established the basis on which a decision for or against a rollout of ‘VR meeting rooms’ should be considered.

Here is some of the most relevant feedback from the test phase in charts and numbers …

With the background of enhanced home office volumes testers had been asked if VR could re-create a better social connection among colleagues. More than 90% of the respondents affirmed this statement completely or in parts.

Can VR (re)create social connections between remote colleagues? (user feedback from the test phase)

A very important aspect Chris and his team wanted to learn about was the way in which a VR workshop had been experienced by the testers in comparison to a 2D video conference. Also here, more than 90% of the respondents confirmed a VR workshop better or at least comparable.

How does a VR workshop compare to a workshop held as a 2D video meeting? (user feedback from the test phase)

With regard to workshops executed in VR also the question came up in what way the social togetherness had been experienced especially in those virtual workshops. The feedback here was striking: Where roughly 50% of the answers suggested the feeling of social togetherness being better than in a video conference, almost 30% claimed it to be comparable to a real workshop and 5% even stated it as “better” than a workshop executed in reality. Taking into consideration that reality is the ultimate comparison for VR of course, such feedback is more than just a statement. It’s a massive compliment!

How does the feeling of social togetherness compare in a VR workshop compared to a 2D video call or a physical workshop? (user feedback from the test phase)

Finally Chris and his team wanted to know if or if not the testers would vote for a rollout of the ‘VR meeting rooms’. Again, they received a broad consensus since 93% of the respondents have spoken out in favor of the rollout.

For or against establishing VR meeting rooms? (user feedback from the test phase)

VR meeting rooms — our next steps

After the very positive feedback from the test phase, NMT management has decided to give it a GO and to roll out ‘VR meeting rooms’ effectively. Initially it will be implemented as an enhancement of the internal communication infrastructure just within NMT. But Chris’ vision goes far beyond that: “The plan is to offer the VR service to NMT initially, but to pass it over to further Axel Springer companies soon after. In taking the chance which the current exceptional circumstances provide by transforming presence-based processes into some form of virtual collaboration, we take Axel Springer another step further on the road of not just being perceived as a Media Company but becoming a Media TECH Company!”, he is convinced.

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