Reimagining the Virtual Office, Part 2

by Ben Gaddis

I recently started reimagining the possibilities of our virtual office — you know, that place in your home that you roll out of bed and into, prepped (from the waist up) for a day of endless Zoom calls. In Part 1, I explored how we could enhance our video chats and design for serendipitous drop-ins. But now, I want to push that concept a bit further. 

Let’s contemplate not only how we might replicate what happens in the real world, but how we can go beyond it. 

How do we do that? AI.

I know what you’re thinking: “AI is for the super techy folks or limited to home listening devices like Alexa. They’re not the stuff of everyday office work.” Perhaps that’s been AI’s role to date, but I don’t believe it’s our future. 

I recently predicted that someone other than Zoom would shake up the virtual office/video chat space in the next 12 to 18 months by creating an experience that’s better than in-person human interaction. That company will throw out the constant that virtual tools should mimic the face-to-face experience and instead make it even better. We don’t need to focus on adoption — we’re all convinced. Instead, we can work to enhance the experience.

The future of video conferencing isn’t just Zoom with better backgrounds (though I do appreciate the creativity!). The future of the virtual office, and meetings in general, demands an experience that enhances what we can do in person.

Why AI Is the Future of Meetings

The new work-from-home paradigm has highlighted many things — how much we hate to commute, how valuable teachers are, how unnecessary bank branches are — and today I want to add one more to that list: how inefficient meetings are

Harvard Business Review surveyed senior managers and found that 65 percent said meetings keep them from completing their work, 71 percent said meetings were unproductive, 64 percent said meetings operate at the expense of deep thinking, and 62 percent said meetings miss the opportunity to bring the team closer together. In short: virtual meetings aren’t the problem. ALL meetings are ripe for a disruptive upgrade.

We’re currently scheduling and assigning tasks during meetings, while the actual work is relegated to a separate time. AI technology — that largely already exists — could change that.

I propose 3 distinct AI features that, if combined into one product, would supercharge and maximize the productivity of meetings:

1. The AI Personal Assistant

The AI Personal Assistant takes on all the menial tasks of the meeting — anything that might direct someone’s attention away from the substance of the meeting. AI-enabled dictation and note taking, similar to what Jog does, would free up at least one person in the meeting to converse and contribute ideas, not just record what’s happening. It would also assist in task management and scheduling to optimize everyone’s time during and after the meeting. 

2. The AI Producer

The AI Producer acts as your own personal production executive. It conducts on-demand research, providing historical data, images, facts and figures, statistics and insights to guide and enhance the conversation. The people in the meeting can then select what they want to keep and where they want the AI to dig further, without diverting their attention from each other. This is inspirational brainstorming on steroids, supplying the meeting with more content, context, and creativity.  

3. The AI Data Analyst

Most meetings — both in person and virtual — are currently a bit haphazard, which is why both managers and general attendees complain about them. The AI Data Analyst can apply a strategic, scientific approach to meeting optimization. Vocal tone, body language, attendance, individual speaking time, and spatial configuration are all analyzed, with data and suggestions for improvement reported after every meeting.The AI Data Analyst could also serve as the moderator, setting the agenda for the meeting and keeping the group on task. Bonus: all of this optimization will ultimately require fewer meetings!

The best meetings are often the ones where the work gets completed during that scheduled time. But that is a rarity, regardless of where or how we’re meeting. AI technology can change that. (Fortunately, we’re still a ways away from replacing ALL the humans in the meeting…for now.)

Virtual > In-Person?

For virtual meetings to become the default preferred format, we’ll need the help of these AI assistants to make the virtual better than the in-person. Then, once we are able to gather together in a room again (weird…), we can be more productive and fully present.

Most current virtual office technology companies are merely trying to replicate the in-person experience, so to become one of the top 20 most valuable companies in the world (as I predicted), this new company will need to go beyond replication and start enhancing it — with AI. 

Thanks to the insanity of 2020, we’re all digitized. We don’t need to be convinced of the ease and merits of the virtual world, which makes layering our work and meetings with smarter technology a simple sell. Once the physical world opens up again, it’s likely we’ll be wanting to bring a bit of that virtual efficiency with us, integrating the digital into our physical interactions, regardless of the context. 

The current video services are all replicating each other, engaging in a race to the bottom. This thing that I’m imagining is not that. Someone else — someone new and different — will embrace irrationality and win. It took a pandemic to change the way we meet, and it’ll take some irrational visionaries to improve on those changes and make them stick. 

Are you seeing any early rumblings of the company I’m predicting? Who’s already playing in this space? Let me know!


Ben Gaddis