Soft Skills, Hard Reality: VR, the remote tool we've been waiting for?

11/30/2017 02:30 pm ET Updated Jan 05, 2018

Virtual reality could be the equalizer digital nomads need

Photo: Patrick Tomasso

Leading this year’s prediction deluge with a new report, McKinsey suggests that the future of work is built on a bedrock of so-called “soft skills” — logic and reason, leadership, emotional intelligence, flex communication, that sort of thing. Basically, anything that helps us work well with others without dragging down the team.

Developing soft skills in real-time office situations is doubly hard for digital nomads. To stay competitive, we’ll need technology that keeps us productive, sociable and likable — a new kind of tech that “saves face.”

One emerging trend with remote written all over it is virtual reality, or VR. It’s a matter of time before every workplace has the wherewithal to adopt what could be the industry standard in 20 years or less (think computers in the 80s). Futurist Ray Kurzweil predicts that brain-computer interfaces will precipitate a more ubiquitous workplace where we jack in whenever, from wherever — similar to how we use our phones, but more immersive.

Advances in tech are known to increase opportunity over time, and it’s believed that the current shift in labor demand poses no serious threat. But given the lingering digital divide and culture of competition, it’s clear that not everyone will acquire new skills or master the next game-changing technology. That’s why digital nomads have so much to gain by getting ahead of the trend.

Following Kurzweil’s prediction, VR will make physical workplaces obsolete, replacing commutes with headsets. Jacking in for work will eventually be a thing, even on Mondays. (That said, I’m not sure how it would play out in line at Starbucks.)

For onsite workers withering in their seats, a transition to VR could spell a new Emancipation Proclamation. For digital nomads, however, VR could provide a considerable advantage, and we should be thrilled. More than a third of the US workforce freelances in some form. That’s 55 million people. Barring health concerns, VR could boost productivity for nomads while downgrading the effects of isolation. Research suggests that those who suffer from loneliness are prone to serious health problems. VR could bring loners into the fold, infusing creativity and a sense of community into the daily routine.

Facial and behavioral cues, however subtle, are the currency we use to navigate social contexts, especially professional settings. VR could democratize the uptake of soft skills by giving remote workers more face time with colleagues — constructive, especially for those prone to social anxiety. It’s good for bosses, too. If VR can distill empathy in billionaire donors and heads of state, think about what it can do for employee relations.

If soft skills are the panacea they’re made out to be, VR could be the equalizer nomads need: a way to interact that facilitates more productivity, collaboration and innovation, wherever in the world we happen to be.

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