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MPK20: Sun’s Virtual Workplace – 2nd Life for Work

Thanks to a post on the O’Reilly GMT blog I came across Sun’s MPK20 “virtual world/workspace”. Apparently some 50% of Sun staff work remotely at any given time and they’ve therefore taking the notion of ‘video-conferencing’ and collaboration a step further than conference calls, web-ex and emailing the latest version of a Powerpoint presentation to your colleagues.

Combining a ‘Second Life’/gaming world view, but sensibly concentrating on good quality audio and ‘conferencing in’ people from the ‘real world’ I can see that this could be a fun way to interact with colleagues from work while you’re remote.

However, I’m not sure that it offers that much more than a multi-person IM session – especially now that Skype offers great file sharing, video exchange (even when you’re not chatting) and a classy IM interface (so good that I now use it exclusively).

There’s a surreal joy in having an extended IM exchange (nearly synchronous) while watching the other person – seeing them laugh, gesticulate and point at things is really fun.

Using IM to interact with a group of people over a day also avoids the curse of “presentism” – ie physically “being there” in a meeting even if your brain’s mostly on idle or mulling the greater to-do list…

Having a meeting by sound/vision allows you to do other things while keeping an ‘ear’ on proceedings. Equally, collaborating via group IM allows people to chip in while also allowing the participants to //do// things as they ‘talk’ – this is particularly useful for small edits, bits of code, options etc. Rather than talk in a vacuum, add to a to-do list and then have to iterate madly later anyway, “doing things there and then” is a powerful way to make meetings into more of a ‘meeting of minds’ than a ‘gathering of people’.

In the past I’d have suggested collaboration tools like a wiki or Basecamp. but having spent a couple of hours last week working on a shared spreadsheet on Google Spreadsheets I was just blown away: the speed of updates, the rapid refreshing, the version control and rollback – just wonderful. Provided that you’re not all editing the same cell (that’s allowed – last edit ‘wins’) then it’s simply as if there are several minds and cursors all working at once on a document. Chatting all the while on Skype meant that we went from having an interesting chat with a ‘hangover’ of a major to-do item (“go and knock up the spreadsheet”) to having had a good chat, seen some hands-on issues that were not immediately apparent and actually getting a large chunk of the work completed.

My sort of meeting.

Whether using an avatar, virtual world, or telephone call and a shared document, the tools for remote working are increasingly sophisticated and capable. As a ‘free agent’ (aka officeless consultant) I appreciate these developments, but my remoteness from clients is often less than the distance between colleagues in the same building or across different offices. It’s only a matter of time until corporations outside the tech sector will need to engage with new working practices – and will of course benefit from so doing.