The organization has been experimenting for a year now in what we call “the fourth space”: the new (collaborative) workplace that opens up the world of Virtual Reality. In the spring we decided to take a leap of faith with this organization by using the full power of VR as a collaboration platform during an agile sprint (a production cycle of two weeks) with two IT teams. The goal: discover how Virtual Reality can promote collaboration within the teams. It turned out to be a journey full of positive surprises. In this blog we tell about the journey we have been through with the teams. And we share lessons on how to use VR for team collaboration.
Observation of the sprint in traditional form
To ensure that the sprint in VR fits in well with the working methods of the two IT teams, we observed an entire sprint. We were present at all important ceremonies, such as the sprint planning and the refinement. During these ceremonies, we took extensive notes of the activities that were performed and of the interactions between team members. This way, we had a clear idea of which ceremonies were a good fit for Virtual Reality. For example, we decided not to do every daily stand-up in VR, as they are very short. This makes the start-up time for collaboration relatively long. Additionally, we got a good impression which factors we wanted to significantly improve with the use of VR. Communication via video was too often one-way traffic. Many cameras were off and the focus was not always on point. In the limited medium that is video calling, team development did not manage to flourish all too well. This is not something that should be neglected, as the team works from home at least 2 days a week.
Preparation of the Sprint in VR
After the observation it was time for the preparation phase, which included a few important activities. First of all, a detailed schedule. This way we get an overview of the moments of the sprint where Virtual Reality will be used. For each of the agile ceremonies, we also decide what type of VR environment is the most suitable. During this sprint we used two different types of environments: one for ceremonies where screen sharing was important, and one for activities in which we could mainly use the ‘open space’ of Virtual Reality.
In addition to the planning, there is also a logistical puzzle: we want to ensure that the VR headsets arrive without problems for all team members of the two IT teams. We collect all the required information for this, and then send our headsets throughout the country. After all headsets arrived at their destination, there were extensive onboarding sessions in small groups to ensure that everyone mastered the basics of working in VR.
At the end of the preparation phase, we made sure that everything was ready for use. The rooms within the VR applications were prepared and we checked that all functionalities worked properly, such as our screen sharing workaround.
The kickoff for the collaboration in Virtual Reality
Tuesday April 12th was the day; the start of the sprint. The first ceremony that took place was what every sprint starts with: the sprint planning. It was an exciting moment to all come together in the virtual space for the first time. What will the dynamics be like … and will nobody get a technical problem? Fortunately, it went without any problems, and all participants quickly got used to the new environment. Not too long afterwards, the team started to focus on making the planning.
During the planning, the backlog was reviewed and after some discussion a concrete plan was drawn up. We quickly noticed an improvement in communication during this session. For example, there was considerably more discussion between team members compared to the sprint planning that took place in a 2D meeting application. These interactions created more clarity, which caused the planning to run more smoothly. Where a sprint planning normally took 2.5 hours, this sprint planning was finished within 1.5 hours. A significant saving of time, thanks to a more focused conversation.
Marching on with collaborating in VR
This positive trend continued during the first refinement session, which followed two days after the sprint planning. This session started with everyone in one central room, after which presentations were given in two breakout rooms. These presentations gave context about parts of the sprint where adjustments were needed. After the presentation rounds, the results of the breakout rooms were discussed. Afterwards, the adjustments to the sprint were made. Once again, many team members were positive about the fluidity of the VR session. A number of team members commented that it really feels like you are together, with the effect that you pay more attention to each other. In addition, many team members were very positive about the audio: you understand each other better, but you can also talk in parallel with your neighbor and with someone further away, by using your voice as you would in a physical space.
“I think this is absolutely fantastic, I love the sound and you notice that people really look at you the moment you say something.”
The experiences during the first days of the sprint motivated the agile IT teams to continue the same upward trend for the rest of the sprint. For example, the teams started to organize sessions in VR independently, including daily stand-ups, something that we ourselves saw as less promising before the start of the sprint. On our side, we made sure that the rest of the program upheld the high quality that we strive towards in every assignment we do. For example, there was a knowledge session in which people learned about different code structures, and we organized a work session to prepare the demo. Occasionally there were minor technical problems with headsets, but we were able to resolve them quickly with personal assistance.
The final phase: the demo in VR
During the last day of the sprint, the demo was the first activity on the schedule. During the demo, the most important developments from the sprint were presented. A number of external stakeholders were also present at this session. This turned out to be a tough session. We mainly encountered problems with combining participants who wanted to join from Webex with the participants who were present in VR. As a result, certain people could not hear each other, which led to communication problems and delays. A clear learning moment for us. Participants can participate in Virtual Reality meetings from 2D, but then it is better not to combine applications, but to do so from one environment.
After the demo, we closed the sprint with a retrospective. During the retrospective it became clear that the IT teams look back with enthusiasm on the sprint in VR. Many felt the sense of closeness, noticed an improvement in concentration and ease of communication. All in all, it was considered a significant improvement over the 2D meeting application that was commonly used. The added value of Virtual Reality was clearly visible, which is why the teams indicated that they would like to continue with it. Not just as a gimmick, but as a serious addition to the hybrid way of working.
Key take-aways for hybrid working in VR
What are the most important learnings for us from this assignment, which we can (continue to) use in the future for other pioneering (agile) teams in VR? This can be summarized in the following points:
- Having guts is key. These are the first teams that dared to do their actual work together in a 3D environment. That goes beyond just trying out or playing with VR. This sprint makes it a serious productivity tool. Or as Meta calls it: a VR Infinite Office.
- An observation period is very important in this type of assignment. It facilitates the time needed to discover the different dynamics within the teams and to recognize any challenges in time. During this assignment, for example, it was a challenge to connect the customer’s working environment to the VR applications we work with. Because we recognized this early during the observation, we had enough time to find a suitable solution for this before the start of the VR sprint.
- We already wrote about this in another blog; the VR applications we work with are developing at lightning speed. This means that as experts we have to move quickly with these updates to ensure that we offer customers the best experience at all times. Just before the start of the sprint, there was a significant update in one of the applications. For instance: the possibility to stream video including audio within a VR collaboration space.
- Finally, during this assignment we clearly saw the effect of mutual learning. Where we first did onboarding sessions individually, we did it in small groups during this assignment. It proved to be a valuable adjustment as members of both teams learned the basics more quickly based on feedback they gave each other. During the sprint there were many moments when similar knowledge exchanges took place. As a result, no one was significantly behind in VR skills.