The implications of virtual and augmented reality are staggering, and the technology is closer than you think. Estimates show investments in AR and VR will increase from $5.2 billion in 2016 to $162 billion by 2020. Furthermore, augmented and virtual realities are on course to completely change the workforce, not just with office space usage or employee satisfaction and productivity, but the way we work entirely.

What comes to mind when you hear the words "virtual" or "augmented reality?" Perhaps you have a space-age vision of a cold, minimalist office, outfitted with weird gadgets. But in today's world, VR and AR can impact employee training, communication, productivity, customer service, and help streamline your office design.

There is a distinct difference between virtual and augmented reality. Both require similar devices to project or enhance what we already see and interact with--using wearables such as the Oculus Rift. However, VR transports you to an entirely different reality, while AR takes your existing environment and enhances it.

AR in particular has the potential to change industries such as advertising and manufacturing. The more wearables rise in popularity, the more opportunities companies have to embed augmentation into their products. Manufacturers using AR can give employees hands-on experience in real-world scenarios without disrupting the flow of an assembly line.

So what does this mean for your office design and how you move through your work day?

Reduce Open Office Distractions

Many offices have jumped into the open office trend, but studies are showing the distractions of such collaborative spaces are lowering employee productivity. VR may help us solve this dilemma. A virtual reality desktop that takes an employee into a created visual space would not only eliminate the need for multiple computer screens, it would block out pesky distractions. As an added bonus, the data many employees use could be represented in 3D, enhancing presentations as people can literally walk their colleagues through quarterly earnings graphics, a new project rendering, and more.

Coupling virtual reality desktops with modular stations and acoustic office furniture could help create the ideal working environment for both introverts and extroverts.

Bring Together Remote Teams

As remote working gains traction around the globe, that sense of isolation and distance from your colleagues could be eliminated with the use of VR conferences. You would be able to actually sit next to a team member in a meeting despite that person residing on another continent. This builds a true sense of collaboration even if you are separated by thousands of miles. In fact, the office of the future could very well be entirely virtual.

For now, outfitting smaller conference spaces or nooks with VR reduces the need for a larger, fancier conference rooms. This could be useful if you don't have a lot of stakeholders visiting the company office and the room could be better suited for another purpose.

Improve Employee Training

VR and AR have the potential to revolutionize employee training. Many people learn best by doing rather than seeing--or reading a manual. Training programs using augmented reality can improve learning curves as employees get the opportunity to do their work with training overlays showing on their virtual display, increasing information retention and providing the employee with actual experience in a safe environment so when they complete training, they can hit the ground running. This will save companies money while giving the employee a more complete learning environment so they're better equipped for the job in a shorter time. With such enhanced training, employee confidence gets a boost and overall productivity rises.

Take a look at your current training room set-up and perform a quick audit with HR or operations to decide whether introducing AR or VR training is right for your workforce.

Rethink Company Culture

Such systems can be used to improve relations between C-suite executives and their employees as well, making the working relationship more personal in ways that haven't been possible before. When employees feel connected, productivity goes up, creativity thrives, and turnover decreases. With better training by managerial staff, your employees are poised to outstrip competition, and they're more willing to adapt to technologies, giving an overall industry advantage to your company.

Needing to connect East Coast and West Coast offices with a mentoring day, training, or talk? Virtual or augmented reality could take you there and increase the goodwill and feeling of teamwork between branches or satellite offices.

The potential is endless. By augmenting or completely replacing our reality in the workplace, the limits of the physical vastly reduce or entirely disappear, making creation, collaboration, and imagination the most valued assets we have. If we take away our walls and let our computers become the office space in which we work, then we are only constrained by what our technology can do for us, and based on what's happening in the VR and AR industry, the future looks very bright indeed

Published on: Jul 27, 2017
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.