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A tour of the remote-work industrial complex

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A man working on his laptop computer at home.

People are likely to be working from home for some time, so some employers are investing in services like feng shui consulting and virtual reality. Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP via Getty Images

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The delta variant of the coronavirus has made it pretty clear that for many white-collar workers, remote work is here to stay.

Companies are now getting serious about making it work well, rather than simply making it work, and they’re increasingly looking to hire someone to help. The remote work industrial complex has arrived, with an army of consultants offering everything from white papers to feng shui strategies to make productivity and profits soar.

Massachusetts-based company the Predictive Index has worked with major corporations like Nissan and Subway to screen job applicants with a personality assessment.

It’s a more scientific version of a BuzzFeed quiz, like the ones that tell you which Harry Potter house you belong to. But instead of Gryffindors and Hufflepuffs, there are work personality types like “mavericks” and “collaborators.”

Work personality assessments have been around for decades. But now the Predictive Index offers tips on how to manage certain personality types remotely — who should lead the Zoom meeting, who could use a couple of texts a day for encouragement, for instance.

“Our workforce now just got a lot more complicated,” said Matt Poepsel, the Predictive Index’s vice president of partner growth. “So now I need to think, ‘How can I set up the brainstorm exercise that allows my introverts to participate equally with my extroverts?'”

I took the personality assessment and came back as a “craftsman” — a task-oriented rule lover who hates being interrupted. I don’t really enjoy remote work, and it’s been a struggle. Poepsel said he can tell from the test why that is.

If Marketplace hired the Predictive Index for a consultation, Poepsel would have a few suggestions: “Expense a WeWork so you can be around other people,” he said.

That won’t be happening anytime soon. I’m going to be working out of my bedroom for the foreseeable future, and there’s just not much space.

Not to worry, though. There’s another consultant for that.

Francoise Courty-Dan runs Los Angeles-based One World Feng Shui. Courty-Dan is as busy as she’s ever been. “The large companies will reach out to me, wanting workshops,” she said. “So we had Zoom workshops with up to 100 employees.”

Courty-Dan also does private consultations. In analyzing my makeshift work-from-home space, she gave me some advice I was anticipating, like add a houseplant.

Then she gave me some advice I wasn’t expecting: “Here I see, sleeping to the east. I see extramarital affairs,” she said. “And I need to tell you something else. Every single time I have seen this energy, it happens.”

I guess a $400 feng shui consultation could save you a fortune in future alimony payments. But adding a well-placed succulent and rotating the bed isn’t going to make my room feel that much bigger. If only I could change my location … without actually changing my location. 

Enter virtual reality. Christoph Fleischmann is chief executive of Arthur Technologies, a VR startup that creates virtual meeting rooms.

He’s in Vienna, while I’m in California. But via the Mark Zuckerberg-financed miracle of an Oculus headset, I am able to feel like I’m in the same room as a three-dimensional avatar of Fleischmann. Or at least half of him.

“We had to get rid of our legs, unfortunately. Sounds really dystopian,” he said. “But it allows us to get a lot more people in.”

The tech is cool. You can write on floating whiteboards with your hand, and then swat them away like a Jedi knight. You can hold team check-ins in what looks like a James Bond villain lair in the Swiss Alps or a more traditional office space, complete with fake fluorescent lights.

But beyond the novelty, why would a company pay up to $100 per user per month when it could just Zoom?

“Everyone can be active at the same time,” Fleischmann said. “I can pull someone aside, have a side chat.”

Or a high-energy brainstorm. No more of that Zoom round robin — you go, then I go, then she goes.

PricewaterhouseCoopers and the United Nations use the technology, and Fleischmann said it’s only a matter of time before virtual reality gets good enough to read body language and facial microexpressions.

For now, though, your boss can’t tell in VR whether you’re rolling your eyes or not.

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