By Heidi Biggs
Even though she claims her thesis was not ‘entirely inspired by Covid,’ after a year of being forced into an alternative reality where many/most white-collar workers transitioned to working online, Fei Shao’s thesis about futuristic approaches to remote work felt a little like she was addressing a collective trauma. In her thesis, Shao designs a future scenario where remote work happens through mixed reality (MR) and is thoughtfully designed. Her vision of work, which is less screen-oriented and considers the mundane but oh-so-missed casual social interactions of water cooler talk and the occasional happy hour, ultimately ends up feeling like a wish for a do-over or a rebuttal to the litany of everything that stunk about working remotely all year. Simultaneously, this project seems to speak to the irreversible normalization of longer-term or permanent remote work post-Covid. By designing speculative technology for the workplace around the same time as the extreme dystopic scenario of a global pandemic, Shao also captured an emerging paradigm of work and the complexities it introduces. As white-collar workers were pushed into prolonged work from home arrangements, Shao’s thesis formalized the (oft critiqued) ever-more-blurry boundaries between work and personal life brought about through more ubiquitous technologies. Ultimately, her thesis asks: moving forward, what about work can move to the home successfully (and perhaps less successfully) and how can MR facilitate more robust spatial and social working arrangements within the ever-more-common home office.
Shao studied architecture at the China Academy of Art, and her thesis is an example of interaction design with architectural sensibilities as she engages interactions where technologies merge with architectural spaces and spatial relationships. She employed an earnestly iterative approach, moving between research and design phases at an impressive speed that covered a lot of conceptual ground. I bring this up because I think there is a temptation to construct a clean narrative at the end of the design process, where the weaving, exploration, and wooliness can be lost, but I was impressed by how interwoven Shao’s final iteration felt – a feeling one might miss if only the end product was seen. Through an initial set of semi-structured interviews, Shao explored the shift from architectural, physical workplaces to remote and digital interactions. She uncovered emerging digital social cues, the interpersonal complexities of working from home, and workers’ most cherished objects in their home offices. These interviews revealed that while at first remote work might seem great (I don’t have to commute!), in the longer term, the different physical spaces and lack of proximity to coworkers significantly shifted workplace relations. To reflect on these findings, she created a set of speculative hardware design concepts that critically reflect aspects of what is lost when work moves completely online. Her concepts included playful ideas such as an ‘eye contact simulator,’ which tracks eye movement during Zoom meetings and connects people who lock gazes in a private chat, or the ‘chit chat mug,’ which is a mug with an embedded intercom that pairs available co-workers together for a chat over coffee when both parties are deemed to have worked long enough.
Moving into her final design phase, Shao pivoted slightly to imagine the home office in a near-future where MR glasses are ubiquitous. Including findings from previous lines of inquiry, she began to focus more exclusively on the ways in which physical proximity to others and spatial relationships (like a lunchroom or happy hour) are lost in remote work and how MR interactions might be used to replicate them in the home. After conducting a creative Figma-based workshop and ideating through various work-from-home scenarios, Shao synthesized her concept for a MR home office using a speculative design video prototype. Unlike a Microsoft reel about the future of work or Corning’s A Day Made of Glass, which are glistening utopias, Shao’s concept video is both conceptually plausible and futuristic, while maintaining some of the unresolved feelings, complexities and subtle critiques explored during her longer research process. Her video walks through the first day of a slightly introverted new employee named Bob. She shows his onboarding process (demonstrating pragmatic work interactions), his ambivalence about attending a digital happy hour (demonstrating subjective and personality-driven considerations), and a scenario where he avoids chatting with someone suggested to him by his coffee mug (a nod to the earlier chit chat mug design provocation). Another striking aspect of the video was Bob’s apparent loneliness. While there were opportunities to connect with his upbeat co-workers, he was less certain or elusive about these interactions — this might be a commentary on the new hire process, which is more awkward for remote workers, or the general loss of a sense of place-based community when work happens remotely. While the video offers rich explorations of MR and the blurring of work life with home life, Shao also includes a brief scene where Bob takes a walk outside and sighs as all of the MR falls away. As he sits outside reading a book, the silence of the landscape and absence of MR forces the viewer to reflect on the desirability of a MR-filled world and reflect on how rich and rare that absence might become.
Shao ends up uncovering a complex problem space as she probes futures of work-from-home. Her thesis asks whether MR can help separate work and home within the home, how it might foster a more spatially informed and social ‘work from home’ environment, and how remote work environments could adapt to various personality types. She also, at a more meta level, seems to explore the plasticity of speculation as a tool for design. Throughout her research process she shifts from tongue-in-cheek speculative provocations to more straight-forward solutions and a final video prototypes that is neither utopic nor dystopic. In the end, she weaves her various explorations together, treading a line between offering legitimate product-oriented concepts for MR in home office environments, while not totally relinquishing a position that fosters ambiguity and reflection.