As employees shift to a new work from home lifestyle; companies must adopt new tools and best practices to help their teams effectively communicate, collaborate and stay informed and connected in the absence of a physical office.
A new category of tools called ‘virtual office’ is emerging
Virtual offices (aka: online workspace, digital office, digital workspace) serve as a digital representation of a physical office, providing employees with an online environment to meet and collaborate, while also offering a number of features designed to alleviate common pain points and frustrations shared by remote teams and employees.
Products that fall into the virtual office or workspace category typically offer distributed team members:
• A sense of presence, proximity, and an awareness of team members online availability
• Support internal communication via audio, video conferencing, and/or instant messaging
• Screen sharing for collaborative work and discussions
• Allow teams to create and designate virtual meeting rooms or spaces for ad-hoc and recurring team meetings, discussions, and check-ins
Why does my team need virtual office software?
Problem: Working remote can be lonely compared to in-office
According to Buffer’s State of Remote Work 2020, one of the most common employee-reported limitations of working remote is the feeling of loneliness, disconnect and isolation that stems when teammates are unable to work side-by-side. There are numerous reports and articles pointing to loneliness being a dark side of remote work. In this article, Ben Fanning writes “If you’ve been working with people for a while and had that connectivity and face-to-face meetings and were used to that work environment, and now suddenly working at a distance with little connectivity, it really creates a huge problem. It’s like being on a remote island.”
How can virtual offices help reduce feelings of isolation?
Virtual office solutions offer a wide variety of user experiences and designs, but they all focus on visually helping your distributed team feel more connected and aware of office happenings; commonly referred to as ‘presence’. Virtual presence features can include:
• Profile pictures or avatars that offer ways to express oneself
• Availability indicated with text or UI (eg are they ‘away’ in ‘do not disturb mode’, or ‘available’ for conversation?)
• Work and/or activity in progress (eg are they ‘coding’, ‘messaging’, or other?)
• Meetings and/or discussions underway (ie who’s meeting and should I join if relevant), and more.
These visualizations help to replicate some of the workplace buzz and liveliness you feel when working in a physical office.
As an example, Loop Team shows users’ ‘activity status,’ which informs teammates about their co-workers’ true availability. Users can opt to set themselves as ‘away’ or ‘available’, and even enable ‘automatic status’ which automatically displays the work activity (eg designing) or whether a user is in ‘focus’ meaning it’s probably not a good time to engage.
Problem: Teams struggle with less communication and collaboration when remote
The other most common struggle employees report when working remote is the significant loss of communication and collaboration. There are many great tools which in-person and remote teams have adopted but few of these tools have been specifically developed for fully distributed teams.
Challenges with communication (too much, or too little)
Most of us that have experienced work from home can relate to either:
1.) Too many formal, structured video calls resulting in the 2020 coined term ‘zoom fatigue’, or
2.) Too few team interactions resulting in a feeling of work disconnect.
It can be challenging for remote organizations to achieve balance and replicate the ad-hoc, informal, and spontaneous nature of conversations held when coworkers work together in a shared office space.
The most important work discussions happen outside of formal calendar meetings
A recent internal analysis shared by Microsoft on their shift to remote work put a spotlight on this and showed that a significant increase of shorter duration meetings across the organization was the result of employees missing office interactions — “we could no longer catch up in hallways or by the coffee machine, so we were scheduling more (video) connections” But the time-consuming, formalized nature of scheduling quick, ad-hoc meetings and discussions is itself a main challenge with remote work that even teams like Microsoft struggle with.
How do virtual offices help improve communication?
By providing an online sense of team presence and status, virtual office’s are uniquely positioned to accommodate spontaneous video or audio-based check-ins, desk drop-ins, and casual conversations virtually. Akin to a ‘virtual shoulder tap’, users simply look at their workspace, check the real-time availability of a coworker or group of coworkers, and tap teammates to initiate an immediate call with them; eliminating many of the barriers that typically prevent coworkers from communicating more frequently in their day. Gone is the need to pre-qualify or guess if a teammate is available for a call or if the timing is right to engage — and with no coordination friction required. The majority of internal remote work conversations outside of virtual offices require many time-consuming steps like scheduling, creating, and sharing a meet calendar invite or link — and all of this for a meeting that might warrant just a five minute discussion.
Conversations as fast as real life shoulder-taps
Virtual office tools enable push-to-talk style conversation. In Loop Team, users just tap a team member and then are immediately connected — If a teammate is free, they simply unmute to accept the call. If they’re unavailable, they do not have to accept and can follow up at a later time.
Collaboration is key to the success of all companies, and keeping teams aligned and working towards common goals is critical. But when teams are distributed, discussions, background conversations, serendipitous hallway interactions, and paired work moments are limited, if not possible at all due to team structure and time zones. When remote, much internal communication becomes siloed within departments, and teammates often struggle to know what’s happening in other parts of the organization due to limited cross-departmental interactions.
How do virtual offices help teams collaborate?
Many distributed teams have employees working across many time zones. A common collaboration challenge for remote workers is the ability to quickly determine where teammates are located and their current time. Layering in calendar events and country specific holidays makes this an even more onerous chore in that scheduling becomes difficult but also you lose a sense of time in general and end-up pinging a colleague at the end of their day when it’s important to be empathetic.
As teams become more globally distributed, and as employees benefit from flexible work schedules within their time zones, organizing teammates by time zone and providing further presence such as using AI to predict when a user will next be online or return is critical.
Know teammates better
The missed water cooler moments as mentioned earlier not only impact collaboration but they also significantly impact opportunity for coworkers to form bonds, build camaraderie, and create a cohesive team culture. According to the Gartner ReimagineHR Employee Survey, 41 percent of those surveyed don’t feel connected to their colleagues when working remotely. Virtual offices provide more opportunities for remote colleagues, particularly cross-department, to get to know each other as they do when in a physical shared office.
Some virtual offices offer casual rooms, or the ability to create ‘watercooler’ rooms, dedicated solely for social interactions like coffee breaks, games, or simply for ‘hangout sessions’ to work with other teammates in an open room environment to feel more together. Avatars, profile images, memes, and emojis are used in varying ways across virtual office tools to let teammates show personality and bring more fun to remote work. Loop Team incorporates games, ice breakers such as local weather, suggests catch-ups and enables other concepts to help teammates get to know one another.
Problem: Lost serendipity and missed hallway discussions
“Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘Wow,’ and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.” – Steve Jobs
In this recent Fast Company article, Sagi Eliyahu writes about recent shifts to remote work “A lot of the work that gets done — certainly more than we realized — requires direct human collaboration that includes decision-making, delegation, coordination, and strategy. And much of the progress we make in that work, the leaps in innovation, the light-bulb moments, happens without us consciously planning for it.” He adds, “Many of us took for granted just how many ideas were cooked up back when we enjoyed the luxury of working together, in person.”
While lost serendipity is not easy to quantify, it is a commonly reported limitation of remote work.
How can virtual offices enable more spontaneous discussions and ‘Wow’ moments?
By seeing teammates and enabling ad-hoc, on-the-fly conversations, virtual office solutions are helping to address the ‘lost serendipity’ challenge of remote work in a variety of ways. Some virtual offices have introduced skeuomorphic representations of the office, and when your avatar is in a set proximity to another user you can ‘speak out loud’ or interact as you might in an office. Other tools encourage ‘always on’ audio and/or video rooms where teammates can enter a communal workspace environment.
Loop Team lets users optionally broadcast the conversations they deem helpful for their coworkers; offering teams an AI-generated, ‘real-time’ summary of topics to help bring more connection, awareness, and spark innovation. Teammates can also hover over this live conversation summary to listen into the discussion in real-time without having to join — this is the closest thing to background conversation in the office.
After the discussion ends, users can then publish the discussion into a personalized Facebook-like feed with a goal of keeping teams more in the loop and aware of office happenings, especially useful for team members across many time zones missing key meetings.