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Are we all going to be Sims?
Virtual offices incoming!
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👋 Friends, it is Thursday.
Many of you are reading FullStack HR for the first time - a warm welcome to you all!
If you have come here to read absolute truths and someone to tell you precisely how things are, you have come to the wrong place. In fact, I am pretty sure I'll be more wrong than right.
Oh, what a great introduction.
I say that because the goal is not to be correct. Neither is it to tell it like it is.
The goal is for you to read and go home with a new thought or two.
And speaking of new thoughts, today we will talk about something relatively new.
Let’s get going.
Virtual offices = The Sims?
If you grew up in the late 90s, early 00s like I did, you'll remember The Sims. If you are older or younger and missed the hype, think of The Sims as an electronic dollhouse. You get an avatar that lives in The Sims world and with which you can interact with the world your sims lived in. You have to cook and eat; otherwise, you'll get grumpy. You have to shower, or you'll stink and no one will date you. Pretty much like the real world, but virtual.
For someone like me, it's hard not to think of The Sims when I see companies offering virtual offices. Not that you have to shower in these virtual offices (yet), but the concept is similar in many cases - your avatar walks around in a virtual environment, and you can interact with the people and objects in those worlds.
Just like in The Sims.
The Sims series has sold 200 million copies, and many of us have enjoyed playing those games over the years, but will we enjoy virtual offices? Maybe.
What these companies are trying to create and emulate are our traditional offices. Some have an entirely virtual office where you can walk around. Others have a slicker user experience that is more reminiscent of Slack. But all strive to bring the feel of an office with people near you in this age of remote work. Sales pitches usually focus on creating a sense of belonging. They pitch that the products increase productivity, although one can argue whether this is true or not, and they want to create spaces where people can come together and hang out.
I have not checked when each of the companies in my long list at the end of this article was founded. Still, looking at the major companies, most of them launched their product in the last two years. (Doh! Understandably so.)
Gather was founded in 2020 and is one of the most heavily funded companies with a total of $76 million and a recent round of funding led by well-known investor Sequoia. In Europe, we have Teemyco and Wonder, backed by 42Cap and EQT Ventures with a total of $4.2 million and $12.2 million raised, respectively. Both also launched their products in 2020.
I suspect these companies will split their raised money between tech, sales, and marketing, which means you'll hear a lot more about virtual offices in 2022 than ever before. So should you and your organization invest in a virtual office?
Let’s look at it from two perspectives.
One is the bear perspective or, simply put, why this will not work. And then let’s look at it from the bull side, where it's most likely the salvation for all of us who have been trapped in Zoom meetings for the last two years.
The Bear Case
Another tool. That's the first thing that comes to mind when I think about all these tools. I am not saying Zoom, Hangouts, Slack, and Teams are perfect tools, but they are tools that (most) of us know how to use. And the road to getting there has been a bit bumpy for many of us.
And the threshold for virtual offices like this is even higher than for the other tools mentioned.
Even if onboarding goes smoothly, you have to remember to use it on a day-to-day basis. And if one, two, or three employees forget to use it, the benefit of it all is gone. As said, one of the key selling points of these systems is to create a sense of belonging. But for that to succeed, everyone that should be on the platform must be present, or else it will fail.
Changing habits and ways of working is complex and requires an effort beyond buying a new system, which people rarely factor in when buying systems like this.
The implementation part probably requires both more effort and more money in terms of project managers' time, etc vs. buying the system. It may not be worth the investment if you stick with the systems you probably already have. (But which you may not be using to their full potential).
It's also possible that virtual offices, as they exist today, are just a stepping stone to a true VR office where we are fully immersed in an authentic 3D experience. Companies like Remote already use Oculus to a large extent when they hold meetings, for example.
A virtual 2D office might just be an unnecessary step.
The Bull Case
Video fatigue is real. So is the lack of in-between chats and spontaneous moments in an office. Virtual offices are a natural way to bridge this. By making your office available online, which in many cases you can customize to your liking, you lower the barrier for conversations between people.
Last week we talked about how people need direction. Another important factor that companies need to solve in the era of remote work is how to create a sense of belonging. Virtual offices will not magically solve this problem. Still, they could strengthen the sense of belonging by creating space for and facilitating person-to-person contact. (Which in turn lowers the risk of people leaving, but since we are all HR or leadership professionals, we already know that.)
In the past, even if you were not invited to the management meeting, you could at least walk by the conference and see it happening. That provided a kind of transparency that many companies have lost these days. Platforms like this could bring back some of that transparency. You can see who is sitting in the room. You know that the meeting is happening.
We are playing more games than ever before. More than half the population played some kind of digital game in Sweden last year. We are used to spending our time in game-like environments, which lowers entry barriers for these platforms. As technology advances and people become more familiar with the digital world, these hurdles are getting even lower.
A virtual 2D office might be the exact right step to take.
Show me the money...or?
It's a strange thing to argue with yourself. It got me thinking, and I hope it got you thinking too. I can not say whether or not you should open your (company) wallet and invest in a virtual office. But since I expect you'll get a call or two from vendors who are eager to get you to open your wallet, it's probably a good idea to form an opinion and an attitude for your organization on the topic of virtual offices already now.
And if you are considering opening your good old wallet, perhaps start by dipping your toes in the water?
Many platforms offer free trials or unlimited, free access if you have a smaller team. So give it a try with a smaller team!
What works, what does not work? What behaviors do you need to change to make it work? Does it solve the problems you are facing? Setup what good will look like and see what’s required to get you there.
The worst thing you can do is buy such a platform believing that it will "solve the remote work problem."
It will not, but it could be another piece of the remote work puzzle.
That's it for today see you next week.
PS. Below is a list of the 28 services I found while researching this article. It’s in random order and unstructured in every possible way. Might serve as a reminder that there are a lot of vendors out there at least. Let me know in the comments if you know of any other services, and I'll add them to the list.
Remotion, Teemyco, and Gather all look very promising IMHO.