Signals #15 – Virtual Offices

Challenge

  • Remote work made the positive parts of office life more difficult: bumping into a co-worker randomly, quick chats, spontaneous brainstorming and knowing who’s truly available.

Opportunity

  • Virtual offices bring back the advantages of a physical office by simulating the real-world spatial and audial experience.

Actions

  • Select the right tool for your purposes.
    • The virtual office app landscape sits on a spectrum: in one end is the gamified visual approach (Gather). The other end is productivity-based (Tandem) with less visual interaction.
    • [Pro] In one end is the gamified visual approach (Gather, KumoSpace, My Digital Office) that simulates a physical environment with video game -like visual design and spatial audio features.
    • [Pro] The other end is productivity-based: Tandem has a more traditional Slack-like UI but still allows co-workers to see what everyone is working on and discuss instantly.
    • [Pro] Many virtual offices also integrate other apps fully to the environment, which is crucial for productivity.
  • Use the virtual office to your advantage.
    • First, lay a proper foundation for hybrid work and productivity.Dedicate time also for deep focus. Schedule co-working times in advance with the team. Create dedicated spaces for projects inside the virtual office.
    • [Pro] Like always, a single tool is not going to solve all problems magically by itself. Lay a proper foundation for hybrid work and productivity.
    • [Pro] Dedicate time for deep focus. Just because you have a virtual office at your disposal doesn’t mean you have to use it every day.
    • [Pro] Schedule co-working times in advance. Not everyone is a fan of virtual offices. Decide in advance to spend 1-2 days weekly with the team.
    • [Pro] Create dedicated spaces for projects inside the virtual office. All materials and apps used will be saved within those spaces.
  • [Pro] Reduce your physical office footprint with virtual offices. Many companies have been able to cut office square footage by 33%.

Tools

Pros

  • Collaboration and communication happen organically in virtual offices. The feeling of isolation is lower. Breaks tend to be more social.
  • Virtual office apps can act as a meta-coordination layer for other apps and events. As Teamflow puts it, the point is to eliminate the “Cmd + Tab fatigue”.
  • [Pro] Spatial so[1]ware feels natural to users since it takes advantage of our real-life experiences. The human brain is hard-wired to deal with spatial and audial streams.
  • [Pro] The virtual office trend is aligned with the audio-only trend. Many apps downplay the video features, as audio is less weary for the mind. Staring at a grid of faces all day might not be so natural a[1]er all. Who will be the first to build a Clubhouse-clone for internal office communications?

Cons

  • If people hated offices in the first place, why would recreating one virtually solve anything? Synchronous work does not work for all people. In the worst case, there could also be a temptation to control employees. Virtual offices are definitely not a panacea.
  • Many argue that remote work succeeds best with async methods. Especially so when teams are spread across different time zones.
  • [Pro] Are virtual offices truly scalable? Do they work as well when you have 5,000 employees instead of 50?
  • [Pro] Virtual offices apps have existed before. Sqwiggle was ahead of its time. It launched on Product Hunt in 2014 but was shut down already in 2016. It can be argued that 2021 is a totally different ball game though.
  • [Pro] Missing body language and social cues increase the difficulty of starting conversations with strangers even on virtual platforms. Human behavior is a complex topic and information between people is delivered with very subtle social cues. This is still somewhat impossible on virtual platforms.

Cases

  • Multiple virtual office platforms have secured significant funding roundsTeamflow has raised a total of $14.9 million. Gather got $26 million in March 2021. Teemyco received $1 million in September 2020.
  • Teamflow is reportedly making hundreds of thousands of monthly revenue only after 2 months of operation.
  • Gather is making a revenue of $400,000/month.
  • [Pro] SpatialChat has 3,000 B2B customers and 200,000+ monthly active users.
  • [Pro] MyDigitalOffice is a 100% bootstrapped virtual office built by a solo developer. It got traction a[1]er a university used it for remote lessons during the pandemic. MDO is currently bringing in $5K in monthly revenue. 1-year review here.
  • [Pro] Snack matches you with other co-workers in your common Slack workspace to encourage casual conversations. You can think of it as a lightweight feature of virtual offices added to Slack. Snack is currently making $650/month.

Forecast

  • 2D is just the start. Infinite OfficeSpatial and Arthur let you create immersive 3D meeting rooms and handle virtual objects that the whole team can interact with. Actual location will dictate less and less where and how we can work.
  • How a future day in office could look like with Spatial’s “virtual reality Zoom”. Facebook’s vision here.
  • [Pro] Avatars and customizable characters on virtual office platforms abstract personal characteristics and make looks and appearance less important. This could lead to more data-driven, unbiased and inclusive organizations.
  • [Pro] Dozens of virtual office platforms already exist (I calculated around 30 and there are more). The competition is fierce. The successful apps help create spaces that spark spontaneity and are intuitive to use. As virtual offices go more mainstream, specialized apps are needed for different industries with different requirements.

Resources

Takeaways

  • Most office equipment has already been replaced with software. Now the same is happening with the actual office spaces.
  • 2D visual approaches to office layouts are just the start. Next years will see even more immersive office experiences as VR and AR kick in.
  • [Pro] It will be interesting to see how the audio-only trend will merge with the virtual office trend. Will we see Clubhouse-clones intended for purely internal communications?