One year in our overall existence, managers at white-collar businesses realize two things. One is that they are satisfied (amazed, even) at how productive employees were. They were worried that ‘work from home’ would become ‘Netflix and chill’. ‘Instead, their people kill it: deliveries are delivered, milestones are emailed.
But companies have faced a serious problem. They lost serendipity. Sure, colleagues link up on a video chat. But it’s all very planned and formal; there is no how are you meetings at the coffee station. This is unfortunate, because the chance that there is a run-up helps to promote a sense of togetherness, and they can also generate new ideas – such as when the VP of HR eats lunch next to a salesperson and by the way a new market name what is ultimately worth a million. .
So people are wondering now: can software repeat some of the office magic?
Several startups are trying it. One is Teamflow, a browser-based app that lets you set up a virtual office that you can see from above in 2D, like a cartoon-like Ikea floor plan. You can set up different rooms and fill them with furniture icons (or even weird memey images, if you want a MySpace atmosphere). When employees sign up, their faces appear in small round video streams. You drag your icon around the virtual office to ‘near’ others, and talk to them too; the closer your icon is to a colleague, the louder they sound. Move further away for rest and peace.
It sounds skewed. Honestly corpse kooky. But early users tell me it repeats a lot of the dynamics of personal socializing. “It has streamlined my life,” says Rafael Sanches, co-founder of Anycart, a food shopping service. We recently met in the Teamflow space of his company. The little video icons for Sanches and me sit on his virtual desk; three engineers were gathered in a safe in the corner of the office. Sanches dragged his icon to say hello to them and then zipped back at me.
“I do it all the time,” he says. He will plant himself near groups of employees, where they will work together, sometimes in silence, other times talking. Sanches will also regularly invite an employee to wander to a corner to talk one on one. He likes that other employees can see that he is meeting with someone separately; it repeats some of the quasi-public nature of conversations in a real office. ‘Socially, the engineers know I’m still there, as I around, ”He remarks. He does not disappear in private Zoom calls with people.
The whole thing played weird. This makes sense because video games have been groundbreaking in the art of entertaining distant people online. Some workers even used board games as meeting places during the pandemic. When writer and artist Viviane Schwarz worked on a project last year, she met her team inside Red Dead Redemption 2, a cowboy fighting game. They sit around a virtual campfire and chat shop (while also on the lookout for danger: ‘Were those gunshots?’). Some new presence programs, such as Bonfire and Remotely, explicitly point out the game aesthetics and let you hang out with co-workers as avatars in a 3D environment.
One thing you can see in all these experiments remotely is that audio beats video. Watching a webcam is tiring. Most of these applications reduce the screen to full screen active, and users seem to like it. Pragli, another virtual meeting startup, gives users the choice to connect with audio or video, and co-founder Doug Safreno estimates that people use the audio-only method twice as often as video. Consider it the revenge of the old-school phone call: It turns out we just want to talk.
And, more subtly, to listen. Many of these programs allow for a bit of the clutter that takes place in an office, where you can look through the room and see two colleagues talking – maybe even get an idea of what they’re talking about – without fitting in completely. This semi-private, semi-public nature of office conversations helps give a team a prospective sense of itself, one that is too often lacking in our remote world of one-on-one calls.
An office has power dynamics, for better or worse; part of the way we navigate through a work involves watching how others interact. Does your manager talk to the boss a lot? Maybe that means your team is in trouble? Or that you are not impressive the head honcho? We gather intelligence, chew it with colleagues, become more connected.
One advantage of the physical office, in other words, is that it lets us rest crawl on each other. It turns out we even want it in our software.
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