Tech may not be able to recreate office life, but does it really need to?

Companies have deployed a vast suite of tech tools to support remote teams as virtual offices come online. But recreating this physical office environment online is no easy feat.

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Image: GettyImages/gremlin

Without the proximal and quantum considerations afforded by a mutual collocation space, remote work has required companies to rethink traditional workflows and communication, with plenty of software to boot. The tech-heavy workday has led to new lexicon offerings à la Zoom fatigue as employees quit at a high clip. So, how close are companies to delivering a virtual version of the in-person office, and what's holding back the deployment of premium remote work experiences?

"The most important question for any organization imagining a new virtual work experience is what aspects of its workers' days must be replicated, and what new aspects do they want to design and deliver," said Whit Andrews, Gartner distinguished research VP. "Commonly, any time humans lose something, they want to replicate it."

SEE: Remote work policy (TechRepublic Premium)

Online office: Employee experience and collaboration

Amid this loss and reimagining of life outside of the cubicle, companies have taken a software-centric approach to office simulacra and simulation. As part of the virtual 9-to-5 grind, teams are juggling round-the-clock Zoom meetings, virtual whiteboard sessions and a plethora of "pings." Since 2019, employee usage of collaboration tech solutions has increased 44%, according to an August Gartner report.

At the same time, companies are developing so-called virtual office experiences using augmented reality and virtual reality amid the new telecommuter status quo, and a future brimming with remote and hybrid work opportunities.

"The key question is what [companies] were doing with what they used to have and how they can achieve those outcomes, as well as new ones, with the new powers they grant themselves," Andrews said. "Cars aren't horseless carriages or goatless go-karts–they're traveling rooms. Virtual offices aren't real world offices in a digital frame–they're video games with workers inside."

When asked how companies are delivering remote employee experiences that replicate the in-person office environment, Andrews said companies are not proving these experiences just yet, explaining that they are instead "distilling the aspects of office life that they believe are the most important for their practice and culture."

For the most part, this means "refactoring meetings" so these gatherings better reflect how teams "met in the before times," according to Andrews, while noting that companies that were "better at that then are probably better at it now." However, Andrews adds that, "digital meetings allow any organization to reform its interactions and collaborations faster."

Replicating the office in the age of remote work

Rik Chomko, co-founder and CEO of InRule Technology, doesn't believe tech can "effectively replace or replicate the office experience," although he said these capabilities have done a "great job" of connecting people during COVID-19 and enabling remote work. While it may "seem cliché," self-admittedly, he said there's "no substitute for face-to-face interactions."

To replicate the in-person office and provide effective remote employee experiences, Chomko used regular executive video updates, monthly town halls, virtual happy hours as well as mental health days intended to help workers mitigate Zoom fatigue and "step away from their computers and focus on priorities outside of work."

Although the pandemic allowed Chomko to see first-hand that the whole company could work from home and with "greater flexibility," he said "at some point, you need that human interaction," as so-called "collision conversations," as he put it, do not happen on video calls. 

"[These conversations] happen when interacting in an unplanned way and a fair amount of innovation, brainstorming and critical thinking can occur at these times," Chomko continued.

In general, Chomko isn't sure if the virtual office "will ever feel like the in-person office." In fact, he doesn't believe the virtual workplace needs to feel like the in-person office, instead Chomko said the arrangement needs to make it feel like "we are together" and allows colleagues to have critical "conversations without missing out on the in-person visual cues we're used to seeing."

Less than optimal virtual experiences and drawbacks

In recent months, a speculated Great Resignation of sorts has come to fruition as burnout employees quit without reservation. At the same time, a tight labor market and deal sweeteners for workers to seek positions elsewhere have only confounded this multi-front challenge for employers.

Speaking to the "obvious" benefits of delivering telecommuters a more traditional in-person office experience, Chomko said employees with more positive remote work experiences feel better "about their company, work and themselves."

Additionally, he said connecting with offsite employees and ensuring that they feel included in the company culture and linked with colleagues remains "vital" as telecommuting "becomes and remains the new norm."

SEE: Juggling remote work with kids' education is a mammoth task. Here's how employers can help (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

During the new software-heavy workday, a remote worker's day-to-day user experience could play a critical role in turnover and talent retention. According to an August  Adobe survey, 54% of enterprise workers said they'd switch jobs to have access to "better tools to be more effective" if their job description and salary were to remain unchanged. 

"Workers want to work with people they like and in systems that engage them for the money they think they're worth," Andrews said. "A virtual experience that fails to deliver especially the two important first factors–professional fellowship and intriguing challenge–will cause a worker to feel unconnected from their work."

Whether it's employees co-mingling in the virtual metaverse office or pinging custom emojis in the company Slack channel, there's no denying the central role software has taken in the day-to-day workday for millions of remote workers. For now, tech may not be able to serve as a proxy for a sprawling coinhabited floor of cubicles, but it may not need to either.

"Technology cannot replicate in-person offices. In-person offices don't replicate tech yet, either," Andrews said, adding that "human experience is not individual but shared" and many factors in tandem create the in-person experience.

On this topic, Andrews posted another question altogether, asking whether technology can mimic the most important aspects.

His answer: "Not yet."

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