What's a virtual office? 3 reasons the metaverse could solve the reopening challenge

Establishing a shared space for in-person staff, remote workers and clients can bridge the gap between all these groups.

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Sophya builds virtual spaces for meetings, social events and conferences. The design includes avatars and video windows.

Image: Sophya

 It's easier than ever to get a ticket into the metaverse, and this virtual world is more relevant to office life than you think. You don't need to distribute virtual reality headsets to the entire team before giving a virtual world a test drive, and there's no need to build your own space from scratch. 

Virtual offices are immune to the rise and fall of COVID-19 cases, and there's no need to verify vaccination status. 

Microsoft and Facebook are staking their claims in this immersive, interactive and collaborative space that includes virtual reality, augmented reality and holograms. There are plenty of startups in the space as well that will help you host an event or a training session in a virtual space. 

Some of the biggest obstacles to more widespread adoption of VR in the workplace are the idea that the technology is just for gaming and the fear that it's hard to implement, according to Scott Likens, an emerging tech leader at PwC.

"Once we force our executives into it, they have a light-bulb moment," he said. 

Virbela CEO and founder Alex Howard said there is an adjustment period for virtual office dwellers but it's not a sharp learning curve.

"There's a little bit of cognitive load when you try anything new but your brain adapts," he said. 

It's worth the investment of time and money to test a virtual space before the end of the year. Here are three reasons, three factors to consider in the vendor selection process and three ways to experiment with virtual reality at work. 

Three reasons for experimenting with a virtual space

1. It's one place all employees have in common

Even if everyone is working in an office setting, they may be working in multiple cities or on different continents. A virtual space creates a common experience for everyone whether they are working from home, from a satellite office or from the main office. Companies can also bring customers and clients into these spaces, as well, as a way to reduce the need to travel for meetings.

A recent Forrester report on virtual offices lists one of the benefits as a venue for information exchange that can replace in-person interactions. Virtual office spaces can create a feeling of physical presence which smoothes the exchange of information, according to the report.

A shared virtual space also can build and reinforce a shared culture as well, according to the report. A well-designed virtual space can "create a sense of belonging, establish norms of behaviour and reinforce trust among colleagues, at a time when corporate culture is fraying due to the pandemic.

2. It shows you're willing to experiment

Employee experience is a growing priority for companies, and it's clear from survey after survey that people want flexibility around when and where they work. Creating a virtual shared space is a way to bring people together and provide that flexibility at the same time. 

Brian Kropp, chief of research in the Gartner HR practice, said companies should be ready to experiment over the next 12 to 18 months to find the hybrid design that works best for their companies. 

Creating a virtual work space is a way to change the work routine in a measurable way. Testing a virtual office shows employees that managers are willing to try something new that is not business as usual. 

Accenture started its virtual reality experiments in 2020 when the pandemic prevented travel. The company built a virtual lounge for 150 managing directors in 25 countries and found that "the combination of avatars and realistic meeting spaces provided a deeper sense of connection" and allowed people to enjoy face-to-face time from their own offices. The company now has a "Nth floor" to create a shared employee experience. AltspaceVR is built on top of Microsoft Mesh, a mixed reality platform that the company launched in March. 

3. It creates a level playing field

Despite all the promises of a new hybrid way of working, it's easy to fall back on the old ways of working. This often translates to more opportunities for the people managers see face-to-face every day and fewer for people who are remote. One way to level the playing field is to create a space with equal access for everyone. 

Leslie Tarnacki, senior vice president of global human resources for WorkForce Software, said in an interview with TechRepublic, that people who choose to work remotely should have the same access to all the resources—including promotions and time with managers—that in-person workers have.

"Companies need to understand that they need to invest in the technology that is there for everyone across the board at this point," she said.

Establishing a shared space also can support diversity, equity and inclusion goals. Virtual spaces can make it easier for parents (especially mothers) and Black employees to have equal access to colleagues and managers.

Three design elements to consider for VR at work

Introducing something new at work is always a challenge, particularly when it is something unfamiliar to many people, like VR experiences. Only about 20% of people in the U.S. have used VR via a headset or another format. However, "history shows that the right use case, paired with the right investments in change management can help employees see the value of new technology," Forrester analysts contended in the virtual office report.

Here are three things to consider when designing a VR at work experience. Getting these elements right could increase uptake and tip the odds for success in your favor.

  1. Select an avatar style carefully

A user's first introduction to a virtual space is the avatar. Scott Likens, an emerging tech leader at PwC, said people often feel more comfortable in platforms that use a full-body avatar. 

"Human cues make you feel more comfortable," he said. 

After creating an account, a user picks hair style, skin color, clothing and other accessories. Virbela and Sophya both use full body avatars, but Virbela's look more life-size, while users in Sophya are at a smaller scale. Oculus Quest 2 avatars have an infinite number of customization options—clothes, hair, accessories—and are full-body in some applications. In Workroom, everyone sits in a chair, and avatars are shown from the waist up only. 

When you select a platform, factor the uncanny valley into your evaluation. Professor Masahiro Mori created the term in the 70s to describe the uneasy feeling created by robots or simulated humans that look too real. He observed this negative reaction to certain robots as a feeling of strangeness and sometimes fear. Avatars in VR should look human enough but still read as something different than real life. That makes it cool, not creepy.

2. Directional sound is another good cue

Directional sound makes for a better virtual environment. Virbela's virtual offices have several audio cues that replicate real-life settings, including directional sound. As a person walks away, her voice fades. If one person changes position in relation to another user, her voice changes direction as well.

Another audio feature controls the volume in certain settings. Conversations held at tables or other spaces enclosed in a blue ring are private. Passersby can't hear what's being said without entering the blue circle. These circles can be turned off to signal the start of a speaker or other presentation. 

3. No headsets needed

Don't wait for headsets to become as common as Xboxes before trying a virtual space at work. Several companies offer virtual experiences that don't require a headset. Virbela has an application and a web-version of its virtual experience. More people can join a meeting in the application, and there are more customization options as well. 

Facebook's Horizon Workrooms can be visited via an Oculus Quest 2 headset or a web application, and people can join via video conference as well. 

Sophya's desktop application is another option for virtual offices without a headset. In this software, avatars interact in the virtual space and there is a video window for each user as well. 

Gather also has a browser-based virtual office. Avatars are small, squat beings that look like they were lifted from a platformer, although users navigate the space from a top-down perspective. Gather's interface also includes video windows of users in the virtual space which are arranged around the edge.

Altspace also has a 2D option for desktop users. Spatial, another VR space, works on Oculus Quest, Hololens, Magic LeapiOS, Android and in a browser.

Three VR experiments you can run now

McKinsey's latest COVID-19 analysis found that herd immunity is out of reach for most countries. That means companies will have to keep adjusting return to office strategies. Virtual environments aren't affected by COVID-19 case rates. Trying out a virtual office could resolve a small part of the current uncertainty and establish a new routine.  

  1. Conduct training: This format may be more effective than others for certain topics, and this approach is a good way to get people to focus. There is no multitasking with a VR headset.
  2. Host an event: This is another way to test the waters without committing to building a fully virtual space. Virbela, Gather and Sophya all offer event services.
  3. Open a lunch room: Sophya used its platform to create a sort of mixed-reality experience. Employees ordered food in a virtual lunch room, which was charged to the company and then delivered. People could mingle virtually and enjoy lunch in real life.
avatars gathered in a meeting room

Accenture built a "Nth Floor" in AltspaceVR that uses Microsoft Mesh to bring people together in a virtual setting.

Image: Accenture

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By Veronica Combs

Veronica Combs is a senior writer at TechRepublic. For more than 10 years, she has covered technology, healthcare, and business strategy. In addition to her writing and editing expertise, she has managed small and large teams at startups and establis...