If there is one thing the global pandemic has shown us, it’s that remote working, on a global scale, can and does work. Many companies have proved that productivity and efficiency can be maintained when their staff move from the office to working from home.
That’s not to say, however, that remote working is the answer to everything. It comes with a number of drawbacks, most notably, a sense of isolation and disconnection for those working remotely.
The answer to this, many believe, is to use a virtual office.
There are new tools for remote working popping up daily, many of which are virtual office solutions.
In short, virtual offices are online spaces that are designed to replicate an office and make remote teams feel like they are co-located.
But is this something we need?
In our interview with GitLab CEO Sid Sijbrandij, the consensus was rather negative. Talking about the trend of remote work tools, Sid said: "I've seen a lot of virtual office tools. We have virtual meeting rooms and stuff like that. I don't think that makes sense. They're trying to solve a problem that doesn't need to be solved. "
So, is a virtual office needed, or are we just trying to add a layer of complexity to working remotely that is mostly detractive?
What is a virtual office?
There are a number of different definitions and working practices that are considered to be virtual:
- A specific business mailing address different from where you work
- A virtual receptionist
- A drop-in meeting space for remote workers
But for this article in particular we are talking about a virtual office space in its most literal sense – an online space for remote workers to gather that operates as an office space created through platforms, such as Sococo, Remo and Tandem.
How does a virtual office space actually work?
A virtual office space is specifically designed to give your remote workers access to an office environment, while still allowing them to work from home (or anywhere).
The virtual office space is laid out just as you would expect an office to be, with virtual desks and virtual meeting rooms.
You can create individual offices or open working spaces, which will have the same functionality as you would get in a real office (open communication in an open office or a knock at the door for a closed office for example).
Virtual office software then allows your team to work as they usually would in the office:
See who’s in the office – a quick glance at the screen lets you know who is in the office, who is busy, and who is away, just like a quick lookup from your desk in an actual office would.
Quick communication – instant messaging is more effective when you can see who’s working. Your virtual office softwarewill also allow instant video and audio calls for those quick questions that are so often asked while in an office.
Virtual Meeting Rooms – meetings are also quick and easy with everyone able to jump onto a video call in an instant. An array of additional features like a whiteboard or share screen presentation means you have exactly the same functionality without your team needing to leave their desk.
These are just some of the functions of a virtual office space and how they attempt to imitate an actual office environment.
The Best Virtual Office Tools Today
As we’ve mentioned there are a growing number of virtual office solutions vying for your attention. Three, in particular, stand out to us so let’s have a closer look at them:
Sococo has been around for a while, and while it’s taken some time for the world to catch up with what they have been trying to create in the virtual office landscape, they are starting to prove themselves as leaders in their field.
Sococo’s focus is on recreating an authentic office environment, where people can sit together (remotely and online of course) in meeting rooms, coffee areas, chill zones, and different workspaces.
While it can feel a little odd at first to work in their virtual office – sometimes a little bit like a combination of Second Life and Club Penguin – it can also feel extremely familiar.
You're not physically in the space, but it seems intuitive to reserve a physical meeting room for meetings, hang out at the open spaces if you're free to chat, or head into the Focus Room if you need some alone time.
This sort of virtual office environment is especially good for workers just starting out remotely. It can feel a lot more natural than an all-remote team.
Here's Sococo's virtual office plan:
If you apply Sococo's approach from the late 2000s to the late 2010s, and what you end up with is Remo.
At first, Remo CAN feel like a carbon copy of Sococo, but once you've spent a bit of time on the platform you start to understand that it’s a tool crafted more specifically for remote workers:
- Instant video call connections
- Integration with Google Docs & Slack
While there are some great additional features with Remo, much of their approach is very similar to Sococo – you create your own office or use a generic template, add your team, and your team members can join that office at any time and for any use. Whoever is online is in the office.
Here is Remo's virtual office plan:
Is there really a need for a virtual office plan?
Tandem doesn't think so, and instead, brings the benefits of the other two virtual spaces to a more native experience.
Users can see what their coworkers are working on, and almost instantly talk to them. Their video calling software is built for collaboration, so it's integrated into over 40 apps.
While they are a self-proclaimed "Virtual Office" for remote teams, this is arguably more of a productivity and collaboration tool, than anything else.
The case FOR Virtual Offices
So, should you use, invest in, and get excited about these virtual office tools? Some seem to think so, and there do seem to be some tangible benefits to having a virtual office environment for employees to gather.
A way to combat remote workers isolation
As we’ve mentioned, a common complaint from remote workers is a struggle with isolation.
Having everyone – at least digitally – back in an office, does seem to help combat this for some teams. Having instant access to your co-workers, and having a visual representation of everyone in the office together helps reassure remote employees that they're not alone.
Virtual office collaboration and communication
Collaboration and communication in particular is something that many find much easier when working with someone directly, whether in an office or a virtual office. Having that direct access to someone sitting across from you to ask a quick question or get a quick opinion is fast, reliable, and collaborative.
A virtual office brings back much of that collaborative functionality that you get from a natural and organic conversation in an office.
Maintaining and building Company Culture
Many argue that your company culture can take a hit when working predominantly with remote workers. As a by-product of feeling isolated and having slower communication, this is understandable. What you also lack with remote working is the more social aspect of the conversation that happens in an office.
A virtual office helps bring back much of that interaction.
If your team is only connected through text-based chat, conversations tend to become purely transactional. Having access to everyone on a video chat and displaying people's availability to chat is a great way to encourage those conversations again.
Maintaining the benefits of working remotely
There are a number of benefits to working remotely; no commute, flexibility in your working, access to your own fridge!
By offering a virtual office remote workers are still able to take advantage of these benefits. Saving time, money, and maintaining a better work/life balance.
Much lower company overheads
Running an office is not cheap! That will come as no surprise to anyone. So the benefits of using a virtual office for remote workers to reduce your company overheads is evident.
Virtual office platforms are a fraction of the cost of actually renting and maintaining a physical location.
You have access to a much wider pool of talent
Having a virtual office means that anyone from anywhere in the world can work in it. This widens your talent-hiring pool from local to international.
This is particularly useful if the staff you hire have specific technical skills and are hard to find in your local area.
The case AGAINST Virtual Offices
The jury is still out, however, on virtual offices, and not all are in favor. There are some compelling arguments against, most notably, is it something that people actually want?
Not timezone friendly or async appropriate
As a remote team, you should always strive to make async communication your priority. Information should be available to all employees at all times. This is generally not the case with an office, either physical or virtual.
Imagine the following scenario:
Your team consists of 50 employees in the US and North America, 20 in Europe, and 5 in Asia. Your virtual office is full and booming during US mornings: The Europe Team and the America Team work together and are able to collaborate for a few hours.
After some time, Europe logs off, and it's only the US left – still not bad.
Now it's getting late, and the US logs off too. This is when your coworkers in India and Japan wake up. But there’s no one else in the office, until Europe wakes up again.
This comes with a few issues:
- Information exchanged between the US and Europe is not available in Asia
- Little overlap between the US and Europe/Asia might lead to team isolation
- Asia team feels isolated
A much better approach would be to have information exchanges in a trackable medium, not a virtual workspace.
Hit on productivity and comfort
If you've ever been part of a remote meeting, you know how much people dislike long video calls and showing their faces. More often than not, a person will prefer to not be on camera.
These virtual offices usually work with always-on audio and video flow, and some may very well be uncomfortable with that.
Also, the ability for people to barge in on a working session and having a discussion might feel like a great collaborative approach at first, but will likely reduce net productivity in the long term.
Do people actually like the office?
Let’s face it, not many people actually like working in an office. So why try to replicate that for remote workers?
The whole point of going remote is to free your workers from the ties of an office. Having a virtual office seems like a bit of a back step from that.
It focuses attention on attendance rather than output!
One of the big negatives for a virtual office space is that it refocuses everyone's attention to attendance rather than output.
We think it’s fair to say that just because someone is in the office it doesn’t mean that they are working optimally or that the work they need to deliver will be done any quicker.
The truth of this is more than evident from how successful remote working has been over the last two years, and how many companies are now saying they intend to keep this way of working.
The success of remote working is because it puts a focus on an employee's output rather than time. As long as they are delivering what they need to and on time then how they structure their day is up to them.
A virtual office, on the other hand, takes away that freedom as they will now have a place they need to be at a certain time. A chain tying them to their desk again albeit their desk at home rather than in a physical office.
A return of office distractions
Having access to office gossip is often interesting, but it’s certainly not productive.
For many, the joys of working at home are that you don’t have those distractions of office chatter disturbing your focus.
Remote teams are already using applications for better connectivity
There are a plethora of applications and solutions that companies and remote workers are using to communicate, interact, manage workflows, and generally make sure that their teams are working efficiently and productively.
Slack, Basecamp, and Discord are great for messaging, while Zoom, Teams, and Google Meet are perfect for video communication. For project management, you can use Asana or Trello. For time management there are options like Togg and RescueTime.
Does a virtual office bring you any more functionality than these apps? No, not really!
Is a remote office environment scalable?
In the same way that co-located companies quickly outgrow their offices, remote teams will also outgrow their virtual spaces.
Remote teams with a good async culture and knowledge transfers are almost infinitely scalable. Having your whole team in a virtual "physical" space seems like a step back, where you are postponing solving the issues for good workflow for remote teams (collaboration, knowledge, etc) to a later stage, where changes are a lot more difficult to implement.
So what is the answer?
The reality is there are huge companies like GitLab with 800+ employees that have implemented a great remote working culture among their employees and are surviving without these virtual spaces.
That’s not to say that a virtual office isn’t the right solution for some. But if you are wanting to take a deeper dive into how to make a remote workforce work to maximum efficiency and productivity there is a lot more information out there for you to absorb.
To point you in the right direction, here are some of our favorite places to start:
- A good async strategy
- Scheduled Team Calls with an Agenda
- 1-on-1s between team members
- Real-Time Collaboration Tools
- Hanging out with a group on video