Adding to the many activities we now perform online, including socializing, gaming, shopping, and banking, some companies are beginning to experiment with virtual working. Bringing office work a step beyond “remote” or “hybrid,” virtual working takes advantage of metaverse technology. Platforms are available to help companies build their own virtual offices that workers can access — using avatars to indicate their presence — to perform a variety of functions.
This approach to office work is still very new but it can address some of the issues associated with remote and hybrid work, including the uncertainty about whether and when to reopen physical offices and the complications of hybrid work arrangements. At the same time, it’s not a perfect solution because of things like worries about surveillance and the potential for steep learning curves.
In the following sections, we explore what it’s like to work in a virtual office and how doing so can support distributed workforces.
What It’s Like to Work in a Virtual Office
Metaverse office spaces aren’t limited to the confines of the physical world. Buildings can be created in any shape with any means (like fun tunnels) for traveling between levels or smaller office units. Within these spaces, employees can visit each other, conduct meetings, work on projects, and perform other typical office functions. As in the physical world, workers can have impromptu chats. In these ways, team members physically distant from each other can be together in one central location.
Unlike in the physical world, metaverse environments allow companies to change easily. For example, a company that needs more virtual space can quickly add a section or floor for more virtual workers to occupy. The following video shows what an actual virtual office space might look like.
Virtual offices combine many of the benefits of remote work with many that come from working together in a physical office. Some of them are as follows.
- It creates a common experience for everyone in the company, no matter where they are located geographically.
- This common experience creates a foundation for building or strengthening corporate culture.
- It provides flexibility for where team members can work from.
- It encourages greater diversity provides equal access, and reduces opportunities for bias based on things like gender, race, or physical ability.
- Companies can also bring in customers or clients to avoid the need to travel to meetings.
- There’s no need to create policies around COVID vaccination status, masking, and so on.
- There’s no need to worry about the spread of illnesses in general.
- People can work individually or meet in pairs or groups as needed.
- Companies can experiment with the virtual work model for a time and abandon it if it doesn’t work well.
Virtual Office Challenges
Early adopters of virtual office technology note that using an avatar to represent their presence can be awkward at first, similar to playing a new video game. Users aren’t sure how all the controls work or how to accomplish tasks they want to complete.
Additionally, learning a whole new system of etiquette can be challenging. A recent Protocol article stated, “As with any new interaction on the internet, users might think about how social norms translate in a virtual office. Is my floating video bubble too close to your floating video bubble? Can my avatar wander into your office unannounced?” As in physical offices, each company must create its own rules and norms.
In addition, companies that want to do business in the metaverse must contend with things like concerns about surveillance, resistance to all-online work, and a steeper learning curve for some.
While virtual office platforms are not intended to track employees’ presence and activity, some companies may use them that way. However, what they may gain in data collection and even productivity, they lose in employee loyalty. Workers dislike being tracked and may become more stressed as it becomes more advanced. With employees still leaving positions in high numbers, companies would do well to find other ways to ensure work gets done.
Further, some workers may resist being online all the time to begin with. These are the same employees that couldn’t wait to get back to the office when COVID restrictions were lifted. They may feel that they work better when physically in a group or have a social need to be around people more frequently. Employers must be careful about insisting that all employees adopt this model, or be aware that, if they do, some may defect.
Another challenge is the potential for a steep learning curve, which may be more pronounced for digital immigrants (those who lived a good part of their lives pre-internet).
How to Build a Virtual Office
Companies that want to experiment with virtual workspaces can find several platforms that provide this service. Experts recommend choosing carefully based on things like avatar style which can improve visual cues, directional sound that can make users feel more present in the environment, and the ability to avoid virtual reality (VR) headsets which can be cumbersome to wear all day.
Businesses should also choose a platform that offers strong work tools that enable team members to perform regular tasks like creating and collaborating on documents, giving presentations, and holding meetings. But decision makers should also consider the possibilities for things that would seem highly unusual in a physical environment, such as the following features suggested by Harvard Business Review:
- A room designed for new employees filled with interactive stands where they can learn more about different aspects of the company
- Well-being spaces featuring forests, aquariums, and other interesting environments
- The ability to order food, books, or other supplies to be delivered to a worker’s physical location
- The ability to locate colleagues within the virtual space
- AI beings that act as advisors or assistants
Companies that learn how to navigate the virtual world will find a whole new way to support dispersed teams.