By Andie Burjek
Dec. 9, 2015
Photo courtesy of Sococo Inc.
I wander through the hallways looking for the conference room, look left, look right, turn the corner, look straight ahead and finally I see the door. I knock and wait a few seconds before Cliff Pollan, CEO of Sococo Inc., lets me in. I join him and some Sococo employees around the conference table and they explain to me how people communicate in their company.
It doesn’t sound like anything particularly unique. Employees either answer doors or put up “do not disturb” signs. They use digital platforms and messaging to share information freely. And they can run into other employees in the hallway and strike up a conversation. I see their faces as they explain this to me and I hear their voices.
What is different, though, is that I’m on my computer and looking at a screen. None of these people are in the same city; the entire “office” is virtual.
Sococo attempts to replicate a physical environment on the computer screen, Pollan said. About 350 clients use these virtual offices, he added.
Although Sococo took the virtual reality idea to an extensive level, the idea of meeting up in a virtual capacity isn’t entirely new. For example, the virtual reality 3-D platform Second Life has allowed companies to have virtual meetings since it opened to the public in 2003.
It’s difficult to measure how common virtual business meetings are in Second Life, said Peter Gray, senior director of global communications at Linden Lab, the company that created Second Life. However, he said he has seen organizations create and use their own virtual meeting spaces over the years.
Linden Lab itself, for example, uses a virtual conference room occasionally, although it is more common for its meetings to take place in more interesting places, like around a virtual campfire, Gray said.
Since users create virtual spaces themselves, they don’t need to mimic reality exactly. For example, one of Linden Lab’s clients, TechSoup Global, holds weekly meetings on Second Life in a virtual outdoor space rather than a virtual office building.
Rather than a virtual fire pit, Sococo strives for a real-looking work environment. A Sococo office looks something like a blueprint, with rooms labeled with things like “Journalist Briefing,” “Exec Briefing” and “Lobby.” Once users log on, a virtual avatar appears, much like what one would find in a virtual community like Second Life, which can navigate through the blueprint of virtual areas much like one can navigate a real office. Users can see where other avatars are in the office, who is talking to whom, and who is available or, you know, “out to lunch.”
Visual indicators in the office tell whether a person is available for a spontaneous meeting. For example, if an avatar has headphones on but not a mic, it sends a signal that the person can hear people knocking on the door and that the worker is probably available to chat.
Close Together Even When Far Apart
Sococo tries to realistically mimic the office environment because it’s easier for people to feel engaged in an environment where they are physically close together, Pollan said. Since the company’s employees are in different cities and countries, the physical closeness is not possible.
“We’re becoming more dispersed,” Pollan said. “We want engagement, want things to happen faster and remove waste, want quick face-to-face conversations.”
The lack of employee engagement is a global problem. Only 13 percent of employees are “actively engaged,” and 24 percent are “actively disengaged,” according to a recent Gallup Inc. survey.
The survey included 224,000 participants worldwide, including 150,000 in the United States. The results show that more than half (63 percent) of global workers are disinterested and lack motivation in the workplace.
Using digital technology to increase engagement isn’t anything new. Matt Cain, a vice president and analyst at Gartner, explained further the connection between technology and engagement.
What promotes employee engagement are things like learning new skills and having a good work life, Cain said. Digital technology allows work-life balance by making a flexible schedule more attainable and by making telecommuting easier.
“If you’re spending six to eight hours a day in front of a screen, then surely what happens on that screen is going to impact your level of engagement,” he said.
Cain also mentioned importance of the physical workspaces. Layouts with open work spaces can help with collaboration, for example, and huddle rooms for spontaneous, informal meetings.
Sococo doesn’t have the benefit of a physical office, but it strives to re-create that and allow for employees to connect with each other, share information easily and meet up spontaneously.
“High-performing teams are really highly connected. They care about each other, and they work toward common goals,” said David Newberry, an adviser at Sococo. “What you tend to find in business now is that connectivity is broken because people don’t share information very well.”
Being able to see the visual layout of the office has improved communication, said Felipe Laso, a senior engineer at Lextech Global Services, which has been a Sococo client for the past two years.
“We can share screens, share our code, share designs and do those as a team no matter where we are,” said Laso, who lives in Ecuador and works at the Illinois-based company. “In my team, all the developers and technical team is remote, and it hasn’t been difficult to communicate or collaborate.”
Users in different geographies can share information in several ways quickly, one of the ways in which Sococo tries to mimic the fluid movement of a physical office. Employees share ideas via screen shots and videos as well as interactive whiteboards. Quick, direct sharing like this is more effective than something like long-status meetings or email threads that can be frustrating, Pollan said.
The company has also introduced an information-sharing feature called “topics” in which people can find content based on context during a virtual meeting on their computer screens.
Of course, a virtual office can’t completely replace a physical office and face-to-face interaction.
“The end goal is to make people feel connected, part of a team, and give them a sense of belonging,” Newberry said. When people are “not face-to-face, this kind of system continues to keep those connections going.”
Speaking with the Sococo team on video chat in their virtual office, I did feel like I made a connection, but it didn’t exactly duplicate a face-to-face interaction. And logging out of the website felt something like walking out of an office at the end of a workday. As a matter of fact: There was a “door” to close behind me.
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