One company's virtual reality approach could end the debate over working from home vs. at the office

2 months ago 11
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Virbela builds virtual spaces to recreate the office experience in a simulated space for workers in all time zones.

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Virbela runs its daily operations in a virtual office that includes common areas, meeting rooms, offices and avatars that represent employees.

Image: Virbela

The key to success with the new hybrid work plans is experimenting, according to HR experts. Managers should be willing to drop policies that don't work and try something new, particularly when there are some people working in-person and some working remotely. That could include building a virtual office in the cloud.  

The Virbela team of 180 people "drinks its own champagne," according to CEO and founder Alex Howland, by operating 100% in the virtual world. There are offices, small meeting rooms, a big auditorium, a rooftop space and a speakeasy in the Virbela virtual offices. The team works in offices over six floors and the company keeps one floor open to the public. 

"Anyone can download this software and come into the open campus and visit us in our office," Howland said.

Howland said Virbela employees use the platform in a variety of ways.  

"Some team members sit in their virtual offices so people can walk in, and some people may close their door," he said. "We try to build in opportunities for more social interaction as well so it's not just work."

During Pride month in June, Virbela hired a drag queen to host a trivia night in the speakeasy. 

SEE: PwC finds that virtual reality is the best place to practice difficult conversations (TechRepublic)

Companies are starting to pay more attention to the employee experience. Creating one place that remote and in-person employees can both use could reduce the risk of creating a second-class experience for remote workers. Howland said a virtual environment also can help companies with offices in multiple locations create a hub that is accessible to all employees.

"With that approach, everyone is on the same level playing field and everyone has just as much access to leadership," he said. 

Working in a virtual office avoids the fatigue associated with back-to-back video conferences, according to Howland.

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

In 2012, the company's initial focus was management training for graduate students. Howland has a doctorate in behavioral and organizational psychology. Once he realized virtual training can be as effective as in-person education, he expanded the focus of the platform.

He said that the company has added about 300 new customers since the pandemic started and that there has been significant international interest as well. 

The biggest barriers 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. 

Likens sees two paths for virtual reality at work: Training that is completely virtual that can be done from home and a more collaborative experience that involves several people and physical as well as virtual elements. 

One example of that mixed approach is a conference or live event with in-person attendees as well as a 360-degree camera or other elements that could extend the reality of being in the room for people who are watching online.  

"We're not quite there yet, we really only have the purely simulated world," he said. "The augmented world is still nascent." 

Remote first and a virtual office

eXp Realty was one of Virbela's first customers and has been fully remote since the company was founded in 2009. The residential real estate company has no physical offices. Instead the company operates in a "cloud-based campus," doing everything from recruiting agents to holding board meetings in a virtual office built by Virbela. Currently the company has almost 60,00 agents in 17 countries.

Jason Gesing, eXp Realty's CEO, said learning to use eXp World is a bit like learning to ski. 

"You take four or five runs through campus, and suddenly you're moving with ease, purpose and a newfound sense of freedom and belonging without having to worry about anyone stealing your lunch out of the refrigerator," he said. 

Gesing said hallway and lunchroom conversations are just as much a part of the virtual world as they are in the physical office. 

"Keeping your microphone open when in public spaces is key in the virtual world so you can strike up a conversation with other avatars (i.e. colleagues) in the space that you may recognize," he said. 

SEE: VR training expands to make collaborative education relevant to all workers (TechRepublic) 

The ability to sit across a virtual table and actually feel as if you're in the same room as colleagues or peers is unique to Virbela, according to Gesing.

"With other platforms and video conferencing solutions, it's easy to be distracted by the camera, to remember smiling, to sit up straight, and lots of great ideas and thoughts get lost in the process," he said.

Gesing said that hosting its annual company summits in Virbela's virtual setting allowed agents to attend from around the world, reconnect with colleagues, walk the virtual trade show floor, and attend sessions.  

"We continue to have birthday parties, concerts, speedboat races and baby showers in eXp World, in addition to the nearly 100 hours of live training sessions," he said. 

Gesing said his company has used the virtual office setting to avoid staffing redundancies across geographies, build a strong culture, and revamp the compensation landscape of the real estate industry. 

Building a virtual environment

Virbela has a web version of its software that works in a browser. The other option is to download the Virbela software for a more immersive experience. 

"Most of our customers use our off-the-shelf starter campus and they put their own branding everywhere so it feels like their space," Howland said. 

Virbela's front end is on the Unity platform, the GUI is in a web layer and the backend is in Java Script. Howard said he has hired a lot of people from the gaming industry who want to do something more impactful in building community.

Likens of PwC said that VR companies should build more analytical capabilities into the platforms to get a better understanding of what design elements work best to encourage collaboration. 

"You really want to know who connected and talked and understand the patterns of movement in the environment," he said. "Designing the environment is hard and just rebuilding the settings we had in the real world might not be best."

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