Miss Your Office? Some Companies Are Building Virtual Replicas

https://www.wsj.com/articles/miss-your-office-some-companies-are-building-virtual-replicas-11590573600

Stay-home orders and the shuttering of workplaces have given corporate employees some respite from getting dragged into time-wasting water-cooler conversations.


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But some companies and their employees don’t want to leave everything about the office behind, it turns out, and are replicating their offices in “SimCity”-like simulations online.

File-transfer service WeTransfer BV opened its virtual space on May 1, almost seven weeks after closing its physical offices in New York, Los Angeles and Amsterdam as part of the global effort to slow the spread of the new coronavirus.

Graphics reminiscent of early “Tomb Raider” videogames depict a version of the company’s Dutch headquarters, adapted to include pool tables, techno music and in-jokes such as a “memorial” library named for the very- much-alive chief creative officer. Staff roam around in the form of avatars such as robots and panda bears.

Gordon Willoughby, the chief executive of WeTransfer, said the platform helps provide the social experience of office life in the way that Zoom calls and Slack have replaced business meetings and desk-side chats. That is particularly valuable for recent hires, he said.

“Those of us who have been working at WeTransfer for a while are able to live off the social capital we built up from all those serendipitous meetings and chats before,” Mr. Willoughby said. “For new people, that’s much harder. The 3-D office is a really good way of maintaining that unplanned connectivity.”

WeTransfer employees tend to use the virtual world for daily stand-up meetings and happy hours; business planning is kept to tools such as Google Hangouts. Julia Shapiro, senior director of marketing in the company’s Los Angeles office, said the simulated office offers a welcome change of scenery from her kitchen table, where she has been working during the lockdown.

“It adds a little excitement to what would just be eight hours of video calls in a day,” she said.

Facebook Inc., Twitter Inc., Coinbase Inc. and Shopify Inc. recently said many of their employees will work remotely in the future, even after the pandemic recedes. But some employers worry about losing positive elements of a shared workplace, such as the serendipity of in-person interactions.

A crop of technology companies stand ready to help.

Sine Wave Entertainment Ltd. last month introduced Breakroom, a virtual-world product for remote workforces. It can accommodate all-hands meetings, secure one-on-ones and document sharing. Clients of the product include Virgin Group Ltd. and Torque Esports Corp.

Many customers initially assume they will recreate their offices, then realize they can make tweaks that would be impossible in the real world, said Sine Wave CEO Rohan Freeman.

“We spend our lives wishing we were working in open, sunny campuses with butterflies outside,” Mr. Freeman said. “Here you can realize that dream.”

Although clients can use Breakroom to create their office utopia, the platform also enables real-world elements such additional privileges for senior staff. In Sine Wave’s own virtual world, senior members can lock the boardroom, which is located on top of a hill overlooking the rest of the office.

Some virtual office spaces predate the pandemic.

Italian energy company Enel SpA has been working with Spatial Systems Inc. over the past year to assemble workers as avatars in a meeting room combining augmented reality and virtual reality.

Marina Lombardi, head of new technologies and innovation-network technology and innovation at Enel, said the service has proven to be particularly valuable during emergencies, “when the need for colleagues to be connected in the fastest and most effective way becomes vital.”

“The tool is going to be even more important in the situation of prolonged remote work generated by the Covid-19 pandemic,” Ms. Lombardi said.

Unlike real estate, there is no standard formula to calculate the price of a virtual office. Enel wouldn’t divulge how much it spends on Spatial. Breakroom costs $500 a month for up to 50 employees. WeTransfer hired agencies Achtung mcgarrybowen and Isobar to create a proprietary virtual office and doesn’t have to pay a monthly license to use the space.

Educators are exploring the concept as well.

The School of Communication Arts in London is on its second simulation since it closed its physical doors on March 16. Marc Lewis, the college’s dean, has committed to spending £10,000 on testing virtual office products to host lectures and keep connected to students.

Students now use a platform called Walkabout to traverse their own digital offices—a perk they don’t receive in the real world—as well as hangouts such as a bar and a smoking area. Avatars don’t drink or smoke there, but the décor is designed to encourage more casual, spontaneous conversation. The hangout areas also act as de facto meeting spaces if other rooms are occupied.

WeTransfer plans to keep the virtual office once its physical equivalents reopen. Mr. Willoughby wants to see more remote working even after the coronavirus pandemic abates, and said the platform will help in that transition.

“But I’m not sure we’re going to allow people to create their perfect office,” he said. “I don’t want to raise expectations of the physical space too much.”

Write to Katie Deighton at katie.deighton@wsj.com

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