Virbela creates virtual spaces to recreate the office experience in a simulated space for workers in all time zones.
The key to success with new hybrid work plans is to experiment, according to HR experts. Administrators should be willing to put aside policies that don’t work and try something new, especially when there are people working in person and others working remotely. This could include building a virtual office in the cloud.
The Virbela team, made up of 180 people, “drinks their own champagne,” according to CEO and founder Alex Howland, operating 100% in the virtual world. There are offices, small meeting rooms, a large auditorium, a rooftop space and a chat room in Virbela’s virtual offices. The team works in six-story offices and the company maintains a floor open to the public.
“Anyone can download this software and enter the open campus and visit us in our office,” Howland said.
Howland said Virbela employees use the platform in several ways.
“Some team members sit in their virtual offices so people can come in and some people close the door,” he said. “We also try to generate opportunities for greater social interaction, so it’s not just a job.”
During Pride Month in June, Virbela hired a drag queen to host a night of trivia at the venue.
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Companies are starting to pay more attention to the employee experience. Creating a site that both remote and face-to-face employees can use could reduce the risk of creating a second-class experience for remote workers. Howland said a virtual environment can also help companies with offices in multiple locations create an accessible center for all employees.
“With this approach, everyone has the same level of play and everyone has the same access to leadership,” he said.
Working in a virtual office avoids the fatigue associated with back-to-back video conferencing, according to Howland.
“There’s a bit of a cognitive load when you try something new, but your brain adapts,” he said.
In 2012, the company’s initial focus was on management training for graduate students. Howland has a PhD in behavioral and organizational psychology. Once he realized that virtual training can be as effective as face-to-face education, he broadened the focus of the platform.
He said the company has added about 300 new customers since the pandemic began and that there has also been significant international interest.
The biggest barriers to the wider adoption of virtual reality in the workplace are the idea that technology is just for play and the fear that it will be difficult to implement, according to Scott Likens, PwC’s emerging technology leader.
“Once we force our executives into it, they have a light bulb moment,” he said.
Likens sees two paths to virtual reality at work: a completely virtual training that can be done from home and a more collaborative experience involving various people and physical and virtual elements.
An example of this mixed approach is a live conference or event with face-to-face attendees, as well as a 360-degree camera or other items that could broaden the reality of being in the living room of people who are watching online.
“We’re not there yet, we really only have the purely simulated world,” he said. “The augmented world is still in its infancy.”
First remote and a virtual office
eXp Realty was one of Virbela’s first clients and is totally away since the company was founded in 2009. The residential real estate company has no physical offices. Instead, the company operates on a “cloud-based campus,” from hiring agents to holding board meetings in a virtual office built by Virbela. The company currently has about 60,000 agents in 17 countries.
Jason Gesing, CEO of eXp Realty, said learning to use eXp World is a bit like learning to ski.
“Take four or five runs around campus and you suddenly move with ease, purpose and a new sense of freedom and belonging without having to worry about anyone stealing your lunch from the fridge,” he said.
Gesing said conversations in the hallway and dining room are part of the virtual world like the physical office.
“Keeping the microphone open in public spaces is key in the virtual world so you can start a conversation with other avatars (i.e., peers) in the space you can recognize,” he said.
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According to Gesing, the ability to sit at the virtual table and feel like you are in the same room as your classmates is exclusive to Virbela.
“With other video conferencing platforms and solutions, it’s easy to get distracted by the camera, remember smiles, sit up straight and a lot of fantastic ideas and thoughts are lost in the process,” he said.
Gesing said hosting its annual business summits in Virbela’s virtual environment allowed agents to attend from around the world, reunite with colleagues, tour the virtual fairgrounds and attend sessions.
“We continue to have birthday parties, concerts, speedboat races and baby showers at eXp World, in addition to the nearly 100 hours of live training sessions,” he said.
Gesing said his company has used virtual office setup to avoid staff redundancies in various geographies, build a strong culture and renew the real estate compensation landscape.
Build 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 clients use our initial campus and offer their own brand everywhere to make it look like their space,” Howland said.
The front of Virbela is on the Unity platform, the graphical user interface is on a web layer and the back is on 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.
PwC’s Likens said RV companies should incorporate more analytical capabilities into platforms to better understand which design elements work best to foster collaboration.
“You really want to know who was connecting and talking and understanding the movement patterns in the environment,” he said. “Designing the environment is difficult and simply rebuilding the setup we had in the real world might not be the best.”