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Will a virtual workplace turn you and your coworkers into animal avatars?

COVID-19 cemented the future for a hybrid workforce. But there’s only so much Zoom you can do. And Slack emojis only go so far.

Enter: virtual workplaces where people work virtually as animal emojis or video bubbles, moving like video game characters through an office map or sharing music, gifs, links and videos on a page, complete with themed imagery.

Sound bizarre? A number of startups are building this future today, and plenty of big companies are testing them out, as we move one step closer to the next phase of the Internet: the metaverse, or the 2D, and eventually 3D, virtual realm in which we play, shop, socialize and… even work.

Some believe that eventually, we will straddle an all-encompassing digital/physical world, wearing AR glasses or virtual reality headgear. Imagine: Bob in accounting wears AR glasses in the office, which show colleagues that he’s physically standing at the coffee maker in the breakroom. Meanwhile, Jane in marketing is working at home and notes his location. She moves her avatar in the virtual world closer to the virtual coffee maker in the virtual office breakroom and then starts a real-life video conversation with Bob through his glasses.

The Metaverse of Work

That future may seem strange and distant, but we’re closer than you’d think—whether you like it or not. The metaverse that started out as an idea drawn from dystopian sci-fi novels is now a moonshot for many Silicon Valley tech giants. Facebook announced ambitious plans to become a major player in the metaverse. It recently launched a beta program for the Oculus Quest virtual reality headset called Horizon Workrooms, which creates a virtual reality experience specifically for people to work together in. As many as 16 people can be in virtual reality in the space, and another 34 can join over a video call without a headset. 

Meanwhile, Microsoft is working on building the “enterprise metaverse,” which would allow virtual telepresence in VR and AR across the HoloLens, VR headsets, smartphones and smart glassesApple is said to be developing AR glasses to bring augmented reality to your iPhone. Digital avatars are popular in Snapchat’s Bitmoji, Apple’s Memojis, Roblox’s—and the sale of virtual goods, such as character skins for games, fashion, real estate and art, is expected to become a $190 billion market in four years.

Now venture capitalists are pouring millions of dollars into a string of startups selling virtual workspace for employers. In the virtual world, you may work from a cartoon couch next to a cartoon labrador retriever. Or your office may be a castle, or a beach. As if in a video game, you may wander through a digital office and bump into colleagues, shown as a circular video of them or maybe as a pixel-laden horse avatar.

There’s Gather.Town, which has been dubbed: “Minecraft meets Zoom.” Users move through an office akin to a video-game with pixel avatars, and features allow for spontaneous interactions such as “shoulder taps” to prompt someone to chat, or pool tables for an impromptu game of virtual pool with colleagues. Sequoia Ventures led a $26 million investment in Gather in March. There are others with names like Toucan, WTEAM, Loop Team, Sococo, Kumospace, RemoteHQ, Pragli, Workfrom, Tandem, With, Branch, Workfrom, Reslash, Teamflow, Around, and Topia. Some of them started out as places to gather during lockdown for a virtual party or for a conference—such as the 10,000-person NeurIPs conference held on Gather last December—but they’ve since evolved to accommodate remote office spaces, virtual communities and simulated campus spaces.

Whiteboards, plants and couches

Some platforms offer shared whiteboards, asynchronous chat, and document sharing, while others offer real-time polls, shared Spotify playlists and more. Most let you move your avatar or video icon through your colleagues’ various virtual rooms. Get closer to another person’s bubble, and you can hear them. Move away, and you don’t. 

Reslash describes itself as “meme-soaked gif-spangled shared screens” where users are encouraged to make a mess in the name of unstructured creativity, with whiteboards, links and videos. Says Reslash founder Ashwin Gupta: “We want to blur the lines between the virtual and the office.” 

Meanwhile, San Francisco-based Teamflow users can decorate their virtual offices with sofas, decorative rugs and plants, and can create specific project rooms. Teamflow cofounder Flo Crivello compares the platform to a complex operating system, with various rooms for specific projects, where groups can video conference and work on shared Google docs simultaneously, collaborate on scratch pads and move around office space. 

Buoyed by $50 million from investors, Teamflow plans to build AI tools, video and microphone hardware that makes it easier for people working inside an office to collaborate with remote workers. Think: a camera that frames the video around the face and follows a person around the office or a microphone that can eliminate background noise and other participant’s voices. Says Crivello: “Ten years from now, we’ll wonder how we worked before virtual offices just like we wonder how we worked without email.”

Large companies experimenting

Apple, Uber and Reddit have tested Teamflow. Employees at Sony, Panasonic, LinkedIn, Salesforce and McKinsey, as well as staff at Harvard, Stanford, Yale and MIT, are using SpacialChat, while Shopify, IBM, Lufthansa use a platform called Remo for virtual events. 

A few people, including Everette Kohl, have already moved beyond 2D workplaces. The founder of Dbilia, a blockchain trading platform, says he spends most of his day working in the metaverse with VR glasses. “We all hang out and talk in virtual reality for business meetings,” he says. “This is the way the world is headed.”

Still, no one has yet to figure out how to make hybrid meetings desirable for people in a conference room. The video and sound still don’t quite work well for in-office groups conferencing with remote workers, says Jason Freedman, partner at Peak State Partners, which is investing in the future of workspace.

“We’re heavily in the experimentation phase,” Freedman says. The company that figures out the secret? It’ll be worth billions. Freedman expects to see more innovative ideas come out of the Zoom Marketplace—akin to an app store for remote work apps. 

Too much Big Brother?

While remote work tools are a must going forward, these new virtual platforms don’t necessarily appeal to everyone—even those very comfortable with working from anywhere. Take Sarah Hawley, an Austin-based founder and CEO of Growmotely, a remote work job board. Her 20-person team uses Basecamp for workflow but also relies on voice notes on smart phone text messaging to get information to people when timing doesn’t work for a call. She has also used Tandem for drop-in social hours for the team. But Tandem’s platform’s always-on nature with cameras makes her feel uncomfortable, because it alerts you in real-time as to who is online. 

“I want people to feel free to do their work whenever and however they want,” she says. “Knowing when everyone is online can create a culture of big brother, so I stay away from those tools.” 

Whether you embrace them now or not, there is no doubt that the way we work—and connect—both at home and in the office is changing. And the tailwinds of innovation that came out of the COVID-19 lockdown have yet to die down.