For a while now, unprecedented events have forced large parts of the world to change the way they work and, perhaps more importantly, from where work is performed. Office workers from around the globe have been working primarily from home, not only changing the way they interact with resources and applications, but also changing how people interact with one another.
If anything, working remotely has the downside of reducing the number (and quality) of human interactions. Whereas before you would have a quick chat at the coffee machine, have lunch together, or catch up with someone in the escalator, these interactions no longer exist. Instead, if you want to maintain these interactions, you would have to purposefully pick up the (virtual) phone and call someone.
Luckily, solutions like Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and others have played an important role in maintaining (human) interactions and collaboration, albeit in a very different way that such interactions took place in the office… Casual in-person chats have been replaced by chat (text) messages, p2p calls, and virtual meetings and so on.
In an attempt to increase (casual) interactions and to not estrange colleagues too much from one another (especially when someone new starts), we had previously already introduced a weekly social hour (on Friday) in which the entire team would get together in a virtual meeting and chit-chat about life, their week, etc.
This weekly social hour has proved valuable, but we still missed the daily small interactions and people still felt somewhat isolated from one another.
Thinking outside of the box
On a cold (and rainy) winter evening, we were brainstorming about how we could improve those interactions, all whilst maintaining compliance with local regulations which pretty much prohibit us from working in the office (rightfully so, I might add). At some point, we had the idea of providing everyone with a Teams Meeting Room device. However, that idea was quickly abandoned because not all our colleagues had the space to store such device; the cost would have been quite impactful too…!
As we continued to brainstorm, we floated the idea of different (types of) devices and came across Teams Displays. These (companion) devices are much smaller than actual meeting rooms, allow you to run Teams, participate in meetings, etc. Quickly, we realized that these devices could be a great way to allow people to attend one meeting, whereas their primary device (computer/laptop) could be used to participate in other meetings, do daily work.
The setup is quite simple. First, we created an all-day meeting to which everyone is invited. Instead of joining the meeting through their primary device, people join through the Teams Display. As such, their primary device remains free to do other work. This is a big advantage: people in their day-to-day activities aren’t disturbed.
From the start, we have made clear that participating in the daily meeting is optional: you don’t have to be present the entire day, you can jump in/out at any given time. When in a meeting, people can mute, disable audio, enable/disable the cam, etc. The goal was not to create a system in which people would track one another, but to have a virtual room in which you could interact casually.
After an initial test, we quickly rolled out devices to all our employees. At +/- 300 EUR per device, the overall cost was acceptable! Afterwards, we would learn that the benefits largely outweigh the cost anyway.
Soon after everyone received their devices, we found ourselves in the virtual office with most of the team. People would casually talk to one another, make fun, joke, have impromptu meetings, etc. These devices brought back the interactions all of us missed so much!
Aside from some of the issues (outlined below), feedback from the team has been overwhelmingly positive. Even those that were a little sceptic at first, love the virtual office and the way it works. Mission accomplished; wouldn’t you agree?
Unfortunately, there are some drawbacks too… For example, there seems to be a (nasty) bug which causes the Teams Display’s Teams client to crash, when someone calls you in Teams and you are also joined to the ‘Virtual Office’-meeting… We are not sure if it’s a problem with the device(s) or with Teams. We have reported this to Microsoft and are eagerly awaiting feedback. So far, it’s been more annoying than really blocking, but we would surely love not having to restart the Teams client on our Display devices every so often.
The virtual office also generated some FOMO. Everyone’s (personal) schedule is different. Some people (like myself) are early risers, whereas others (like Johan) mostly work late. As such, between 6AM and 8PM, there would always be someone in the virtual office. 14 hours spans more than a regular workday, as you can imagine… Because some people were afraid of missing out (FOMO), they would join early and leave late, artificially extending their workday way beyond what someone would normally work. Obviously, this was not what we had in mind. Luckily, this was brought to attention, and people now know they’re should really not do that and continue to work their own schedules when and how they want. In very much the same was as they would in a physical office.
I imagine that we will continue to learn how this experiment works, or not. We have only been into this a little over a week but will not be giving up on it. If anything, I can highly recommend organizations struggling to maintain interactions to investigate similar solutions/options. If anything: thinking outside the box really works. The cost of 300 EUR per person is nothing compared to the benefits such as the improved happiness and the fact that people feel less isolated.
I imagine that we will keep the virtual office perpetually. Even when we can get back to the office, not everyone will work from the office all the time. That way, they can remain connected, even when not being physically present. If you ask me: the future is hybrid…!