Are virtual offices taking the place of real ones? This is the verdict

Second Life, an online life simulation game developed in 2003 by Linden Lab, allows users to create a virtual avatar to live in an entirely virtual world. Perhaps your avatar has roommates or a family — perhaps they only wear ball gowns, or live on an island in the middle of the ocean, or find themselves in debt after purchasing expensive wallpaper for their virtual home. You can control the movements of your virtual character, meet virtual strangers, eavesdropping on their various audible conversations spoken with the real voices of the individuals behind these various screens, all over the world.

Now imagine that this is your new office. Well, maybe not the ball gowns, or the or the wallpaper. But everything else.

Luckily, whether it’s virtual graduation complete with your capped-and-gowned avatar walking through a mock of Washington Square Park, a virtual career fair, or Travis Scott’s avatar performing in an online concert, companies are beginning to simulate reality everywhere to make up for the coronavirus-induced lack of socialization.

But if you’re someone whose small talk primarily came from your workplace, your quarantine blues could be solved in the near future.

After experiencing months of Zoom fatigue, companies are exhausted with the traditional model of video chatting on precisely scheduled work calls. Wired.com reports that though many businesses claim that productivity is higher than ever in our new work-from-home world, “this semiprivate, semipublic nature of office chat helps give a team a proprioceptive sense of itself, one that’s too often missing in our remote world of one-on-one calls.”

You and your coworkers, all stuck at home, might be bonding with a game of Among Us, or a session of Madden 2020. But it’s just not the same as walking by the water cooler, and overhearing the person in the cubicle down the hall from yours talking about the Grammys. Maybe that’s a person who brightened your day, who you haven’t had the chance to run into organically in almost a year. Even if your relationship was never that deep, it was always pleasurable and added a little joy into an otherwise mundane workday.

Building culture virtual is a new but growing issue. And in the business world, after the discovery that this now-absent natural symbiosis of an in-person workplace has been detrimental to company culture, and have taken the liberty to solve this problem. Companies like Teamwork or Breakroom provide what a Zoom meeting cannot: the opportunity to run into a coworker next to the office fridge, and chat about the weather.

Teamflow

Teamflow is an office simulator that one can run directly on their browser. You can create your own virtual office on a 2D, bird’s-eye-view map reminiscent of a flash game. It’s simple, but effectively solves the problem of being unable to meander around an office, overhearing the idle chatter of your faraway coworkers.

While you don’t get a customizable avatar in Teamflow, you can set the furniture in the room to resemble your real-life office (to a certain extent). Your “character” is a sort of miniaturized round Zoom screen that you can move with your mouse. The closer you click and drag your avatar to your coworkers, the louder their voices get – just like a real office.

While the graphics or features on Teamflow might be a bit less ostentatious than some other software options, they do provide a platform that returns a spark of spontaneity back into one’s workday. They have a free plan, for up to ten employees; for larger firms, they have a yearly plan that charges $15 per employee, per month for small companies, $25 for large ones, like their clients Uber and Disney.

Breakroom

Another option is Breakroom from the company SineSpace, which advertises as being more catered to special events rather than a daily office experience. Available for Mac and PC, this software is much more like Second Life, in which one has a 3D avatar that they navigate around the virtual world of a customized headquarters. Their avatar can walk, run, fly, drive, buy custom clothing, and if one has a working microphone and headset, they can speak in your voice.

Each Breakroom world is made specifically for the company they’re serving. They include everything from “exhibition halls” to “explorable regions, live music venues, cinema and screening rooms or casual game regions and tables.” But it comes at a price; up to $500 per month for up to 50 employees.

Though the program is much more expensive than the free packages offered by other companies, The Wall Street Journal notes that Breakroom has spaces that are “adapted to include pool tables, techno music and in-jokes such as a “memorial” library named for the very-much-alive chief creative officer.”

With clients like WeTransfer or Deutschebank, some of whom have expressed interest in continuing a home office setup far into the future, Breakroom looks like it could be the first of many virtual event spaces offering a casual office experience. Who knows — we could soon live in a world where virtual offices are just as common as in-person ones.