Virtual working has become very popular and over the next decade is going to become more and more so. The reason, it makes more sense for everyone involved and drives inefficiencies out of the system. As business models continue to remove overhead and effectiveness becomes more important the efficiencies, business are going to look for ways to attract better talent and do so in the most economical way.
If you look at the recession we just went through, you will see why this is going to be very important. This recession was very different than recessions of the past. In most recessions, the blue collar workers take the brunt of the pain. But in the recession of the last decade, the group that got hit the hardest was the upper class white collar worker. They took it with both their equity, i.e. their real estate and tech investments, and their jobs. Many were laid off by the tens of thousands without even considering their work quality. What seemed like a rock solid career turned into a bad nightmare.
But where the blue color workers went home, got depressed, got drunk, and ultimately drew into despair, the white collar workers handled it very different. They went home, spent more time with their families, relaxed a little, began assessing their lives and said, “hey this working from home is pretty cool”. Then they started consulting, building new companies, and refocusing their lives in a much more fulfilling way.
As they began working in this new remote and “for hire” model, they began patching together tools like Google Docs, GotoMeeting, Skype, and Base Camp to meet the requirements of this new work style. This showed promise, but also introduced new requirements and exposed a lot of holes. The true Virtual Office needed have more “There There” and users began to look for better solutions. Well the new batch of solutions has now arrived and they are getting closer. Most of them lack several key features and need some UI dressing, but they are providing significantly more value and capabilities.
One that has done a good job of figuring out the requirements is Team Space f Sococo of Mountain View, CA. Team Space provides a virtual office complete with a court yard, conference room, and individual offices. Although the graphics could be improved (a lot), the concept is a pretty good one. You move from room to room by simply clicking to where you want to go. Everyone wears headsets and as you enter a room where other users are present, you can hear and speak to them. This allows you have meetings, private conferences, and even go to the court yard for the proverbial “water cooler” conversation.
Besides chatting and audio conversations, each room is equipped with several shared screens. You can have a project room for a big client and have Base Camp running on one screen, a shared white board on another, and a dashboard with KPIs on the other. Everyone sees the same shared screens and they can easily get up to date on the latest progress. If you go to the conference room everyone can see a shared presentation, just like GotoMeeting or Webex. This is a good concept and users quickly adopt to the metaphor.
Team Space also has a presence bar with all the users showing their current availability and status. You can easily text chat, make a quick audio call, or collaborate on a document. This is similar to Skype and other IMs, but the environment makes it seem more natural and engaging. I am really glad they did not make the big mistake of adding silly avatars like Second Life. I think we are a long way from this type of interaction going mainstream.
So where does it need to improve and what is missing. Well the most obvious is the UI. The little bubble heads are pretty sophomoric and it is hard to feel professional is such “PacMan” environment. If they don’t greatly enhance the UI, they are never going to reach critical mass or the applications potential. If they do, they still have some significant features they need to work on. First, presence should be made richer. The system should track when the user is working, when they will be in the office, and how they are doing on their work assignments. They should either build in a project management system or tightly integrate into one (they should probably do a hybrid of both). It should include time tracking, document management, and good application integration into tools like Google Docs, Salesforce.com, and others. I would also add a cool dashboard system.
Expect a lot more solutions going in this direction. I think that video conferencing is going to play an important part here and so far I have not seen anything that does this well. Skype has probably the work user experience of any solution on the market and tools like Oovoo and FuzeMeeting still have a lot of infrastructure issues. But video conferencing is clearly here to stay and something these systems need to embrace. I do wish Sococo luck and I think they are on to something. This is two steps in the right direction, but they need to raise their game and execute even harder.