Reimagining the Virtual Office, Part 1

by Ben Gaddis

Vaccines are on the horizon, but don’t look for “business as usual” to return anytime soon. This crisis opened us to the possibilities of remote working (and learning), and with only four percent of workers wanting to return to an office full-time after this ends (4%!), it’s time to stop waiting to return to normal and start reimagining the new normal. 

A few months ago, I wrote about the disruption I anticipate in the now-booming video chat space, as well as my prediction: 

A new virtual office communication company will form in the next 12 to 18 months that creates an experience that’s better than in-person human interaction. That game-changing technology will be so vital to the future of work, that by 2028, it will become one of the 20 most valuable companies in the world.

In that article, I mentioned a few of the features I anticipate in this forthcoming technology, and since our reliance on these tools is now dominating our lives (raise your hand if you are on hour five of Zoom meetings today!), it’s worth going deeper on the possibilities.

Reimagining Video Chat

I’ve been testing out mmhmm (prediction: they will change their name!), the first new noteworthy technology launched in this space at the most opportune moment. Right time, right product, and with leadership from former Evernote CEO Phil Libin, it’s not surprising they recently raised a sizable Series A round, bringing their total raise to over $30 million in three rounds over just four months. 

Expect to see a lot more of this.

Mmhmm gets a lot right (minus the name…), and for some reason, they’re the only product that is making waves in meaningfully changing how we give virtual presentations. Dominant platforms like Zoom or Google Meet give you two polarized, unnatural options: Either your audience can see you or your presentation. Not only is that bad for effective communication, but it also makes it more challenging to capture and keep attention. 

By contrast, mmhmm breaks the video chat paradigm. It disrupts the box-in-a-box model and more closely mimics what it’s like to present in a physical room. Mmhmm integrates with existing video chat platforms, so you don’t have to convert everyone to reap the benefits. Most notably, it allows me to make myself varying sizes in front of or beside my slides (or a website/screenshare), a sort of newscaster format that’s effective and familiar. It also offers better virtual backgrounds and “copilot” mode to let someone else control my presentation while I speak or to allow another person to enter and visibly co-present with me, plus other cutting-edge tools that distinguish your presentation from typical Zoom monotony. 

Disembodied presentations don’t exist in real life, and mmhmm proves they don’t need to exist virtually, either — so why are so many users and companies settling for such a frustrating, undynamic user experience? 

This is why I’m compelled to make another prediction: Zoom will buy mmhmm in the next year. Their stock price is booming, so they can afford it, and most other existing competitors are yet to innovate in this way. (Google — in true Google form — may steal some of mmhmm’s features and try to implement them into Google Meet.)

Solving the Drop-In Problem

More realistic and engaging presentations is just one key aspect of recreating the magic of what happens in the physical workplace versus the remote workplace. The other missing piece is, in many ways, a bit more challenging to solve: the periodic, unscheduled, serendipitous coworker “drop-in.”

So far, no one is making headlines in an attempt to solve this underappreciated issue. (Sidekick is trying, but it’s not much different from Zoom, with some added muting functionality.)

Physicist Mervin Kelly was the creative mastermind of the persistent shoulder-rubbing at Bell Labs, one of the most successful and innovative R&D operations in our country’s history. He believed physical proximity was everything, strategically commingling specialists from varied backgrounds as they passed through the exceptionally long halls to force regular, incidental run-ins and chatter that might inadvertently birth an idea or a fruitful collaboration.

But what happens when we no longer share a hall? What might this look like online?

In many ways, Slack would be the most logical company to launch a drop-ins feature, but so far, Slack has been slow to innovate and add game-changing features (its recent acquisition by Salesforce may jumpstart more innovation, though I’m not optimistic). Let’s imagine, however, what a drop-in feature might look like in Slack or as a plug-in to Slack:

Perhaps you set your status to “available” and check into the #dropins channel. Your computer camera switches on, and the live feed of you is added to the checkered screen of other drop-in-ready teammates. 

Maybe the system preemptively matches people in the room who haven’t interacted in a while for an impromptu video chat. Or maybe you need a quick opinion on something, so you scan the room and tap one or more coworkers to pull them into your chat, after which they fade back into the background. 

The mechanics and UX possibilities are vast, but the gist is simple: facilitating and promoting on-demand, video-enabled chatter and collaboration with coworkers on unspecified topics for unspecified periods of time, without ever sending a calendar invite or Zoom link (hallelujah!). 

Scheduled, lengthy video meetings are mentally taxing and limited — if I don’t formally schedule something with you, I might never interact with you — but these on-the-go interactions are what energize our thinking and creative output in the physical offices of yore. Body language and interpersonal dynamics are a huge part of how we connect and communicate, and a much-needed drop-in feature could bring back some of the multidimensionality — and fun — of intraoffice communication. 

* * *

We aren’t going back to the office for the better part of the next year, and given how few people ever want to return, these innovations are more pressing than ever. It won’t be long before we laugh at the simplicity of the current video chat model as we start to not only replicate what happens in the real world, but go beyond it.

In my next installment in this Virtual Office Series, I’ll start to imagine what some of those “better than in person” features might be, starting with your own personal AI assistant. 

Not enough people are talking about the current shortcomings of virtual office technology — perhaps because we’re all too busy in video meetings to address the issue.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a Zoom call.

Ben Gaddis