How technology can recreate the office experience—all online

While many employees are on high alert for physical symptoms of COVID-19, they’re likely all too familiar with a work-related symptom of the pandemic that many have struggled with for months: Zoom fatigue.

As workforces went remote, employees and employers quickly learned that interacting with co-workers in one Zoom meeting after another just isn’t the same as brainstorming with them in a conference room or chatting in the employee lounge. So some employers are seeking online tools that further engage employees by making them feel as if they’re back at the office.

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“That’s what everyone is struggling with at the moment,” says Vishal Punwani, CEO of Sophya, a virtual office platform. “On the productivity side, there are a lot of office-type tools like Google Docs that are able to be used remotely. But if you think about what the workplace was like for employees, there’s a lot that happens, like human interaction, that technology doesn’t facilitate in ways that make your company strong.”

In the now-remote world, HR professionals need to ask if information is effectively being shared, communicated or disseminated—either top-down or laterally. Likewise, how can HR better facilitate collaboration among employees beyond email, phone calls and Zoom?

Related: Employee engagement is hard; how to overcome that

“The impromptu meetings after big board meetings, serendipitous run-ins with co-workers or spontaneous conversations with employees are not facilitated by tools that are available today,” says Punwani. “If you can move information super fast, faster than the next guy, you’re probably going to win.”

His company recognized this challenge and built a virtual platform called Sophya. Just like in a real office, employees can instantly connect or engage in conversations with co-workers. No scheduling, Zoom links, dial-in numbers, passwords or codes are needed.

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“Employees can gather in beautiful 3D workplaces either built by Sophya or modeled after their real workplace, all in the web browser, with no downloads required,” Punwani says, adding that the platform also includes whiteboards, games and even music for hosting virtual company parties or events. “Each teammate gets a personalized avatar and can simply walk up to others they need to meet to trigger a video connection for rapid information flow, conversations and decision-making.”

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Related: Sustaining engagement with newly remote workers

The tool couldn’t be more timely. Consider that remote workdays have more than doubled since last year and that one in four U.S. employees now works entirely from home, according to Gallup’s recent Work and Education poll. That number will rise, Punwani says, as tech giants like Microsoft, Dropbox, Pinterest and others change how their employees work, either remotely or in some type of hybrid arrangement—with many other employers to follow. Next year, he says, technology that enhances engagement for remote workers will become even more critical.

“It all comes down to one word: intentionality,” Punwani says.  “What is the intention behind what you’re doing to help your team [thrive] in the current environment and beyond?”

Coming soon: Workers are concerned about quality of life; Here’s how HR can help

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