The ‘Great Resignation‘ marks a turning point in work culture. With the transition to hybrid work becoming widespread, companies are faced with the challenge of keeping employees connected and empowered whilst working remotely.
Historically, offsite meetings have proven to be valuable in bringing teams together, creating connections, and boosting morale. But how can companies deliver this same experience virtually, without jeopardizing company culture?
Setting the scene for experimentation
Ensuring effective communication and engagement is among the many challenges that businesses will face in the hybrid work era. In particular, those with globally distributed teams will need to find new ways to overcome the obstacle of different time zones and schedules, which limits opportunities for meaningful face-to-face interaction.
Ultimately, hybrid work is here to stay and will become even more prevalent over the next few years. Just as the in-person office went through a radical redesign in the past decade, companies will need to iterate, optimize, and recalibrate the way hybrid workspaces are run.
Conducting workplace experiments through technology is a powerful way to test new policies and technologies that improve team productivity and collaboration in the hybrid work era. Modern work experiments can also play an important role in enforcing company culture.
Whether that’s trialing existing technology like virtual reality or asynchronous (async) video, or creating new initiatives and tech integrations, experimenting with the future of work can be extremely useful in empowering employees and redefining modern work norms.
One year after we gathered our team at Loom from around the world in Barbados for the annual offsite in January 2020, we had to rethink our plan for 2021 amidst a global pandemic. We invested in a modern work experiment by hosting our annual offsite virtually instead. In an effort to avoid postponing it, we instead pushed the boundaries of what can be done virtually. Through the use of async video, flexible scheduling, and a virtual reality meeting place, we designed an immersive getaway.
The first step was to find the right partner to bring this experiment to life. We teamed up with Active Replica to create a unique, virtual island getaway called Loom by the Sea. This became our virtual gathering spot for icebreakers, watercooler conversations, and happy hours. The 3D meeting space was accessible through both virtual reality headsets and desktops, offering our fully remote team a new, interactive way to meet up in real-time.
For companies looking to conduct their own virtual offsite, it’s key to remain agile and prepared for the unexpected. Launching Loom by the Sea came with its own lessons – as does every modern work experiment. Here are the key steps we took to navigate the hurdles of our immersive island getaway:
Connect outside of Zoom calls
When searching for the right virtual reality (VR) app, we looked for two main features: apps that would allow four or more people in the same space, and activities that were fun and required collaboration. After trying out different VR apps, we decided that both SculptrVR and Wander fit the bill.
We were able to send every employee an Oculus Quest 2 headset to bring the virtual world to them. We then limited synchronous communication (like Zoom calls) to only two hours per day to keep people engaged.
But one of the biggest challenges we faced with VR was that it took a while for people to get comfortable navigating the platforms. For many, VR is still a new and somewhat unfamiliar technology. At first, employees responded with a mix of curiosity and skepticism, so we paired virtual reality with technology they’re more familiar with, like async video and instant messaging.
Create shared experiences through async video
To create a semblance of the togetherness that would be present during a traditional in-person offsite, we used async video messaging via Loom to stay connected. Async video is a flexible, easy way to scale knowledge-sharing, express your thoughts in less time, and deliver messages with personality. By simply clicking record, employees can share async updates and ideas, while giving themselves and their calendar space to breathe as there’s no need to ‘tune in’ in real-time.
In addition to this, a dedicated offsite Slack channel was created so that everyone could keep up with the schedule and activities, share screenshots and looms, and plan unscheduled activities.
Prioritize engaging, small-group activities
To maximize engagement and fuel new connections, we divided our workforce into teams of four to six, based on their time zones. The interactivity of virtual reality helped teammates feel like they were in the same room together. Interacting in a very large group can often be difficult and disorderly – both in-person and online.
Therefore, participating in smaller groups allowed people to feel more comfortable interacting with each other while expressing themselves creatively. Additionally, smaller groups made it easier to distribute activities based on time zones so that everyone could participate in their workday.
Embrace the glitches
From start to finish, we encountered three major app outages, including on Slack, which made communication difficult at times. On top of this, SculptrVR doesn’t allow for private rooms, so there were a few surprise external visitors popping up in teams.
One thing we did to minimize technological issues was hold an initial guided tour of the VR with support available before the event started. And when unexpected issues arose, we simply went with the flow and took all of these hiccups in our stride, many of them making for a good laugh in the end.
While the integration of new technology isn’t exactly a smooth, indefectible process, it’s clear that our teams need a change from constant video calls and meetings. Embracing solutions like async video and virtual reality is a new way to help your team stay better connected in today’s hybrid workspace.
We may not use all of these solutions permanently, but it helped us give our team a fresh, engaging experience when we couldn’t get together physically. By opening the door to modern work experiments, companies can lead the pack when it comes to revolutionizing the workplace and championing company culture in today’s hybrid world.
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Vice President of People & Operations
Meghana is VP of People & Operations at Loom, where she brings her vast experience in scaling high-functioning and inclusive teams across different time zones. Of note, she previously led people teams at high-growth companies in Europe and the US, including Framer, Catawiki, and NerdWallet, and also founded Third Tactic, a startup that developed training programs for clients like Pinterest, Venmo, and LinkedIn. Meghana started her career at Bain & Company, where she led teams across six global offices.