Meet Me at the Virtual Water Cooler

In the pre-pandemic office, for example, you would run into co-workers and strike up impromptu conversations throughout the day — about your pets, your boss, whatever project you were in the middle of. Information would be disseminated, ideas exchanged, additional meetings scheduled. But on Zoom, moving from one meeting to another means choosing which buttons to click. There’s no buffer for serendipity and fewer opportunities for bonding. The sales rep who dropped by to meet with a client before the pandemic got to walk through the office and say hi to everyone. The next time the client needed to buy new customer-relations-management software, she might not recall which product had the most security features, but she would remember that one charming sales rep who went to her alma mater. Now those in sales have to demo a product over Zoom. Because they have to share their screens, they can’t take full advantage of their charisma or poise. The best they can do to cultivate a relationship, post-sales pitch, is send a follow-up email. Maybe a meme.

Before the pandemic, if you were a senior engineer or an academic, you could count on attending a few conferences a year with others in your field. You’d walk around the various company booths, pick up some logoed giveaways, get a quick summary of the latest technology or paper over dinner and tack on a few vacation days at the end. A pandemic conference, in contrast, is a series of 300-person Zoom calls in which only one person can ever speak at a time.

It’s a testament to the fecundity of Silicon Valley that so many start-ups dedicated to countering such work-from-home limitations have mushroomed in the last year. Hopin, which was founded in 2019, gained traction as thousands of academic and corporate conferences moved online; clients have included the United Nations and TechCrunch Disrupt. Compared with Zoom or, Hopin requires more preparation and setup: Clients have to design their virtual venue by deciding on everything from color schemes and logos to sponsors and schedules. “The example I like to give is, you’re renting out a big building for an event,” says Johnny Boufarhat, Hopin’s founder and chief executive. “The office floor probably has a meeting room, which are the videoconferencing platforms,” like Zoom. “But then downstairs, on the ground floor of the building, there’s usually a big venue, and the venue can turn into whatever you want — maybe you’re hosting a recruitment night; maybe we’ll see a conference; maybe you’re hosting a meet-up.”

Each event starts at a Hopin profile page. The “enter” button takes you to the virtual-conference home page. On the right side, there’s a running group chat. On the left, there’s the banner for the conference and a list of all the live speaker sessions. Clicking on one of them takes you into a Zoom-like room. Within that room, the audience can vote on questions to put to the speaker. You can also search through a comprehensive list of the conference attendees and invite any of them into an individual video chat.

While Hopin’s focus is on efficiency, there are other start-ups that more actively seek to recreate the chance encounters of the workplace. The virtual offices created by Teamflow and Branch come with personal desks, common areas and private conference rooms. On Teamflow, your video appears as a bubble on a virtual office plan, which you can move around the office by typing on your keyboard. When you want to check on co-workers, you just “walk” up to them. When you are going to your next meeting, you might “bump” into someone.

Much of the inspiration animating this bloom of spatial meeting platforms comes from video games. Yang Mou, the chief executive of Kumospace, was a competitive StarCraft player in college and, once lockdowns started happening, wondered why it was that he could spend hours and hours playing online with his friends and not want to stop, while Zoom meetings engendered only fatigue. In creating Kumospace, he was particularly influenced by massively multiplayer online role-playing games like World of Warcraft. “One of the jokes is that it’s a glorified chat room,” he says. “You play the game, you run out of stuff to do and then you’re really just hanging out with friends.” He adds, “It’s like going to the mall.”

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