The office ain't what it used to be. We know better now than to wrap ourselves only in lines of gray, uniform cubicles. Plant walls, swingsets, restaurant-like kitchens--those are real office design options. But teams aren't what they used to be either. Now more than ever, you need a way to accommodate a distributed, global workforce and those within the gig economy.

Where virtual offices come in (and disappoint)

Virtual platforms aren't anything new--Slack, for example, lets me touch base with my Inc editors and colleagues every day. But many of these options don't give the feel of an office because they aren't designed like one, boiling down to glorified chat rooms where it's difficult to really see or understand how or where everyone is working at a given time.

But we might be getting closer to something that feels a whole lot better

Sococo is a virtual office company that's rethinking virtual design and the psychology necessary for an effective virtual space. The platform mimics a real layout, so with the use of avatars, you can see if someone is in the "conference room", at their desk or going to grab someone for a meeting. You can even knock on virtual doors to be allowed access to meetings or see whether someone is sharing their computer screen. This makes it an easy way for managers and coworkers alike to keep tabs on work with good transparency, even as they eliminate many of the noises and distractions that brick-and-mortar offices (especially open spaces) can bring.

"The most significant benefit of coming to work in Sococo is the sense of presence and proximity you get from seeing work happen in real-time on the screen," says CEO Marc Kirshbaum. "Working in a Sococo online office models the 'social awareness' and accountability of the workplace without sacrificing the flexibility of choosing where you work."

And to put it in the words of  of Sococo's customers, consider this comment:

"I can 'see' who is in the office. I love the floor plan with offices. Somehow this is more 'real' than a green dot in Slack saying someone is available and online."

 

Or this:

"The problem Sococo solved for us was loneliness. We're thrilled that our virtual office was able to make such a significant difference in the lives of [our] employees."

"Remote workers that work in Sococo don't feel isolated because they're not," Kirshbaum asserts. "They are 'virtually co-located' with their team, and that synchronous online presence drives connections that boost both organizational outcomes and individual well-being."

Kirshbaum easily sees the relationship between connectedness in the workspace, results and worker satisfaction. He cites a Gallup study that found that people who have a best friend at work are 7 times more likely to be engaged in their jobs.

So while it's tempting to see virtual offices merely as an innovative way to cut costs and find the skilled workers you need anywhere, it's important to recognize that, just as with physical space, the way they're designed makes a huge difference to mental health. Function goes much deeper than just being able to share a document, access a bot or monitor a project status. There is a real need to let people feel like their interactions will deliver some of the same returns in-person communications provide.

Of course, what about "higher tech" options like augmented reality?

Companies like Facebook and Google already are developing software and hardware to integrate these options into virtual spaces. These can make platforms like Sococo seem comically simple on the surface, but they don't necessarily give you the big picture of what people are doing or where they are like Sococo does. There are other problems associated with AR we're working to correct, too, such as feelings of disorientation and the cost of the equipment. In the future, platforms like Sococo could find ways to make use of these perfected innovations without losing the company's original sense of scope.

For now, Kirshbaum says the best way to approach Sococo is to treat it exactly like you would a physical office.

"Start your day by stepping into your company's Sococo online office and treat it like you would a physical office," he recommends. "Set your availability, pop into your colleagues' office to ask a question instead of sending them an email, stay signed in throughout the day, and turn on your camera when you're in a meeting. Weaving these human interactions into your workday not only reduces feelings of isolation, but also shines through in your work--your team will be more creative, collaborative, and productive."

Published on: Dec 18, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.