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Tech’s next big task: Taking the office water cooler virtual

Innovators in the remote-work space are rushing to build and modify digital services that help people feel like they are working together when they are miles apart

Ever since the coronavirus pandemic struck and the work world went remote, there has been a giant hole where face-to-face interactions used to be. When co-workers can’t see each other, it is more than just a potential morale issue. Proximity and serendipitous encounters have long been associated with increased collaboration and innovation.

So employers are looking to replace their whiteboards and coffee stations with digital products and services that attempt to mimic virtually what we are missing out on in person. Businesses that were at the forefront of remote-work solutions when the pandemic hit found themselves winning a lottery of sorts. But replacing in-person connections is hard, and it will only get harder as some—though probably not all—workers return to the office.

“The water cooler as a place to build relationships just evaporated when everybody went remote," said Dan Manian, the chief executive of workplace-networking software maker Donut Technologies Inc.

Launched in 2016 in New York City, the Donut service uses an algorithm to introduce employees to people on other teams or in other departments every few weeks. It opens a direct message with the person you’ve been paired with in Slack. Donut plans to eventually expand its services to companies that don’t use Slack.

Since the pandemic shut offices, clients have started using Donut in ways the company didn’t originally anticipate.

“Pre-Covid we were about, ‘Let me help you meet someone new,’" said Mr. Manian. “That’s still the case, but now it’s also, ‘Let me help you connect with the person that you haven’t seen in three weeks because you used to sit next to them.’"

After workers were sent home, Donut users started asking for daily connections. Now employees can create different programs that pair people up on a schedule. For example, team members might get prompted to catch up for 15 minutes, several times a week. The Slack notification can include meeting-agenda notes and suggested times to chat based on everybody’s calendar availability.

Mr. Manian said 12,000 companies use Donut world-wide—6,000 having started since March. Some clients have started using Donut for onboarding new employees by pairing them with the roster of people who would otherwise be guiding them through their first several weeks.

An app called Hallway also uses Slack to foster impromptu interactions, but it takes a different approach. In a Slack channel of the users’ choosing, it posts a video-chat link every couple of hours. The chat only lasts 10 minutes, and is meant to replace those break-room encounters that have dwindled in recent months. Users can launch their own quick video chats with a simple command.

“My roommate was complaining about how he was going stir crazy," said Parthi Loganathan, Hallway’s founder and chief executive.

Mr. Loganathan, who had been working on another app before the pandemic, decided to turn his attention to Hallway in April, building it over the course of four days. The app is now used by close to 900 companies.

While he thinks of Hallway as a stopgap for businesses that will need to have many of their employees in the office—those that make hardware, for example—he believes it has staying power for people working in desk jobs.

Miro aims to digitize the office whiteboard with a service allowing employees to fill a shared screen with virtual sticky notes. They can vote on them, group them together and build them out, just as they might in an in-person brainstorming session. The group can set a timer to make sure it doesn’t get off track.

Miro has been around since 2011, but growth has soared during the pandemic. It now has more than eight million users on 40,000 paid accounts, more than double the 3.7 million users and 14,800 accounts as of March 1.

As it has learned more about customers’ needs during this period, Miro has adjusted the product, such as by adding attention-management features to help combat conference-call fatigue. A presenter can now draw everyone’s attention to a specific part of the whiteboard at the same time, for instance. In July, the company added the ability for those using Microsoft Teams to embed the Miro app directly into their user interface so employees have fewer apps to toggle between.

Microsoft Corp. added other new capabilities to Teams since the pandemic started, including virtual whiteboard sticky notes and the ability for people to “raise their hands" in meetings. The company also released Together mode, which uses artificial intelligence to cut out each person on a video chat, and superimpose them all against a shared background. It can visualize them together at a table, for instance, or in different seats of an auditorium.

Nicholas Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford University who studies management practices, said company leaders share three particular concerns about employees working from home: their mental well-being, continued innovation and the rapid transfer of knowledge.

In his own work, Prof. Bloom has found that new ideas and projects often emerge when colleagues are sitting together over relaxed lunches or in meeting rooms in front of whiteboards. “It’s honestly hard to replicate that," he said.

But developers are trying. Prof. Bloom said that patent applications that mention “working from home" have nearly doubled since January.

He said companies will eventually want more of their employees back in the office, but technologies like Donut and Miro can provide partial solutions. “They’re like aspirin for a headache," he said.

Eddie Obeng, a professor at Henley Business School at the University of Reading in the U.K., created a virtual-reality tool called Qube about a decade ago for the purpose of teaching executives remotely. It is a cartoonlike 3-D campus filled with meeting rooms, common areas and outdoor green spaces, with giant video screens and whiteboards scattered around.

Avatars can walk up and tap one another, then go find a spot to catch up. When avatars sit together at a table, or gather before a whiteboard in beanbag chairs, they can have a private conversation that others in the room can’t hear. Prof. Obeng said Qube is now used by some offices of the accounting firm Deloitte and the Japanese technology company Fujitsu Ltd.

He has learned valuable lessons about remote work through clients and executive students using the program. Avatars were originally humanlike, but people were too focused on their own appearance—and the appearance of others.

“If the avatar looked like your old schoolteacher who you hated, you would stay away from them," said Prof. Obeng. “The introverts hated building their own avatars. They didn’t want to be seen." Now the avatars have block-shaped heads.

One challenge of the moment, Prof. Obeng said, is that employees are using tools and methods that weren’t designed for the current world in which we are living.

“They’re finding it hard to get anything done. Their productivity is terrible," he said. “They don’t feel included. They don’t feel part of something, so they feel quite lonely."

Yet products that aim to reduce loneliness and increase contact between co-workers can sometimes feel like surveillance gear. Sidekick, for instance, is a tablet-based video portal that is always on. Co-workers can tap on one another’s video feeds, unmute themselves, and then just start chatting, sort of like walking up to someone’s desk.

“People just genuinely miss each other’s presence," said Arthur Wu, co-founder and chief operating officer of Sidekick’s maker, Realism Labs Inc. He thinks Zoom meetings are too scheduled to feel spontaneous. “It doesn’t actually feel like you’re there with your teammates."

With Sidekick, you can see the device out of the corner of your eye (kind of like your old deskmates) but it isn’t something you are staring at all the time. You can set a do-not-disturb mode when you are in other meetings, and when you turn off the screen at the end of the day, said Mr. Wu, that signifies “leaving the office." Users who get squirmy about giving colleagues such easy access have taken to putting Post-it Notes over the camera.

The idea was born out of a group of former Palantir Technologies Inc. employees based in different cities who realized they came up with their best ideas when they met up in person. Sidekick was originally made for a 55-inch screen; workers would just walk up and join conversations with people in other offices. Once the pandemic hit, the company moved to 10-inch tablets that employees keep at home. About 80 companies now use Sidekick.

As companies begin reopening facilities, Mr. Wu anticipates some employees will continue using at-home Sidekick tablets to stay connected with their colleagues in the office, who would use the larger screens.

Prof. Bloom said that a likely scenario is that companies will allow various groups of employees back in the office on a certain schedule. Perhaps there could be three days a week where they could schedule in-person meetings and brainstorms with colleagues. While that might reduce the need for products that replicate in-person interactions, he doesn’t think companies’ interest in them will go away.

“It may taper off, but I wouldn’t say it would be a giant crash," he said.

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