One of the issues facing many housing providers during the pandemic has been about how their employees can engage with one other while working from home. Webinars are useful and phone calls have their place, but nothing quite matches up to face-to-face meetings.
In an effort to fill this gap, Thirteen Group has turned to an innovative online platform that lets staff meet up and have the more informal interactions that video-calling systems can’t quite replicate.
Thirteen worked with developer Virbela to launch a bespoke ‘virtual campus’ called Virteen – a web-based system where its staff can create their own avatars, wander around an online world to go to meetings, events and presentations, and have the impromptu encounters that they’ve been missing over the past year.
Hassan Bahrani, head of IT, Thirteen Group, said, “We worked with our colleagues in our facilities and HR teams, and last year they asked Thirteen’s staff about how they felt the home-working arrangements were going for them. A common thread centred on how much people missed bumping into each other and having those all-important spontaneous conversations.
“We’ve already been using Microsoft Teams as a collaborative tool for a few years, and while it’s been great for formal, planned meetings, it’s more limited when it comes to informal catch-ups.”
Bahrani thinks that the Virbela platform offers a glimpse into the future of work post-coronavirus; a place where ‘water-cooler moments’ can be replicated, increasing chance encounters and boosting collaborative working.
Virteen also offers an escape from home-working offices, providing staff with a sense that they have taken a trip somewhere, which could help to tackle the wellbeing issues sometimes arising from prolonged and enforced working from home.
Bahrani said, “Because agile working was already well integrated into Thirteen’s culture, the transition to working from home for our office-based staff was relatively smooth. However, the inevitable lack of face-to-face contact and the loss of those water-cooler conversations, which can often lead to great things, was highlighted as being a real issue.
“Teams is our usual tool for pre-arranged, one-to-one meetings and group work, but for a little more flexibility and informality in our interactions, Virteen will offer something a bit different.”
Virbela provided a base template which Thirteen then customised to create its Virteen platform. The virtual campus comprises a main office building with large presentation spaces, meeting rooms and smaller offices around the campus which can host the same range of business activities as offered by Thirteen’s real-world facilities.
Each visitor creates their own avatar to wander through the buildings, outdoor areas, atrium or seaside promenade – there’s even a speedboat waiting on the quay for Thirteen’s staff to jump into!
Visitors can either make their way to a planned event or meeting or just amble around the campus taking in the sights and bumping into colleagues whom they might not have ‘seen’ in over a year.
Bahrani said, “Virteen was intended to be a fully immersive environment. When you finish your session, it really does feel like you’ve escaped your home office for a while.
“As well as for business use, the staff testing the system have been visiting Virteen for social events and we’re looking at running things such as award ceremonies, presentations and other more fun and collaborative events.”
Sean Washak, European sales lead, Virbela, said, “Virbela creates immersive spaces that bring in-person experiences to life online and enable better remote team collaboration.
“Within the Virteen campus powered by Virbela, Thirteen can recreate the feeling of its traditional office space through opportunities for spontaneous connection between colleagues, meeting spaces equipped with familiar presentation tools, and a sense of presence within the 3D campus.”
As a novel system for the housing sector (we believe this is the instance of a UK housing provider using Virbela’s platform), Thirteen is taking a measured approach with its implementation.
Virteen is first being deployed to a modest proportion of Thirteen’s workforce to gauge its success, who will then hopefully become evangelists for the system before its final implementation.
Bahrani said, “We decided a long time ago to encourage more agile working and push for a more output-driven culture, rather than an hours-driven one.
“A lot has changed for our staff during the past year and as a business, we’ve spent a great deal of time considering how people will meet and work post-coronavirus. It’s therefore important that we look for new ways to humanise virtual working and plug the gaps that can sometimes be created by online interactions, and we’re hoping that Virteen will help us to do exactly that.”