That’s the line groups are walking: on one hand, fun elements can make meetings more interesting and inspire ideas, but on the other, such meetings are more difficult to set up and can seem gimmicky. “We’re seeing particular challenges on social connections,” says Teevan. Microsoft, like Facebook, is aggressively seeking to invent meeting tools. One is the Together Mode it created for its Teams software, using artificial intelligence to cut out users’ profiles and place them in a virtual setting.
Teevan says workers feel increasingly isolated in remote work and are desperate for connections. Her internal Microsoft research shows that workers are becoming more cliquey in the videoconferencing environment, which can lead to bad decisions. “We’re codifying our existing social networks,” she says. Games could expand those networks, improve trust, and even lead to better decisions.
Sílvia Fornós, a PhD fellow in the Center for Computer Games Research at IT University of Copenhagen, recently helped organize a week-long summit on Gather, a virtual space where users can hold meetings in a pixelated, 8-bit environment, after she found Slack and Zoom unsatisfying for connecting with fellow conference-goers. Rather than being distracting, Fornós says, the ’80s style added a sense of informality and coziness to the meetings.
Despite that, actual connection was lacking, she found. “Team bonding is a fundamental part of multidisciplinary research and has a direct impact in our work,” she says. “We need to find a middle ground, like hybrid spaces that offer the flexibility of virtual spaces with the possibility of socializing and attending in person if that is needed.”
That middle ground in meeting technology is where profit and need intersect, and Facebook is hoping its Horizons Workroom fulfills that need—however ridiculous it might feel to talk to your boss’s animated avatar in virtual reality. Even King admitted that Horizons Workroom “was a little clunky for me.”
The solution may lie somewhere between conventional and game-like videoconferencing technologies, suggests Jeremy Bailenson, a professor of communication at Stanford University and the founder of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab. This summer he conducted an experiment on which worked best, with 102 students clocking over 60,000 minutes on both Zoom and the VR platform Engage.
“Should we stay on Zoom or should we use VR? My answer is yes, we should do both,” Bailenson says. His work, which comes out this week, showed that the type of meeting is crucial. “If you’ve got a talking head and everyone else just listening, Zoom is great for that,” he says. “But if you have to do an action or have small group conversations, immersive VR is better for that.” He found that VR was a better way for people to read nonverbal cues like leaning in or making eye contact, which are crucial to establishing trust and understanding.
But Bailenson admits that VR is not at the point where we can use it for more than a few minutes at a time before our perception gets wonky.