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“Presence” in a Virtual Office: Knowing You’re Not Alone

posted May 7, 2009

Posted by Thomas Riggs in uncategorized

In George Orwell’s 1984 the two-way “telescreen” displays propaganda in everyone’s home and keeps tabs on what people are doing. It’s a disturbing presence intent on control. At the time of publication, in 1949, the telescreen was merely an imaginary tool of totalitarianism. Today we might shrug and say, “a monitor and a webcam.”

In a virtual office, where employees work in separate locations, “presence” can be more beneficent and comforting. Instead of working alone and having no idea if our colleagues are there, we can look at a program—Skype, Office Communicator, or something built into a larger application, such as Groove—to see if someone is at work. We can IM our coworkers, call them, or have a video conference, all from the same presence application. I have been working within a system of presence for some time now, and though I work alone most of the time, I no longer feel quite so alone.


Getting Stuff Done by Grooving Virtually

posted May 1, 2009

Posted by Thomas Riggs in technology virtual offices

Imagine you work for a company where every employee is in a different location. You finally decide e-mail and phone calls aren’t enough to function as a team, and you choose a virtual office on the Internet. Now everyone shares the same file directories, calendars, and tasks lists. Things suddenly seem more connected and efficient. You’re happy.

Then one day your Internet connection is out of service, and you can’t connect to the virtual office. In fact, because all your company’s files are there, you can’t work. It’s as if the office lock has been changed, and you don’t have the key.

Or say you’re on a plane from New York to San Diego. It’s a long flight. You get your laptop out and start to work. This is great, you think. Now you won’t have to do that report tomorrow. But then it begins to sink in: you need a file that’s in the virtual office but not on your computer.

If you were a Groover, this would never happen. You would be using Microsoft’s simplest virtual office, Groove, which works on a different technology than most other Internet collaborative tools. Instead of connecting to a website, you install the Groove software, with its file directories, calendars, and discussion lists. You can make separate Groove workspaces for each project and share the workspaces with whomever you want. As long as you’re on the Internet, any change that you make in your version of Groove is instantly made on the computers of your colleagues (or the next time they’re online). You might be in India, but the moment you drop a file in a directory, it’s on the computer of your colleague in New York. When you disconnect from the Internet, all the files are still on your computer. An important feature is “presence,” meaning you always know if someone else is connected to the workspace, and you can send an instant message to the person through Groove.

Click for Groove demo video

Click image for Groove demo video

If Groove’s strengths are its simplicity, offline access, and low cost (once you buy the software, there are no more fees), what are its drawbacks? At least for now, Groove can be installed only on a PC. If you use a Mac, you can’t be a Groover. Another is the inability to create a common calendar for all your workspaces, though a third-party vendor, GrooveIt!, sells a solution to this problem. Finally, Groove’s simplicity is matched by its small number of features.

Overall, Groove, included in some Microsoft Office suites, is a great product for simple needs. We’ve used it in the past. But if you need more features or have a lot of people on your team, you might look elsewhere.

Qwaq: Creating a 3D Virtual Publishing Office

posted April 15, 2009

Posted by Thomas Riggs in book design technology virtual offices world literature

A virtual office is a computer simulation of a physical office. As much as possible, it needs to replace all the functions that are found in physical work area, where people communicate, work together, keep lists, and store things. In my vision of a true virtual office, I would type my username and password into a login screen and be sucked head first into my computer. I would spend the rest of the day working with virtual replicas of my colleagues.

That not being possible, there are other interesting options for a “distributed workforce”—a group of workers in which each person is in a different physical location, often in a different city. When our company searched for a virtual publishing office, my favorite by far was a configurable, three-dimensional, animated workspace called Qwaq. Although it sounds like a duck, the service is one of the most serious attempts to create a useful, Second Life world for business users. I highly recommend Qwaq to anyone who can find a use for it.

Once you sign up, you can start setting up individual offices, conference rooms, and auditoriums. You can connect the rooms with doors, and suddenly you have a fully functioning office floor. Each worker is assigned an avatar (an image that represents the worker), which can walk around a room, change rooms, or even wander out into a park. On the walls are screens where you can project Word or Excel files, for example, so not only can you mingle with your colleagues’ avatars but you can look at the same documents with them and get serious work done.


When we signed up for a trial, our avatars were like the ones in the picture, but in the current Qwaq demo video the avatars look like people. The first thing I did was set up an office with a desk. I added a few furnishings. I put a Word document on a screen. Then I called a colleague and invited her to try it with me. After she signed in, I looked around the office and didn’t see her. I called her again. “Where are you?” “In a field,” she said. So I left the office and walked into the park.

As I remember, it was perfect weather, and the field, scattered with trees, stretched out forever. I felt discouraged at first, but in the distance I saw a small pink color. Pressing hard on the forward arrow key, I began to jog toward the pink spot, just to the left of a tree. As I approached, I saw it was, in fact, another avatar, the avatar of my colleague. I found her. And then, as we headed back to the office to create plants, configure our bodies, even jump into the sky so we could look down onto the office, I almost forgot that what we really wanted was a place to store files, share calendars, and hold video conferences, an office that provided the mundane but practical needs of our business.

The Quest for the Perfect Virtual Office

posted April 10, 2009

Posted by Thomas Riggs in technology virtual offices

It began so innocently. I remember thinking, we’ll look on the Internet, check out the reviews, and choose a virtual office. I knew very little about the subject, but really, how complicated could it be?

Enough that I nearly drove one of my colleagues insane. After months of research, talking with people, free trials, and moments of fatigue and near surrender, we realized the perfect virtual office—one that worked without glitches, was easy to set up and organized for our type of work, and had all the features we needed now and for the feature—was found nowhere in the products we tried, remaining instead a mere vision, a feeble hope, on some hazy horizon of the future.

Like finding the perfect cell phone or car, the perfect virtual office existed only in the promotional materials of the products.

There was another complication, too, a form of near torture. New products seemed to appear weekly, and the ones we tried were later updated and improved.

So at Thomas Riggs & Company our quest dimmed from religious fervor to the practicalities of business. And although we never found our sought after paradise, we did learn an important truth: when looking for a virtual office, as important as finding a good product is understanding your present and future business needs. All virtual offices come with a distinct set of features, and the better you understand what your business is going to do with the office, the more likely you will make a good choice.

What we also found, and what you might experience as well, is that the virtual office that most grabs you and sets off your imagination might not be appropriate for your work.

In my next post I’ll talk about the most interesting virtual office we tried. To the despair of those around me, I found myself talking endlessly about the product. So fascinating, so cutting edge, so utterly useless for our work.