Companies Start to Explore Virtual HQs

By Tam Harbert August 13, 2021
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​As companies move to a hybrid workforce, the race is on among vendors selling digital headquarters (HQ) platforms that bring remote and in-person staff together, for both official work and casual social interactions.

"The concept of creating an enterprisewide metaverse has started to come up a lot" in discussions with clients, said Liz Kiehner, vice president of workforce and organization within Capgemini Invent in North America. Such a metaverse would be a virtual incarnation of a HQ office, where both remote employees and those in the physical HQ work and collaborate.

The past year has seen the launch of a crop of virtual HQ startups, including Teamflow, Gather, Branch, Nooks, HubbleHQ and Teemyco. In addition, at least one large enterprise software vendor has officially moved into the digital HQ space: Salesforce unveiled its strategy to become the digital HQ for the enterprise in July, as part of its announcement that it had completed its $27 billion acquisition of Slack.

"Together we'll define the future of enterprise software, creating the digital HQ that enables every organization to deliver customer and employee success from anywhere," Marc Benioff, chair and CEO of Salesforce, said in a statement.

Slack has added several new features to help enable that. These include Slack Huddles—audio to enable live, real-time conversations, a first for the platform known for instant messaging.

Unlike existing collaboration and communications tools, virtual HQ platforms emphasize building and reinforcing corporate culture by enabling less structured, more spontaneous interaction, similar to a real office environment. They try to recreate impromptu experiences in the physical office, such as running into a co-worker in the hall, who might mention she's just made a breakthrough on a difficult project. 

Different virtual HQ platforms take slightly different approaches. Some emphasize work responsibilities while others focus more on social spontaneity. They all try to capitalize on how many companies are rethinking the purpose of the office. "A lot of companies are calling into question the purpose of their corporate HQs," Kiehner said. "It's a matter of finding the right model that is appropriate for your company, your type of business, your strategy and growth model."

Teamflow's chief market is the professional workforce, although it can also be used to host events. "Our target is anyone with a professional e-mail address," said Florent Crivello, founder and CEO. "We are resolutely oriented around work." The company has raised about $50 million since its founding in July 2020.

In its virtual office floor plan, each employee is represented by a bubble that the worker can move, simulating walking around the office. The platform uses spatial audio technology so sound diminishes as bubbles move away from each other, which means individual bubbles can move closer to have private conversations. The platform integrates with other apps like Google Docs, enabling groups to collaborate. "You can create one room for a particular project, and all the artifacts related to that project stay in that one room," Crivello explained. "So when you collaborate on that project, you just open one link—instead of opening Zoom and five other things in the background—and you have everything you need all in one place."

On the other hand, Bramble is designed to provide "digital hospitality," said co-founder Vladic Ravich. The product was built by Artery, a community platform for cultural and social gatherings like performances and parties. "It makes sense for platforms to know what they do well," Ravich said. "What we do well is gatherings, socializing—the human side."

He emphasized that companies can customize Bramble's virtual space to reflect their culture. "When we talk to chief people officers, they are concerned about how to keep corporate culture strong in a hybrid world," Crivello said. Although Bramble is often used for conferences and events, it also sells to the corporate market. "Many of our customers use Hopin [a virtual event platform that counts LinkedIn as a major investor], then bring people into Bramble for the after-party," he noted.

To do a virtual HQ effectively, companies need to understand the needs of users very well, Kiehner said. "You need to understand who would be well-served by a virtual HQ model, and who would not," she explained. In addition, a lot depends on the particular hybrid work model a company wants to use.

Various virtual HQ models are so new, however, that enterprises are just starting to explore. "We don't think enterprises are going to dive right in," Ravich said. "Most likely, you'll have teams within your organization that try it. Then senior management may start popping in. That's where we are right now with most organizations."

Tam Harbert is a freelance technology and business reporter based in the Washington, D.C., area.

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