If you're a team that's into the private library room or small-group vibe for work,* visit Here.fm's virtual office. If you're even curious about the concept though both Here or Gather are worth a test.**
For most small-team work, virtual office space is a "nice to have." But, if ease of collaboration is mission-critical or absent from your organization, it could help.
If you want a virtual office with more nostalgia flavor and that chunks better for large groups, try Gather. Its separation of sound spaces with physical spaces was the best designed and most intuitive of all the virtual offices we tried. The evocative sprite art/pokemon-esque aesthetic,** the ease of organization, physical-and-familiar spaces, plus nostalgia will make it irresistible to some.
Meanwhile, Here.fm is a collaborative Myspace page that offers some of the best sound/audio web client experience we had on our calls. It's easier to get started with-- since there are fewer controls and space to master-- and less representative of virtual office space since there's no map that represents a non-internet place. Still, Here's rendition of the virtual office may be a better match for work in the screen-heavy world we inhabit and for the types of information we need to share.***
** eds: think Ruby/Saphire/Crystal vintage
*** eds: we'll continue to update this review as we spend more time in these virtual office/meeting spaces. This is a fresh and new category of software with a ton of promising entrants so be sure to check back again in 3-4mos.
Scope and Features
We feel comfortable making our recommendation to groups of up to ~10 people based on our experience with this category and user feedback. Security, compliance, and API reviews are all outside the scope of this review.* For our tests, we tried to live in and take meetings in these spaces and treat them as though they were our virtual office for over a month. Once we felt we had a good sense of each of the tools from some continued use we'd switch tools. We then revisited all of them for a shorter once over at the time of publication.
We also spoke to users who operate in different virtual environments where these tools were used, discussed trade-offs, and looked for longer running bugs or inconveniences. We did some pair programming, shared spreadsheets, and talked about marketing strategies over video chat and text chat. We tried our best to test across browsers and note any unseemly exposed features of the places. We will go back to test downloaded apps on Mac eventually, but the webapp felt like a fair point of comparison wherever available.
Apps billed primarily as Digital Event Spaces, Whiteboard Spaces, and Video Chat will be covered in their own standalone reviews with some overlap here. We consider the trade-offs of a virtual meeting space vs. more asynchronous forms of communication and what types of companies are best supported by each. But this report is about how Virtual Office tools fit early-stage company use cases.**
Special considerations for this review include a section on Perceived Performance by App / Platform tested, Support For Out-of-company Meetings, Screenshare and App Embed Quality, and how well it can represent a distinct office culture or community in digital space (Group Culture Representation).
* eds: if any of these are of interest to you sign-up and request it
** eds: we'll update you if we feel that the recommendation here changes.
Options (from least to most digital office-ey)
Google Meet / Zoom / Slack / Microsoft Teams / Jitsi Meet / Tandem.chat / Pagli - If your office was just computer screens
If your team has an established workflow that it's happy with, we'd hesitate to recommend a shift just for virtual office vibes at this point. The short of it is that these remote conversation tools work, often integrate well with workflows, and are affordable down to having free tiers that can support young teams for long periods of time.
This isn't a review of videoconferencing tools and we've included this list here as an assurance that we Even though most of these solutions are relatively mature you'll probably run into a weird crash or screen-share issue for almost everything at some point. It's hard to compare this track record with newer companies subject to less scrutiny, but some of the offerings have bad public data safety track records that are also worth considering when having confidential team meetings.*
* eds: who the heck knows, though, doesn't seem to stop anyone
Here.fm - Now you walls and the screens are all in the walls
Here is almost a category violation that forced us to include a slew of whiteboarding apps. It allows you to create custom rooms more with art and links to your choosing. Our favorite feature for here was how it treated website embeds for things like spreadsheets, design files, and Youtube videos together with good screen sharing. The primary avatars Here provides are headshot/larger-than-a-thumbnail video baubles that have limited [eds: this is good, it's abused elsewhere] spatial audio qualities.
The UI can feel chaotic, but that's also what makes it fun. The anything-goes geocities/myspace/fandom energy is intense, and it's visible in everything from their Discord channels + connector to their unique landing page. Although it wasn't hiccup-free, Here had the best web-based audio and video experience in our tests. It was no hassle to have outsiders join meeting rooms since there was no downloadable app. Some of the controls and prioritization could be moved around or renamed-- as we mention in our review of Teamflow this UI component is an unsolved problem-- but mostly, this is nitpicking for a pleasant work experience with a gentle learning curve.
Gather - The Pokemon Bank has purchased your company and now you're in Pikachu-owned commercial real estate
Gather is more reminiscent of an office with its varied environments, and it has a good balance between a corporate feel and the more free-for-all aesthetic of Here's spaces. The company also it cross-markets for online events.*
Gather provides the best visual representation of online office space among the products we tested. It gives you space customization tools to build austere or opulent sprite properties at the resolution of a gen three Pokemon game. Again, the layout is really a pleasure, and the other big upside is how well the spatial audio and sub-spaces worked.
The flip side of Gather's representation of the office is that it brings some physical/sprite-world baggage with it. The built pixel-space metaphor makes it clunkier than many of the other options for document shares or contextualizing/finding new information. Chat threads and logs felt strange, it's mostly your log but captured in changing contexts, when compared to the more straightforward room or private chat abstractions that other teams chose to build around.
At the end of the day, Gather captured the ease of conversation and mix that folks might expect from an idealized virtual office space. The sprite art and asset framework also work well for communities; they offer a fun but not overwhelming canvas for insiders to express finer points of company culture.** The web client video and screen share felt grittier than Here on the web app, but it was still good and had fewer audio and video hiccups than our Teamflow experience.
* eds: experience and reading testimonials suggest that Gather works well as a solution for ~100 person significant online events but we'll investigate this in-depth later.
** eds: a service we use uses Gather and they have an All Might statue up.
Teamflow - Back to the office
Teamflow's virtual office space is the closest match to being in a "tech" office. The default space features faux mid-century modern chairs and nice tables sprinkled around a space that uses an overlaid floorplan sketch to separate rooms into private sound spaces. We enjoyed the meetings in Teamflow, the screen share/embed options worked okay, and the space was easy to join and understand for non-team members.
If the Gather is Pokemon-inspired, Teamflow's iOS[8+] takes on the modern office space down to the white mid-century modern chairs that may or may not be the $15 webstore knockoffs. Navigation for Teamflow felt slow compared to the other office spaces we tested, and similar to Here, the action and embed menus can be inscrutable at first glance. Teamflow's A/V quality was on par with what we saw in Gather but better than Pagli in the webapp. UPDATE: We've been testing this further and feel like the statement in brackets is no longer accurate. When trying it out again with meetings and the usual 50+ tabs open with an editor it went off smoothly. Loading times were still a bit of a hassle though. [It also felt more resource hungry though and we experienced more video stutters.]
Two users on a team we corresponded with who were deep into their trial period said they found the office to be a bit lackluster, missing things like knocking to enter,* and some navigation conveniences. They also put in a word about the load times both initially and between spaces.
* eds: Here managed this well, as do most of the video conferencing options, but it was also absent from Gather. Had we spent more time in a small team environment we might've appreciated the separation vs. fluidity more. It was also rare that we'd have meetings interrupted.
Pre-launch options in the same vein that felt too early to cover but that we'll get to for the update
branch.gg, spot.xyz, tangle.app, scapeapp.co
Other options that got left out because of underwhelming reviews/feedback upfront or a bad reported experience with A/V quality
Sococo, a pioneer of the virtual office concept, and Remo
tags: best virtual office space, best chat room for teams, online architecture, interior design,