– by enabling people to be in the office, while in different locations and connecting virtually
…. and turning the RTO debate on its head by creating a digital twin of the office
Imagine a world in which every detail in the office and on your desk is available from the comfort of your home. It’s now possible through Katmai, a virtual communications platform that creates the office experience – in your browser. As soon as you launch Katmai, everything down to the elevators and hallways mirrors exactly those of an actual office environment. From conference rooms to kitchen areas to plants in the corner, the customizable office looks enough like what you might find yourself entering after a 30-minute subway ride into the crowded city.
With the return-to-office debate plus RTO mandates having varying degrees of success and causing a rift between managers and employees and the costs of working in the office in-person, etc., it’s a challenge to attract and retain talent and developing new competencies to build a culture to better position the organization increase relevance and revenue. This contrasts with people being in the office to fosters connections as well as be more aware and involved in various activities and initiatives that contribute to moving the business forward.
To provide the best of both worlds, Katmai enables people to stay at home while having the office experience – virtually.
According to Maximize Market Research, the virtual office platform market is expected to reach $137 billion by 2029. Research compiled by Zippia shows that 74 % of U.S. companies are using or planning to put in place a hybrid work schedule, while a recent survey from CBRE of 185 companies with offices in the U.S. revealed that more than half (52 %) planned to decrease the size of their offices within the next three years.
“ The goal isn’t to be meeting software, but provide a concurrent session that’s always-on and being together in a familiar place.” the company says. Katmai currently has over 40 employees working around the world and recently raised $22 million in Series A funding to assist in the development of the platform. Founder Erik Braund says he began developing the idea in 2020 when the pandemic derailed in-person operations. When developing the software, Braund says it was important to have the workspace live directly in a web browser rather than in an external app or headset. And instead of using avatars (as in Meta’s metaverse), the program uses your camera so people can see your face as you walk around the office and enter meetings.
While the format somewhat mirrors that of a video game, Braund says we didn’t want to market it only as such to make it more widely appealing. Users can create custom experiences, from a tropical getaway to an office set under the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Once in the office, practically all of the features of both an in-person office and a Zoom or Microsoft Teams-like meeting are available, from being able to close doors and host guests to sharing your screen and using a chat feature with others in the space.
The platform also allows for the spontaneity of an in-person environment, where someone could be walking down a hallway and bump into someone to chat for a few minutes. And just like in an office, you can see who’s in the conference room next to you, but you can’t hear their conversation. “The underlying fundamental technology that we created was the Katmai engine that merges the 3D world and the audio video conference,” Braund says. “So that’s like the text, the engine, the platform, the invention. That’s what we’ve spent the last three years doing, making it work well and making it work on a variety of devices.”
With the market for platforms providing virtual environments or metaverses growing, other companies include – Elevated Environments, WorkInSync, Teemyco, Kosy Office, and others.
Currently, Braund says they’re narrowing their focus to younger and smaller companies, especially because the platform eliminates huge costs from investing in a physical space. Braund also says they’ve noticed the millennial and Gen Z populations responding especially positively to Katmai.
It’s still unclear how effective or compelling these RTO alternatives will actually be in the workplace. Gleb Tsipursky, CEO of Disaster Avoidance Experts, tells Fast Company that his experience with clients has shown lots of “ Zoom fatigue ” and reluctance to be on camera, adding that it’s difficult to predict whether this model will be compelling enough for daily use.
The launch of this detailed virtual office platform marks an interesting point in the ongoing remote work debate. But some people don’t like to feel surveilled when they go about their work without a moment of privacy to do something personal, blow their nose, fix their hair or makeup, etc. – while at their home office. As a result, companies need to acknowledge and solve these limitations in order to maintain a healthy work environment. And by moving to a virtual environment where you cab see people’s faces, you are better able to observe non-verbal cues or trigger spontaneous conversations that often spark new thinking, alternatives, and innovation.
The company is aiming to deliver a complex idea in a simple way that respects culture, the team, being together, having “ moments “, etc. – without scheduling many meetings. But rather have a brief conversation with people that are here – to interact, solve problems and explore opportunities – to have a quality connection with an in-person experience in a virtual environment.
April 25, 2023 Fast Company / CAIL CAIL Innovation commentary
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