Realizing Real-life Communication in Remote Work: Launch of a Virtual Office Service

On March 10th, 2022, Hitachi Solutions Create, Ltd. announced that they have developed a virtual office service that enables people working remotely to communicate as if they were in the office and will start offering the service from April. Hitachi Solutions Create aims to disseminate the service as a means of communication in the "new normal era" in which people split their time between working remotely and going into an office.

Solving issues related to remote work with a virtual office

Akira Sakonju from Hitachi Solutions Create

Many companies have been promoting remote work in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19. According to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, the percentage of workers from companies in Tokyo working remotely was 24% in March 2020, but that number had risen to 57.3% by January 2022.

Meanwhile, employees have fewer opportunities to see each other directly in the office, which has raised the issue of the difficulty in chatting, consulting coworkers, and other casual communication during work hours.

To solve this problem, Hitachi Solutions Create has developed a virtual office, which is an office built online. The service will be offered to companies from April 2022. Employees can access a virtual office as if they are going into a real office and can feel like they are working on the same floor as their colleagues.

Recently, the term "metaverse" for a 3D virtual space has become a buzz word, and Hitachi Solutions Create’s virtual office mainly employs a flat 2D map that uses relatively few computer resources to ensure smooth operation regardless of a computer’s performance.

Akira Sakonju, who is in charge of the development of the virtual office at the Digital Transformation Division, said: "In natural communication, people talk about work as they chat or chat after they talk about work. In the virtual office, we have devised a way to facilitate the smooth transition between the two."

A virtual office with a multitude of features

Hitachi Solutions Create’s virtual office has several floors, some with a very office-like appearance, some with a pool, and some with a resort-like seaside setting, allowing the user to choose the motif freely according to their mood that day.

Additionally, in order to facilitate communication between co-workers, users can choose any desk they like.

Sakonju said: "In a real office, it’s easy to talk to the person sitting next to you. Similarly in the virtual office, making casual conversation is easy sitting next to the person that you want to talk to."

Hovering the mouse cursor over the icon of an employee’s face displays information about them

Another major feature is that the service is linked to communication tools such as Microsoft Teams and Microsoft Outlook.

Hovering the mouse cursor over a colleague’s face icon in the virtual office displays information about that employee, such as "Available" and "Busy," enabling the user to check their colleagues’ statuses and schedule.

Additionally, clicking the "Talk" button immediately starts Teams Chat to enable communication.

Sakonju said: "Before reaching out to a colleague, the user can check their status, and Teams can be easily started; we were conscious of making the operation of the service intuitive."

The user can check their colleagues’ statuses on the Team Board

A "team board" is also provided for each team to which the user belongs, allowing the user to keep track of the status of team members at a glance and to post messages on the bulletin board. This feature responds to the request to have a feeling of working as a team.

There are also a variety of "accessories" that aid communication, such as the "Like" button and emoticons familiar to users of social media, speech balloon comments that can trigger short conversations, and chat rooms, so that allow employees to easily talk to each other.

Sakonju said: "I think what makes this tool unique is that it provides a number of features and places on multiple levels to enable communication at various levels, from greetings and chatting to intense work conversations."

Innovations to generate accidental communication

During development, Sakonju’s team focused on how to generate accidental communication while working remotely.

Sakonju said: "At first glance, the greetings and chats that we have with our colleagues in office corridors and cafeterias seem unnecessary for the execution of our work. In reality, however, they can facilitate a smooth team atmosphere and can provide an opportunity to bring a different perspective to work. As remote work became the norm, we realized that this accidental communication was surprisingly important."

The hardest part of development was "how to make it easy and convenient to use," he recalls.

"Our company originally used Teams as our communication tool, and while it's a great tool, it's basically a service for communicating with specific people and doesn't encourage accidental communication. And because we couldn’t see the other person's face before making contact, it was difficult to grasp the other person’s situation."

Due to these issues, they incorporated Teams as the core means of communication while enhancing peripheral features, such as the checking of the status of teammates, so as to make accidental communication easy.

Hitachi Solutions Create’s virtual office service has been in operation in-house since the end of 2021. Tomoko Fujimoto of the Digital Transformation Division talks about her experience of actually using the service.

"Since I started working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I felt stressed, because I couldn't have casual conversations with my co-workers, even if I had a number of meetings in a day. Thanks to the virtual office, it is now easier to chat and get work done."

In a virtual office, unlike a real office, the separation of real space is irrelevant. Fujimoto said: "There are some points where the virtual office is superior to a real one, such as being able to talk to co-workers that are no longer based in the same office."

"Connecting people that work apart from each other"

The “3D panoramic view” in virtual office

Sakonju said that the service's strength is "being suited to large companies with more than 1,000 employees."

Sakonju continued: "This virtual office service helps improve teamwork by realizing smooth conversations between employees. Furthermore, by linking with data from the human resources system, personnel transfers, mid-career hiring, and other information can be applied promptly, making this service suitable for operation in large organizations. We have confirmed that our service can handle access from up to 12,000 people at the same time, and we believe that it is even more effective when used in large organizations."

Hitachi Solutions Create’s virtual office is primarily a 2D map, but a 3D panoramic view mode is also available as a sub-mode. Sakonju said: "We can envision a world in the future where people put on wearable devices, such as virtual reality devices, and work in a 3D virtual space, so we will continue our research in preparation for that."

Even if the COVID-19 pandemic is brought under control in the future, the use of remote work is predicted to become a normal part of work life to some extent. Expectations are growing for virtual offices as a new tool to achieve a new-normal work style.

The interview ended with Sakonju saying: "I believe that society will require more-diverse workplaces, such as remote work, co-working spaces, and workcation facilities. I hope that virtual offices will be used as a communication tool to connect people that work in different locations apart from each other."