We Tested if Virtual Coworking Improved our Team’s Productivity by@desktime

We Tested if Virtual Coworking Improved our Team’s Productivity

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The past year and a half in the shadow of the pandemic has seen the dawn of many new working and socializing concepts - all of them remote. Remote work is just a survival mode of work, forced upon us by the Pandemic. Working with cameras on obviously isn’t “a thing”, there are [virtual coworking spaces] that offer the chance to socialize digitally and are mainly designed for freelancers who lack a sense of community. It's a much different from being in a virtual room and waiting for a virtual knock on door.

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@desktime

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The past year and a half in the shadow of the pandemic has seen the dawn of many new working and socializing concepts - all of them remote. Online meetings, digital conferences, and virtual parties still seem like substitutes for the real thing that humans crave since prehistoric times - socializing with others in the flesh.

I and my team of five fellow writers were among the first to go fully remote as soon as Covid-19 numbers began going up last fall. Since we don’t need any special equipment to work, home is as good a place as any.

During the winter months, we’d been working either from home or taking solo shifts at the office and hadn’t been in the same room for 8 months. Save for three weekly team calls, our communication had been reduced to chatting on Slack, discussions in Google Docs comments, and using other software for online collaboration.

Missing proper conversations (and out of curiosity if we’re still able to work in the presence of each other), we decided to try “virtual coworking”- working with our cameras on for a week to simulate being in the same room.

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Context: Is virtual coworking “a thing”?

When we hear remote work, we see a person working alone in a room, either performing daily tasks or participating in an online meeting with or without video. Neither of these standard forms of remote work tends to the basic need of social interaction with your colleagues. It’s just a survival mode of work, forced upon us by the pandemic. If you’re lucky, your company organizes some online team building, like virtual happy hours or online game nights.

The first time I saw virtual coworking in action was when my brother spent a big part of the workday with his girlfriend on camera. As a couple leading a distant relationship and not being able to travel because of Covid-19 restrictions, they had found a way to be in the presence of each other despite these strange times.

This idea stuck with me. I was missing socializing with my colleagues - despite seeing them in virtual meetings few times per week. I realized that scheduled meetings about a specific work topic couldn’t substitute random socializing moments and watercooler chats.

I was curious if working with cameras on works, and what kind of impact it has on people’s productivity and mood. But when I googled remote or virtual coworking, not much came up - it seems like this work format, however simple, isn’t a thing that many teams have tried. Is it because it’s awkward being constantly on camera with your private environment in the background? Or is it because it seems unnecessary - since all the important stuff has already been discussed in the meetings?

While working with cameras on obviously isn’t “a thing”, there are virtual coworking spaces that offer the chance to socialize digitally and are mainly designed for freelancers who lack a sense of community. In these spaces, you can walk around actual floor plans, sit at a specific virtual desk, knock on doors, and chat with someone you accidentally meet in the hallway.

However, working with your camera constantly on is very different from being in a virtual room and waiting for a virtual knock on the door. It’s a much more tangible sense of presence which also demands stepping out of your comfort zone where nobody sees how you work.

Experiment: working with cameras on all week

Luckily, my team is always open to quirky productivity experiments and perceived keeping cameras on for a week as an interesting challenge. As we work for the DeskTime time tracking app and are all constantly using this tool, such experiments aren’t only fun, but also give us valuable insight into our day-to-day productivity.

The experiment went like this. Every day the first person to start working posted a Google Meet link in our Slack General channel. Then others would join one by one - just like in a real office when the door opens and your colleague comes in.

Right from the start, office jokes and small talk were back. Just like we would share our commute adventures or complement each other’s looks in real life, we know shared details of how our morning started, what we heard on the news, etc. This was like a fresh breeze - something so normal but so missed for months on end.

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During this experiment, we took notes of how virtual coworking impacted our daily rhythm and how we felt about it. Simultaneously, we tracked our work hours and the use of distracting apps on DeskTime, to see if virtual coworking somehow affected our productivity. As we were also using this app daily before the experiment, we could compare the number of distractions we had before and after.

Results: does remote coworking improve productivity?

After a week of working with cameras on, the results were rather surprising. Working together did foster accountability (e.g., we were less inclined to check our phones or do some house chores while working), but personally we felt a little less productive because of the distracting conversations we had time after time. However, this might be a subjective feeling because our time tracking app showed even a slight increase in productivity. This indicates that we were less likely to use unproductive apps while “sharing a room” with co-workers.

While it was harder to focus on in-depth tasks and get into the flow stage of writing, we did better at managerial tasks, brainstorms, and decision-making because we were able to consult each other directly, without explaining everything in writing and receiving asynchronous replies.

Admittedly, it was unusual to be in two rooms at the same time - the physical one and the virtual office with all colleagues present. Oftentimes we kept our microphones muted to prevent others from hearing background noise from our homes. If our partners or flatmates were also working from home, they involuntarily became part of our experiment - while crossing the room or having to say hi if they happened to pop in the camera frame.

Most importantly, we felt reunited and happier. It turns out that we didn’t need to be physically together to achieve a sense of camaraderie. All it took was the illusion of being in the same room with the team. This is a useful takeaway in case another unwelcome wave of the virus hits us this fall.

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