Work From Borg

Conflicted thoughts on Facebook's virtual office

Welcome to Galaxy Brain — a newsletter from Charlie Warzel about technology and culture and big headed avatars. You can read what this is all about here. If you like what you see, consider forwarding it to a friend or two. You can also click the button below to subscribe. And if you’ve been reading, consider going to the paid version.

Sorry for two newsletters back to back. This one was just in the wheelhouse and so why not?!

Here’s something I didn’t think I was going to say this morning: I don’t think Facebook’s virtual reality, work from home software is ridiculous.

I don’t like that I feel this way. I didn’t want to feel this way. I am not a big fan of Facebook and I am extremely wary of the company colonizing more parts of the tech ecosystem, including enterprise technology. Right off the bat, given the platform’s privacy track record, companies might want to think twice…and then three times before entrusting their (likely confidential) meetings to it. I don’t trust this company and don’t want them to be doing this, which makes it very hard to abstain from dunking on this:

And oh, how I want to dunk on this. I mean: FACEBOOK CREATED A VIRTUAL WORLD WHERE THE LAWS OF PHYSICS DON’T NEED TO APPLY AND EVEN THAT WORLD IS NOT FREE FROM THE TYRANNY OF CAMERA-OFF ZOOM BOXES (more on that in a minute). The dunk inertia is so strong that I woke up this morning and, before even getting out of bed, reflexively shat on the announcement (before reading much about it) in order to plug our forthcoming book (I am only human):

Twitter avatar for @cwarzelCharlie Warzel @cwarzel
you don’t have to go to the work metaverse pls just buy our book instead. much easier…

Brian Stelter @brianstelter

Here's what Mark Zuckerberg is announcing in his interview on CBS: "A virtual reality app that lets you and your coworkers feel like you're sitting around a table in a conference room."

But my righteous desire to posterize the droopy cartoon avatar of Mark Zuckerberg via tweet conflicts with another hobby of mine, which is advocating for more flexible avenues for work. And Facebook’s ‘Horizon Workrooms,’ while coming from the wrong messenger, is a step in that direction.

For those who want remote work to continue post-pandemic, it is probably a decent omen that one of the largest technology companies in the world is trying to make Second Life Sim Office 2000 happen (though I suppose it’s also a good reminder that remote work can be soulless, too). Facebook’s participation in the space may help legitimize hybrid and/or totally decentralized work environments, especially for companies that have no imagination and need to see flashier companies take the lead.

So while I don’t love Facebook’s involvement or the fact that the company is trying to brand it as part of an attempt to create a new, sterile virtual internet (I’m not going to use the ‘m-word’ here because I think if Facebook wants to build it, they can go ahead and do it but until then, I’m not giving them the trademark) I do like big investments into ideas that decenter work from the physical office.

Look, I get it. The whole ‘walk around the virtual office like its Fortnite and watch people do mundane shit’ is weird, even dystopian. But while researching our book, I demo’d a few virtual office software platforms and, surprisingly, didn’t hate them. One of them, called Branch, was built by a 19 year-old who incorporated the proximity-based audio from the online games he played growing up. I found the effect of walking past actual people in a virtual cafeteria and hearing their voices get louder curiously disarming — maybe even a bit profound. It mimicked some very small but important sensations of the office (especially the ambient presence of others) quite well. During my demo I watched the employees work. They didn’t lean on the software too much — most of the time they were working in other browser tabs. The platform was used like an always-running voice chat. If you needed something you could just speak up. But if you wanted space, you could move away into an office and you couldn’t hear anything.

[Is this interesting? Then perhaps you’d like to pre-order our book?]

Platforms like this won’t take off quickly. I think a lot of them will sputter out. But each one offers some ideas as to how to make collaborative work easier when it’s not centered around a physical space. One notable effect of virtual office tech is that it empowers people who don’t love or thrive in in-person interactions to contribute or be workplace leaders.

Virtual work spaces force us to start asking weird questions like, what is an office, really? Is it the people? The space itself? The proximity? All of the above? None of it? Even failed or flawed attempts at virtual spaces might also teach us something about how we work or what the office means to us.

All of that said, I’m still concerned — about Facebook’s work from home tech and others. Office tech doesn’t usually liberate us as advertised. The magical ability to see your coworkers face-to-face from anywhere in the world quickly morphs into Zoom fatigue. The lively, collaborative instant messaging app gives way to an always-on surveillance tool that lives on company servers forever. A shared digital calendar evolves into a way for others to demand our time and attention until there’s none left for ourselves. Office tech has always been built to cater to the cult of productivity. These tools purport to give you back time and that time is usually seeded with, you guessed it, the opportunity for more productivity.

Today’s office tech — from Slack to Teams — has absorbed many of the formalities, anxieties, and oppressive mundanity of corporate life and ported them into every corner of our lives. And this is what brings me back to ‘Horizon Workrooms’ and this image:

I’m hung up on those Zoom boxes because they are a perfect example of taking the oppressive mundanity of corporate life and porting them into virtual reality, where, presumably, anything is possible.

Without reading too much into one image from ‘Workrooms’ too much, I think the mundanity and 1-to-1 replication of the office is a reason for pause. A real tension in building new WFH tools is whether the designers ought to ease the remote transition by making the experience feel exactly like the old office in office or whether they should push us to re-conceptualize how we work. The former way is easier but it’s insidious. Why? Because, as BuzzFeed News’ Katie Notopoulos writes, “work sucks.” So much of the vitriol toward ‘Workrooms’ is partially due to deep dislike of the company but I think the other bit is because Facebook’s ‘future of work’ vision here is actually just the status quo, only pixelated. As Notopoulos writes, the grand Facebookian “collision of the physical and virtual in a shared online space … is a sad little office veal-penned in by floating whiteboards.” It’s honestly a little offensive.

Office tech is incredibly fraught. It is often turned on employees to exacerbate already broken power dynamics between workers and employers. But, as the last 18 months has shown, these technologies can, with the right implementation, offer some needed flexibility and autonomy — maybe more than we originally thought. If people are serious about decentralizing work, it’s going to require new tools — tools built with the express purpose of making the office less important. That means a lot of people need to try and fail in this space. I don’t particularly want Facebook to succeed here and I don’t know that what they’re building is exactly the change we need but I also don’t think it’s ridiculous.

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