The Future of Socializing at Work? Virtual Golf

 I don’t particularly like virtual reality, and I can’t play golf. But I think the intersection of the two points to the future of socializing at work, with both co-workers and important contacts outside of a company.

By extension, it could also represent the future of the kind of casual-but-essential networking, brainstorming, and creative play that binds teams together and leads to innovation.

Don’t take my word for it. Companies and individual early adopters all over the world are finding that, while much has been made of using VR to do work—including by Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta Platforms (previously known as Facebook)—a better or at least more accessible application might be a casual connection with our colleagues and friends. You know that thing many of us have struggled to recapture since the world’s knowledge workers were scattered to homes, satellite offices, and co-working spaces by the pandemic.

If the most popular professional application of VR does prove to be socializing, the implications could be significant. Remote teams in danger of being splintered by miscommunication and isolation could be bound together without the need for in-person retreats. It might help reduce some of the office social dynamics that give an advantage to some employees but not others. It could even allow employees to connect in ways that aren’t possible even when everyone is going to an office.

Trapped in the Metaverse: Here’s What 24 Hours Feels Like
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Trapped in the Metaverse: Here’s What 24 Hours Feels LikePlay video: Trapped in the Metaverse: Here’s What 24 Hours Feels Like
Everyone is blabbing about the metaverse. But what does this future digital world look like? WSJ’s Joanna Stern checked into a hotel and strapped on a VR headset for the day. She went to work meetings, hung out with new avatar friends and attended virtual shows. Photo illustration: Tammy Lian/The Wall Street Journal

But, and this is a big but, barriers to adoption could keep this kind of virtual socializing in the margins for years to come. The most obvious is that VR headsets are, despite rapidly advancing tech, bulkier and heavier than most would like, and can still lead to physical discomfort. And if socializing in VR does become widespread, it will inevitably come with downsides. Think of the ways that Slack has fragmented our attention or the way that “Zoom fatigue” became a part of many people’s everyday lives.

Here’s your badge, laptop—and VR headset

Accenture, the global IT consulting firm, believes in the idea that VR can connect its employees to others and to clients so much that in October the company revealed that it had purchased 60,000 Oculus Quest 2 headsets, Meta’s entry-level VR device. They have now become part of the package of hardware – alongside laptops and phones – offered to new employees, says Jason Warnke, global digital experiences lead at Accenture.

Accenture’s onboarding process now includes training that happens in a custom-built, Microsoft Mesh-powered “metaverse” the company calls the Nth floor. The metaphor: That this virtual floor floats above all Accenture offices, and is the one “space” they all share.

Nate Essin, a change management analyst, joined Accenture two months ago. The first couple of days he worked for the company, he didn’t talk to a single human being, he says. On the third day, the company notified him he should log into the company’s Nth floor to continue his onboarding. Putting on his VR headset and logging in, he found himself “in” a three-dimensional space that looks something like a futuristic airport terminal.

In the person of his digital avatar, he could approach and speak with others, also represented by avatars of the sort typically found in video games. By taking advantage of the icebreakers present on the Nth floor, which include virtual versions of cornhole, darts, and basketball, being in this environment allowed him to start networking with colleagues. Through networking in Accenture’s metaverse, he was soon given the chance to helm his own project at the company. People he connects with on the Nth floor are spread all over the world, and some of them he wouldn’t have met even if they were all back in the office full time.

Accenture uses the Nth floor, above, to connect its workers.


Part of the reason this kind of socializing works in virtual environments is that something called “spatial audio” is becoming standard in shared VR experiences. The idea is that sound in these environments works the way it does in real life: It’s in stereo, and people’s voices get louder or quieter depending on how close to them you are. In contrast to Zoom, where the spotlight must always be on one person, and side conversations are difficult, and Slack or Teams, in which everyone sees messages dropped in the main channel, this allows the kind of fluid formation and dissolution of conversational circles usually only possible in real life.

Hitting the (virtual) links

Spatial audio is also a feature of casual shared VR games like “Walkabout Mini Golf,” in which I recently hit the virtual links—admittedly, this was more like virtual putt-putt than a country club course—with employees of Mural, a company that makes “digital whiteboard” tools for visual collaboration among other remote workers.

Steve Schofield and Erik Flowers, both employees of Mural, live on different continents and have never met in person. Yet they get together to play virtual mini-golf every few weeks, in order to connect and catch up.

Real golf has, of course, long been held up as the ne plus ultra of professional bonding and deal-making. But it’s also a disproportionately male activity that can feel intimidating to newcomers and, owing to its history, in some ways remains exclusionary.

‘Walkabout Mini Golf,’ above, is a way for employees to connect and catch up.


Mini golf on the other hand, and in particular its virtual expression, is as easy to start playing as the most leisurely and accessible of casual mobile games, as I discovered recently when dropping in on a game between Mr. Schofield and Mr. Flowers. Gameplay aside, I was impressed that the things VR does well—both spatial audio and a feeling VR researchers call “presence”—allowed for the kind of casual and free-flowing conversation that other means of communication aren’t as good at facilitating.

Paul Tomlinson is a coder and project manager who builds software at Grant Street Group, which makes tax collection and electronic payment systems for governments. He attributes the kinds of conversations that can happen in a game of VR mini-golf, or other spaces for casual connection like virtual movie theaters or virtual fishing, to the way that these games demand just enough of your attention, but not too much. It also helps that mini-golf, in particular, requires taking turns, which lends itself to a particular cadence of conversation. It gives players an excuse to hang out in naturalistic and therefore relaxing environments.

Based on my own experience, it’s not so different from the way a game of cards, a shared meal, or a corporate retreat can stimulate connection and conversation in real life.

‘Walkabout Mini Golf’ allows casual and free-flowing conversation among colleagues.


For Mr. Tomlinson, VR also allows him to take meetings with others that would be impossible even if they met in real life. Not long ago, Mr. Tomlinson broke his foot, which meant he was only able to work while lying back in a recliner. For Mr. Tomlinson, who not only takes meetings in VR but has also figured out how to work in VR all day long, this allowed him to continue working and socializing.

For those who socialize and network in VR, there is one way it is clearly superior to socializing in real life: the lack of distractions.

“One of the things I love about being in the headset is, that you cannot check your cellphone,” says Mr. Essin.

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