Our team is consulting a telco customer and due to the pandemic we all have to work from home. To mitigate the negative effects of remote work we all have been taking part in a continuous Zoom session during the work day. Most of the time our cameras are turned on, so we can see each other kinda like in an office. Everyone from the team would be present in the main Zoom room, moving to breakout rooms as necessary.
Unfortunately, after a while some problems became evident:
- Every time someone starts to talk in the main room, everyone would hear it even if they don’t want to
- Everyone in the room is beeing addressed as if he was the person in focus even if they aren’t
- Lot’s of people don’t want to have a camera in their face all the time
- Finding people in breakout rooms is tedious
During a virtual retreat we learned about gather.town, which is basically what happens if you crossbreed Zoom with Zelda. After initial positive reactions we decided to give it a try in our team.
In contrast to Zoom, in gather.town one is not packed together in one room. Instead, your avatar can move around in a virtual office that looks and feels like a Zelda level. You can hear and see people close to you or when you are together in a private space with them. So, everyone can “sit” at their own desk and work in private, until someone else comes up to him and starts talking. This feels more natural and therefore easy than joining a Zoom breakout room. Also, it’s not as exclusive as a Zoom breakout room in the sense that anyone else can still walk up to you and join the conversation. If you want more privacy, you always can go to a virtual meeting room. Both ways you won’t disturb someone working at their desk.
What’s an advantage for one is a disadvantage for someone else: team leads or managers who visit the team only once a day (randomly) to sync have to call everyone together via the spotlight feature. That has been easier in Zoom, where they were already in the “right” meeting immediately. Although that can vary depending on how much you are using breakout rooms in Zoom. But the default is just different in gather.town.
You and your coworkers can change the gather.town office: add tables, decoration, etc… But for us, no one really used this feature. We just created an office from their template selection. The setup process is really easy. In about 5 minutes we all have been up and running.
gather.town puts the focus on virtual office interactions and nags the workers into conversations via video chat. In our experience the contact to some team members actually improved this way as they could value the fewer interactions more. The overall contact decreased for us though, but this is because we have been in a common Zoom room before. If you want to improve your office life further, there are some boardgames included that you and your coworkers can play around virtual tables.
For us, gather.town ran quite smoothly using the (Chrome/Firefox) Browser. Some team members reported audio hickups when they were using multiple video chat apps at once. For me personally the CPU load of gather.town seems to be lower than for Zoom.
On the other hand, the video and audio quality is not on par with Zoom. Video resolution seems to be higher but also is compression and video is not as fluid as in Zoom. Also, gather.town is missing some features like the virtual backgrounds, beautification, adjustable audio, high-quality audio and so on. gather.town seems to correct bass-heavy input better than Zoom though.
We had to ask permission from our customer to be able to use gather.town because of data security but they had no problem with that.
Unlike Zoom, there is no integration into Slack, Outlook and so on. At least we haven’t found any. This seems to be normal as gather.town is quite early in its development and also less focused on the corporate environment. Also one could ask wether you need, for instance, Slack integration as you can just run by someones desk and talk to him. Anyway, some people will miss these features.
The switch to gather.town went really quickly for us. After a few minutes we were all set up and running around the new virtual office. There have been some OS-depentend audio problems, but they were solvable. You should change the expiration of the invite link to never, so people can still log in the next day using your link.
Some consultants found gather.town to be too playful but there has been no emigration wave yet. Quite the contrary: we planned a decision meeting for wether we want to continue using gather.town for after a few days, but this date has passed for some days now and no one has asked for the meeting again.
Life in gather.town feels more organic than in a common Zoom room. Zoom is technically superior, also in regards to integration into other software. Each team should choose for themselves wether the advantages outweigh the problems, but for us the advantages just seem to grow the larger our team becomes.