If you've ever wondered what the next phase of working remotely could be like, look no further than eXp Realty.
In most respects, eXp is your typical real estate brokerage company. It employs thousands of licensed agents to help clients buy and sell their homes. And business seems to be good: eXp's stock price has almost quadrupled since this time last year, giving it a market cap of over $610 million.
What sets it apart is that, rather than having agents stop by a physical office for meetings, presentations, or technical assistance, the company's 13,000 agents and 200 staff employees go to work on a virtual island. A small office in Bellingham, WA serves as its headquarters because of "a legal requirement," the company says, but the real work gets done in the digital realm.
The company says that maintaining a virtual office, which gets about 8,000 unique visitors a month, gives it some advantages.
"We found that we have an ability that's hard to find in the physical world," said CTO Scott Petronis, referring to the ease of internal communication.
Not only can employees report to work regardless of the weather, but there are no restrictions on how many employees the offices can support, no campus maintenance fees, and no geographical limits on recruiting talent.
"It's a great feeling to know that we can hire great talent regardless of where they are in the world," said Petronis.
I got to go on a tour of eXp's virtual offices, alongside Petronis and VP of Marketing Mitch Robinson. I sat at an introductory meeting, toured shared spaces, went to a beach, rode a speedboat, and got to meet some of eXp's employees, all without leaving my seat.
Here's what it's like to work out of a virtual campus:
When I first signed on, I saw this man staring back at me. It took me a minute to realize that I was supposed to customize this guy to look like me.
I used the app from my desktop PC, but there's a mobile app, too. The mobile app comes with some limitations: You can only hear audio, not see the virtual world. It's really meant for taking conference calls in a pinch.
There aren't too many options to play with, but I was able to adjust my hair color, skin color, and face type. There were actually more options for clothes than personal appearance.
A company Representative says that eXp is always trying to add new options, and recently did so with religious head wear and seasonal clothing. We're also told that some employees change their avatar's clothing every day, just like in the real world.
Once I was ready, I found myself in an outdoor area of some sort, and I located my tour guides: eXp CTO Scott Petronis and VP of Marketing Mitch Robinson.
The controls were easy to get used to — you can either click around to move, or else guide yourself with the arrow keys. When someone was talking, their speech bubble turned light blue to let you know it's them.
We sat at a table nearby — done by hovering over a chair and clicking — and talked a little bit about the campus. I noticed the billboard touting that the realty company was named a best place to work by Glassdoor's 2018 Employee Choice Awards in December.
These little details stood out to me, because they make the world a little more real. I imagine that makes it easier to 'go to the office' in a virtual space every day.
We got up to look around. To the right was a virtual building housing the agent services and processing team. The skyscrapers with the US and Canada flags are home to brokerage operations, team offices, and co-working spaces.
It became clear that these execs were totally used to being immersed in this world. They referred to things being "behind me" or "behind Mitch," showing that they have a sense of where things are in this virtual space.
Next, Scott suggested we "go to the teach team room," which was as easy as clicking "Go To," in the top right-hand corner and finding Tech Team Room on the menu. I was there in seconds.
It did lag slightly, which Mitch said happened to him when he had too many windows open. Regardless, it was a quicker and easier alternative to carving out the time from your day to navigate a campus in order to find the right meeting room.
In these meeting areas, the screens you see could be used for sharing your monitor and doing presentations. "We tried to model this [space] after a shared tech space, but you know — in our own world," Scott said.
Another small thing that I thought made a big difference was that, while we were in a virtual room, we were also in our own 'private room,' designated by that blue dotted circle surrounding us. That meant voices from other conversations didn't interrupt ours, and everyone's voices within our meeting could be heard equally clearly.
From the soccer field, the beach caught my eye, and we talked a little bit about the personalization opportunities a virtual campus allows you.
Scott described their 4th of July and Canada Day celebrations, complete with a night sky and fireworks, which could only be seen if you were standing out here — the scene 'outside' didn't change for anyone who was still working.
And then they asked if I wanted to go on a speedboat, which they summoned with a click. It was oddly soothing to race over the waves from my windowless seat in a phone booth.
And yes, the boats are available to any employee who wants to drive one around.
I only experienced it for an hour and did little to no work, but overall I found the virtual campus to be mostly pleasant. I wondered about the complete lack of employee interactivity in a billion-dollar company, however. Scott — who's only met with "a quarter, maybe a third" of his team in real life — said it was a non-issue.
He said they're more excited to meet one another in the real world — excited enough that they go out of their way to meet up during vacations when they're in a coworker's hometown or country.