Inside the board room at the corporate headquarters for VirBELA, chief strategy officer Glenn Sanford invited me to lean forward and put my hand in for a cheer, in the style of breaking a huddle, to show how people at his company sometimes end meetings.

It felt like a particularly unusual practice in this age of six-feet-or-more social distancing, but then again, Sanford hadn’t blinked his eyes in the entire hour we’d been visiting.

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What sounded like Sanford and looked sort of like him was actually his online avatar, and we were far from a world where people need to repeatedly wash their hands.

With so many of us thrust into strange new versions of our lives thanks to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the much of the talk is about how we will socialize or work when things “return to normal.” It feels impossible to imagine an office setting or classroom or group activity right now.

But what if some part of normal means bringing our avatars together? GeekWire checked out two virtual worlds to better understand how we could play and work together again, virtually, in the future.

A virtual work pioneer
Sanford is the founder of eXp Realty, a brokerage with 28,000 agents, operating in all 50 states and four countries. When he had 24 agents working out of five offices, including in Seattle, the 2008 recession and subsequent housing crash sent him looking for a way to save his business.

Deciding that the best way to run his company was without brick-and-mortar offices, Sanford sent everyone home to do their jobs and never looked back.

Glenn Sanford of eXp Realty and VirBELA. (eXp Photo)
In 2018, eXp Holdings, the brokerage’s parent company, acquired VirBELA, a virtual reality company that helps other companies connect their workforces online, hiring talent anywhere and scaling without worrying about physical walls or desk space.

I met Sanford this week (who was at home in Blaine, Wash.) and marketing and communications VP Cynthia Nowak (who was at home in Seattle) in VirBELA’s Open Campus, a free island in the cloud set up to host immersive events, meetings, classes, and other gatherings.

I dressed and personalized my avatar quickly, chose hair and skin tone and met Sanford and Nowak’s avatars. They were seated at an outdoor table, inside a blue circle designed to mute our conversation to other avatars wandering the campus.

“Obviously since COVID, there’s been a whole bunch of people who’ve been trying to figure out in real time how to solve the same things that we were solving back in 2009,” Sanford said. “If you’re like most people, you probably got stuck into a ton more Zoom meetings than you ever thought was humanly possible. What we’re finding already is that people are getting Zoom-fatigued. This solves it quite well.”