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The Innovators: Walkabout Workplace

In this series, Bisnow highlights people and companies pushing the commercial real estate industry forward in myriad ways. Click here to read Q&As with all the innovators Bisnow has interviewed so far.

Walkabout Workplace CEO and co-founder Toni Portmann is the ultimate people person, the kind of CEO who believes when she walks into a meeting room, a break room or an office filled with family pictures, one's demeanor changes, creating room for spontaneous connectivity and creativity. 

Walkabout Workplace CEO Toni Portmann gathers with her team in one of the company's virtual workplace rooms in its app.

It's because of her belief in connection that Portmann took on the job as CEO of Walkabout Workplace, a five-year-old company with an app of the same name, in 2019.

The serial entrepreneur had served as CEO of several companies over the years, including a property and asset manager and an e-learning platform devoted to helping people improve their memory and information retention.

In just two years at the helm, Portmann has pulled the brand into the mainstream, allowing businesses exploring work-from-home and remote meeting options an opportunity to establish virtual offices online that replicate brick-and-mortar workspaces or dream destinations conceptualized by each individual end user. 

Portmann gave Bisnow a tour of the virtual office Walkabout Workplace set up for itself online and shared how her team competed with the Zooms and the Microsofts of the world to stake out a place for itself in the work-from-home tech space that exploded by necessity. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Bisnow: We are in a market where everyone went virtual at once due to the pandemic. But your concept was alive and well before the coronavirus hit. What inspired Walkabout Workplace? 

Portmann: This didn’t just happen with Covid or the pandemic. If you think about the last 20 years, almost two decades, we were entering into a very distributed world. We started to have onshore and offshore teams. The world became flat and everybody went global and big companies had either franchisees or headquarters in one location, but also branch offices or locations in other cities across either the U.S. or the globe. And what we started seeing was a fragmentation of the workforce.

Work from home isn’t a new thought. It’s been around for a long period of time, and the worldwide web and the internet made that possible, of course. But the problem is people became sort of a tool, and people started losing their identity. They started losing their connection with their team, with their company, with their colleagues, with their community. And as a result, whether it was in education or in the workplace, what you saw was productivity going lower. You saw work not really getting done with the same level of efficacy because the work-from-home thing says, 'Well, I can do my work whenever I want to.'

A virtual comfort dog joins the Workabout Workplace tour online.

Bisnow: So how did the concept come into fruition, and how did you get involved with the firm?

Portmann: Two colleagues, and the two original founders, Brad Richardson and Antoinette Forth, had the idea when they were consulting in organizational dynamics and setting up workflows and workplaces. They went and raised a little bit of money [back in 2016] and put a proof of concept together.

I came in February of 2019. I took a look at it and just said, 'This is the next generation.' This is what work is going to evolve to, and this was well before we could spell Covid.

This is the sixth company I’ve had the opportunity to run. I swore I was never going to do another startup. One of the company’s that I started from scratch grew to 15,000 employees in 31 centers in 16 countries. So when I saw this platform, I thought to myself, 'I had 31 offices that I was spending a fortune on in real estate. I would have used this platform every day because we are never where we should be when we need to be.'

We’ve got clients now that are saying, 'Where have you been for the last 20 years of my life?' This platform has all of the benefits of what is out there with technology, but it also provides a sense of place and space where I can protect my brand and really create a community.

A digital map that replicates an office environment within the Walkabout Workplace app.

Bisnow: What made you think you could replicate office culture online by creating a 3D simulation of an office environment and what's the benefit of it?

Portmann: You can do an exact replicate of an office digitally, so if some people are physically at the office, they can also see people that are at home in the same meeting room virtually, and vice versa. Think about walking into a videoconference room in a real brick-and-mortar building, but you have your virtual people from all over the world there with you in that hybrid environment. The change of context enables you to think differently. Creativity kicks in when you are with somebody in a different environment. We can even put a bar in. We have some board members who say, 'Hey, can I use your bar to bring in some people to have a drink?' And they literally come into our three-dimensional floor plan to our custom wine bar where they can have a cocktail.

Bisnow: Why did you feel the workplace needed an online meeting setting beyond Zoom, Slack or a traditional conference call?

Portmann: It is exactly in that schema in that change of context. It is the way I change, the way I act, behave, think and feel when I am in the boardroom versus the training room, versus the café and then in our CIO’s office.

The vision behind what was missing is a virtual place with lots of tools, videos and audio. People started feeling like they were a red or green dot on a chat tool or a calendar invite. Now with Covid, they have found a real scientific issue called Zoom fatigue, where we are just fried. We are tired of being relegated to calendar invites and regular green dots on chat tools, and we are missing being connected to a team. The inspiration behind Walkabout was really to say we have to give people a place to go [online] where they can have a five-minute water cooler conversation. 

Bisnow: Who is the most likely end user for the Walkabout Workplace application?

Portmann: I think in the short term, it's going to be the big guys that have the biggest pain and problems. But the vision is about being able to go to a website and pick out your own office, your own building, your school, your drapes, your carpet, your pictures on the wall, even adding your own logo and being able to custom-design your entire three-dimensional floor plan with the touch of a button.

It also is open to all that can't afford brick and mortar, but need a place to go. And then, it opens us up to the world of training and education in a meaningful way. We like to think we will be the platform that gives people a place to go. Everybody has hardware and everybody has software, but we will be able to provide "placeware."

Bisnow: How did Covid change demand for your product?

Portmann: The good news is necessity becomes the father of invention, so it gave legitimacy to needing a place to go.

On the other hand, I will tell you the disadvantage of Covid was that people said for literally six-to-nine months that, "we did just fine." We had Zoom and we had Microsoft teams and Slack, we had all of these tools and survived. So we didn’t have the rapid growth that a Microsoft Teams or a Zoom would have because it’s a different construct. It’s a different paradigm. It's a place to go to use your tools. 

All of us have experienced work-from-home. We have experienced isolation. We’ve experienced the malaise of the kids, or the dogs or the cats in the background. We’ve experienced the WiFi not working. While Covid was a blessing in getting the awareness out of what we are going to do in this new norm, it also caused the pain of not having a place to go.

I do believe that there will be a new normal, and we will never go back to being the same. Hybrid is the new environment, and distributed teams are the new normal. This whole concept of place is the missing link, and what place gives us literally is a whole change in our behavior.  We talk about being at the right place at the right time, solving the right problems, and that is where we think we are.