Now technology researchers are trying to replicate old-fashioned office interactions by transforming everyday business software for the new era of work. The historically dry-as-sawdust products are borrowing elements from video games and social-networking Web sites.
You can tell just from looking at the Beehive program under development at IBM Corp. that something is different. Beehive's color scheme is bright yellow, not IBM's standard blue. The cheerfulness reflects the fact that Beehive is meant to encourage far-flung co-workers to like each other more.
Beehive is an online portal for employees to describe their expertise, so valuable knowledge doesn't get lost inside the bureaucracy. Those kinds of tools are common, but Beehive adds an unusual dose of Facebook or MySpace. The 27,000 IBMers using Beehive can post pictures, video and one-sentence updates about themselves. They can share lists of "things I can't live without."
Such personal touches often are missing when people work at a distance from one another, says Joan Morris DiMicco, an IBM researcher developing Beehive. Co-workers in different locales can't wander into each other's offices and see family pictures on the desk. They don't shop at the same places or have children in the same schools.
These tidbits, DiMicco believes, help people understand each other better. And the usual communication tools like e-mail, instant messaging, phones and even videoconferencing do only so much to fill the gap.
This problem isn't confined to IBM, whose 386,000 employees often find themselves working with people from Boston to Bangalore to Beijing. It affects any company where telecommuting, outsourcing and globalization have spread the staff across cultures and time zones.
At Intel Corp., for example, many project teams have at least one person who has yet to meet the group's boss face-to-face.
Recently, Intel tried to improve the situation by testing a "visual business card" system. Participants could not only list standard information about their location and job title, but they also could post pictures, brief biographies and things they like.
Now Intel is exploring whether virtual-world software, which can show graphically rich, 3-D representations of meeting rooms, auditoriums, factory floors - you name it - will make it more natural for groups to collaborate. Intel's initial efforts are focused on such tasks as monitoring computer centers, designing products and training staff.
Other companies are already using virtual worlds for certain events, allowing people to maneuver graphical representations of themselves, known as "avatars," through online trade shows and product demos.
When CDC Software recently staged parts of an annual sales kickoff event in a virtual world created by Unisfair Inc., it included an online version of the golf outings that commonly accompany such affairs. It held tournaments in baseball and golf video games - and gave real trophies to the champions, said Julian Hannabuss, a CDC sales director.
In the coming years, more aspects of everyday working life could include virtual interactions that resemble games but are plenty serious.
One reason is that the technology is getting more sophisticated. For instance, if my avatar appears to be sitting to your left in a meeting, what I say into my computer microphone can come through your left computer speaker. And I'd hear you on the right.
Soon such meetings will be able to incorporate images from Web cameras that capture gestures and face movements - so your avatar can reflect your nonverbal communication cues, crossing its legs or frowning when you do so in real life.
"Those kinds of things make you forget there's an interface mediating you and the other people at all," said Greg Nuyens, CEO of virtual-world creator Qwaq Inc., whose clients include the energy company BP Group PLC. "You'll just be in a room with them."
Eyeing that same future, IBM researchers are exploring whether groups of people in different locations can bond by playing collaborative virtual-world games, like solving puzzles together. IBM calls the effort "Inward Bound," a nod to the Outward Bound wilderness exercises.
And an IBM project called Bluegrass is testing how software programmers in different locations can organize their work in a virtual landscape. People traversing this virtual world appear as the pictures they posted of themselves in Beehive. IBM researcher Steven Rohall hopes to enable people engaged in solitary, "heads down" work at computers to get the kind of "heads up" interactions that come from walking down the hall in an office.
Put more simply, perhaps: "We can make work suck less," says Reuben Steiger, CEO of virtual-world creator Millions of Us.
Steiger predicts that office politics will be transformed as virtual interactions replace or augment in-person connections, because the technology often liberates wallflowers to act more aggressively.
Cindy Pickering, the engineer overseeing Intel's internal virtual-world efforts, says younger employees will be key to quickly advancing socially oriented workplace software. They're already used to chatting and playing online, whether in networking sites or complex video games.
Still, one big question is just how many plane trips for actual meetings can be realistically replaced by software.
"I don't think we'll ever completely replace the human interaction element," Pickering says. "Instead of us going out and playing softball together, now we'll just go play an (online) game? I don't know how satisfying I would find that."
Another question is whether getting distant co-workers to enjoy each other more will actually improve workplace productivity. Research on the subject indicates that a much bigger factor is whether people trust their colleagues to do their parts.
"I think companies underestimate that," says Catherine Connolly, a professor of industrial psychology at McMaster University. "Especially when they have team-building Kumbaya exercises."