Remote work is the most underrated generational shift in the world.
It saves everyone one hour per day in commute. It creates the biggest labor market in the world — a city in the cloud with hundreds of millions of people. It unlocks opportunity for everyone, regardless of where they live. It gives people more flexibility in working hours. The list goes on and on.
Remote work would be an unqualified panacea, if it wasn’t for one downside: it makes it harder to work together.
There’s less alignment than before. Conversations that used to take half an hour now stretch over days filled with Zoom meetings. And most importantly — work is less fun than it used to be. There’s less camaraderie, as it’s become harder to build culture and relationships between coworkers.
That’s certainly borne by the data. Buffer’s survey of 3,500 remote workers found that the two biggest struggles of remote workers are loneliness and “collaboration and communication.” And that was before the pandemic.
Beers on Friday evenings have been replaced by awkward “Zoom happy hours.” It’s become harder to build culture and camaraderie — the friction to jump onto a call is high enough to kill 90% of the chats that would have happened in the office.
Taken individually, none of these interactions are very important. They’re of the “how’s it going?” variety. But collectively, they’re what culture is made of.
Ignoring the problem can be tempting. Work is still happening, after all. But it would be hard to overstate how important this issue actually is. There’s a reason why management books emphasize culture and team bonding so much — few things are more important, since everything else depends on this. In Brian Chesky’s words, “Don’t fuck up the culture.”
This too is supported by the data. An MIT study of 2,500 white-collar workers found that: (emphasis mine)
“35% of the variation in a team’s performance can be accounted for simply by the number of face-to-face exchanges among team members. [… T]he least valuable forms of communication are e-mail and texting.”
Virtual offices: how to have our cake and eat it too
Fortunately, we think there is a way to have our cake and eat it too — to have all the upside of remote, and none of the downside.
We believe we can make collaboration software that’s so powerful that remote work becomes not only as good, but significantly better than being in the office.
We’ve called it Teamflow.
Teamflow is a virtual office for remote teams. It recreates the casual, unplanned chats and the seamless collaboration that people miss from physical offices.
Here’s how it works: you see your video in a bubble on a virtual floor plan. You can move that bubble around, and only hear people around you. That means that, to chat with someone, you just drag your bubble over, and start talking.
We’ve been running Teamflow in private beta for the last six months, and were blown away by the response. Our NPS stands at 67, and we receive messages like those below on a daily basis.
We think what makes Teamflow work so well is the interplay between three fundamental parts — its:
John Palmer’s essay on spatial interfaces is what inspired us to make space core to Teamflow.
In short, space comes intuitively to people. We had to become experts at it for our very survival — our sensorimotor skills are so good that roboticists talk of “Moravec’s Paradox” to designate the fact that AI was kicking our world champions’ butts at chess as early as in the 90s, but it still can’t do things like driving, which any teenager can learn.
We were skeptical at first, but after more than 50,000 hours of meetings on Teamflow, we’ve seen spatiality deliver on its promise.
One of our customers’ new hires told me that it’s only when they started using Teamflow, a full 4 weeks after he onboarded, that he met some of his coworkers for the first time — and that’s with a company of only 25 people.
This is hardly a unique experience — people underestimate how jarring it can be to start a new job at a remote company. On their first day at work, nobody is going to click on a list of names on Slack just to introduce themselves. But when you see your coworkers’ face in the same space as you, it feels natural to drag yourself over and say hi.
The real job-to-be-done of videoconferencing tool is to help people work together — and collaboration is much more than communication. So we think it’s only natural that you’d be able to open your work tools right where your meeting is happening.
Teamflow lets you open apps in the space. For now, these include:
- A scratchpad
- A whiteboard
- A countdown timer
- A universal embed app, letting you open links to your applications like Trello, Figma or Google Docs
Now, don’t tell anyone, but that’s kind of our world domination plan right there. We aim to be the “meta-coordination layer” that Kevin Kwok wrote about in The Arc of Collaboration:
There is a need for a layer across all the applications. A layer for things that should be shared across the apps as well collaborative functionality across them. There is some mix of presence, collaboration, coordination, and identity that should be ubiquitous across whatever apps are being used. A layer more attached to the people doing work and what they’re trying to accomplish—than which specific app they’re in.
We believe that opening all your apps in the same space as your meeting is a much more natural way of working, eliminating what we call “Cmd + Tab fatigue.”
It’s a more natural way of sharing, too. No more “okay, hold on one sec, I’m paaaastiiiing the link here in the chat… Can everybody see it?” You just open the link in the space, and everyone sees it immediately.
Finally, it’s a more natural way of collaborating. The default way people collaborate with Zoom is by screensharing, something we view as fundamentally uncollaborative — not only can only one person screenshare at a time, they’re also the only ones who can drive. It instantly makes a meeting feel like someone is speaking at you. This stands in contrast with Teamflow apps, which everyone can use at the same time, making for more engaging meetings.
If Zoom is our new office, it’s a peculiar one, in that it “factory resets” between each meeting, making it a permanent blank slate — the digital equivalent of Pied Piper’s new office in the TV show Silicon Valley:
I think people underestimate the impact this has on collaboration. Imagine if you couldn’t keep anything on your desk, or put anything on the walls of your office. Humans are territorial animals — we need a space to call our own.
At the office, when a deadline looms for an important project, it’s common to set up a “war room” — a space dedicated to the project. These war rooms are very effective — the only reason we don’t use them more often is that space is so scarce.
So it’s ironic that we’re now given a medium with unlimited space, and instead of taking advantage of it, we limit it even more than what we had previously. We could have infinite war rooms — but instead, we get zero of them.
Teamflow takes advantage of this infinite real estate. It lets you create one room for each of your projects, and the apps you open in that room persist: they’ll still be there when you come back. Imagine your Google Docs meeting notes, your Figma design, your project’s metrics dashboard — all together in one place.
This turns the current collaboration paradigm on its head. The way our tools work today is very app-centric. But the way we think about work is project-centric. Google Docs, Trello, or Jira don’t matter — the projects they enable do.
These three pillars — the spatial interface, integrated apps, and persistent rooms — form a cohesive whole. Apps live in the space, and persist. And together, we think they can make remote work better than being in the office.
Making remote better than being in the office
It may sound like a lofty goal, but it needs not be. It’s not like the quality of in-office work was a physical constant, the speed of light of collaboration.
In fact, there are many ways in which the physical world stands in the way of collaboration — and the benefits of a virtual office become obvious when cast under that light:
Today, Teamflow is coming out of stealth and announcing its $3.9M seed round, led by Menlo Ventures and with the participation of SV Angel, Elad Gil, Balaji Srinivasan, JD Ross, Jack Altman, and many more.
We view the transition to virtual office software as inevitable. Historically, people have used offices for the atoms there — their huge computer, photocopier, stack of documents… Over the last few decades, all those have been replaced by laptops and by cloud software.
What’s left in the office is the bits. The information, the socialization, the collaboration. These can perfectly be handled by software, which has famously been “eating the world” for the last few decades.
The office just happens to be next.