Vertex Ventures
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Vertex Ventures

#CallForStartups: Remote Chatter and Give Me the Deets

I’m working remotely for the second time in my career. I spent ~18 months during my 5-year tenure at Box as a remote employee “islanded” from Silicon Valley in Dallas. Due to the Coronavirus pandemic, I’m a remote worker once again (as are many). Working remotely has resurfaced some of the feelings I regularly felt during my stint in Dallas: I miss serendipitous collisions with my co-workers, and I wonder what’s happening that doesn’t rise to formal communication.

Let’s dig into what’s meaningful about each of these feelings in the context of remote working to lay the groundwork for a call for startups. 🗣

Serendipitous collisions

These are the interactions that emerge from being in the same place at the same time but are seldom the product of intentional action: We did not plan to grab a bottle of kombucha simultaneously, but a worthwhile idea exchange occurred because we’re both here. Apple designed its headquarters around the idea that unplanned collaboration between workers and departments is an ingredient for innovation.

Someone could rightly point out that you can randomly chat with people on Slack. While this is true, there is a high degree of intentionality in this medium that reduces the likelihood of serendipitous communication. These conversations don’t happen on accident but rather because one person initiated them — unlike the delightful casual office chats that lead to unintended magic. Call them serendipitous moments of collaboration. Office chats are lost among remote teams, which has been one of the dominant reasons many companies resist going remote.

Below the fold information sharing

I describe “below the fold” information sharing as the information sharing that doesn’t take place via formal meetings or adapted digital communication channels (Slack and email).

Meetings tend to serve two purposes in organizations: information sharing and decision making. When meetings are centered around information sharing, there is a bar (as there should be) for what information rises to the level of asking for peoples’ time. Just because information may not rise to the bar doesn’t imply it isn’t important. All information is context with degrees of usefulness that varies between who is receiving it. Understanding that a prospective customer chose not to buy a product due to a missing feature has different meanings for different parties. Product teams may use this info to inform their roadmap, while sales teams may adjust how they qualify customers upfront. The info may still be useful even though it doesn’t warrant a meeting to transact.

My Slack champion could point out (once again) that you can share information like this in Slack. This person is (once again) correct, but the argument fails to consider the ability of Slack to filter the noise of what is relevant and what is not. Office chats tend to be a useful mode for this type of information because they require a higher bar for relevancy. As I reach for the kombucha bottle at the same time as my colleague, we might fill the space with a conversation about the lost sale because I know that it may be relevant to you. Alternatively, chat groups or email blasts don’t fully consider the relevancy to the parties on the receiving end, nor do they support a high degree of fidelity for new insights to emerge. In this example, the office chat could inadvertently lead to a conversation about product strategy, sales qualification, or some other yet-to-be-discovered insight. Useful information often transacts in these settings.

A framework for remote communication

We can organize different methods of office communication according to two variables: the degree of synchrony and level of formality. Synchrony generally describes the rate at which the participants feel the need to respond, while formality expresses the intention and structure with which participants initiate communication.

According to this framework, virtual and in-person meetings are formal because they’re scheduled and generally (hopefully?) require some amount of effort to participate. Meetings are also synchronous in that we must engage in real-time. At the other end of the spectrum, Slack is neither formal nor entirely synchronous. Sometimes we feel the need to respond (i.e., direct messages, tags), while in other cases (i.e., group channels) we don’t.

Office chats belong in the upper left-hand quadrant because they are informal and synchronous. In a remote work environment, the office chat disappears. How can technology encourage the spontaneity of office chats while preserving the information quality of these interactions?

One of the challenges of digital interactions is noise tends to increase as the friction of communication decreases — friction defined as the amount of effort it takes to initiate communication. I don’t have to look further than email to illustrate this idea. An email is a low-friction form of communication and, consequently, generates a lot of noise. Hence, applications like Superhuman, which help better navigate the noise through savvy design and speedy navigation features. While I love Superhuman (I am a VC after all), apps like this treat the symptoms and not the cause.

Our current tools generate a lot of noise and tend to make us feel like responses are warranted at the earliest opportunity. Can technology help us decipher what needs to be addressed or consumed now vs. eventually? I personally appreciate the benefits of continuous, uninterrupted work — there is a reason I wrote this post on a Sunday. Such technology would live somewhere in the bottom-left quadrant and work horizontally across teams. Could there be an internal Google Alerts for information that is relevant to me inside a company? For those that are remote, the need for asynchronous information transfer is a necessity given the possibility of disparate time zones.

A call for startups

Does the office chat hold a special place in organizational structures that can’t be replicated via technology? Let’s hope not — I suspect more and more teams will opt for remote structures out of necessity or convenience. Startup founders have shattered widely held beliefs time and time again, so I’m hoping they can do so in this domain. Here is my call for startups:

  1. Office chats, but remote.
  2. Information sharing without a meeting, but relevant.

Several companies in the space like Remotion, Around, Worky, Range, and Tandem have caught my eye. If you are a founder building something cool, send me an email here.

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