The trend towards artificial presence in remote teams

Research
the-trend-towards-artificial-presence-in-remote-te

One observable trend that is showing up in our tool reviews here at NoHQ is the strong pull towards creating new communication tools that are trying to create an artificial sense of presence and reachability. The most common use case of tools like that is to create something that allows for extremely quick and often synchronous communication that feels more casual and spontaneous than setting up calls and video chats.

These new upcoming tools are looking to solve one big issue in remote work: Isolation and lack of casual communication. With communication tools today, it is extremely hard to create an environment that is as casual and welcoming for non-work chatter than the modern office. The result of that is probably the most creative new niche of remote work communication: presence tools.

Presence tools are very experimental, but have a few things in common:

  • They usually revolve around voice or video communication
  • They create user awareness of who is online or not (often as an always-in-front overlay)
  • They make it easy to get in touch with other members of a team

In the past few weeks, we had the honour to try multiple of these tools, and now is the time to summarize and take a deeper look into what they do right, and what they may do wrong.

A look at tools today

To start things off, let's look at some of these 'presence tools' we have mentioned.

Remo

Remo has been around for a while, and we even covered the tool once before in our piece about the Virtual Office Boom. Virtual Offices definitely belong in the category of presence tools, as they are often associated and marketed with the same benefits in mind – visibility, interactivity and casual communication. Remo is interesting, compared to the tools mentioned after this, because it is built with work-related and non-work-related communication in mind and clearly, at all times, makes it visible as to who is 'in the office' and who is not. The aspect of having a visual view of the 'office' and who is in it is quite unique as well, amongst this list.

Remotion

Similar name, different concept. I was able to take Remotion for a spin last week, and it may be one of the only two tools which actively market themselves as a presence tool. The concept is quite simple: You add your team, they appear as round images in an always-in-front window on your work machine, and with a single click, you can call a teammate, share your screen, exchange ideas and more. The presence aspect is showing up in two main parts: For one, profile images are temporary and are being re-taken every few hours (since the last versions after a prompt or initiating it manually), second, there is an always-present online indicator which needs to be switched if one does not want to auto-accept calls, giving a clear signal as to who is available, who is offline, and who is doing focus time.

There

There was an early exploration into presence tools back in the day and is the only tool in this list not focused on quick communication. Instead, timezones and current activities (including the active windows of each person) are being shared to the rest of the team, providing context to team members as to whether a specific employee is available for a call or likely in a focused timeslot and not available for socializing or messaging.

Pragli

Pragli shares a lot of approaches with Remotion. It is an abstract way of showing a virtual office – in this case, a set of avatars on a screen – that are designated by a status. Based on the status, calls can be made instantly, with prior approval, or not at all. One of the main differences of Pragli is that they take it one step further – they allow people who are calling others to speak instantly (kind of like a walkie talkie) and the call is connected once the other party answers. This removes all barriers from having an instant chat, no more dialling or connection time, just click and talk.

Breaking the promise of remote work?

The big pull of remote-first companies today, and one of the main reasons why people line up to work for them, is the fact that async and thoughtful communication is often anchored in their core. Thinking about remote companies, the big players like GitLab or Basecamp come to mind, two companies that fully rely on async communication to make their global teams work, but also to create a workplace that is free from the 'stress' of coworkers coming up to your desk and using your time, and working environments where you can work whenever you want, from wherever you want and it works.

The only way you can achieve that – or at least the only way it is proven to work – is by handling communication asynchronously and have scheduled sessions for socializing or catching up in a video call. So the big question that I'm putting out there – is designating presence in this case actually counter-productive? Do we need a way to get in touch with a co-worker in seconds, or should we instead work on creating working environments that rely on async communication first?

There is no absolute reply to this, but it gives some food for thought. Many of these services are just designed for any remote team, creating the impression that this is valuable and compatible with any remote team out there, which is not the case. Let's talk about why this is.

Why new communication styles are needed

For a long time, remote companies were cut from the same cloth. They were often labelled as 'lifestyle businesses', often bootstrapped or angel-funded because venture capitalists used to see it as a big risk to finance startups like these. Many of these companies are still out there today – Doist for example – and have pioneered the workflows and communication styles of fully remote companies. As venture capitalists became more open-minded and saw how easy it was to get great talent, they started financing these endeavours who did so well attracting new talent, and therefore remote mega-corporations like GitLab, Zapier and Automattic were born.

The way that remote companies are being built is changing, and it is not special anymore to hire a few or a majority of workers in different cities. The thing that remains special is to build a global remote-first company because it is something that is incredibly difficult to do right. If a company hires remote workers in a few different cities in similar timezones, it's only recommended – and no longer required – to rely on async communication. Many companies use that benefit for building semi-local or hybrid remote companies, that often span only a single or a few timezones and cities.

The issues that these companies face are now no longer about isolation, timezones, face-to-face time or async communication and more so to know when your co-workers are at the desk, when they are focusing and when they are offline. In that regard – when presence can be designated – this is actually a huge improvement over a traditional workplace.

A few things still are still in question though: Will online indicators and presence designation lead to further employee monitoring? Will the easy access to voice communication and therefore disruption lead to less focus time than in an office? Does this improve productivity? Things that will show over time as these tools mature and get deployed in more working spaces.

A look at a different direction

Last week I wrote about Yac, an asynchronous voice tool, that is currently being tested in a few teams around the world. Yac is probably one of the most experimental approaches to communication, but it might be one of the smartest and most effective ones too.

The thing about Yac that I realized after I tested the other tools is that it is essentially solving the same problem, but for all remote teams alike. The issue that these tools want to solve is that remote work can feel distant. Without seeing coworkers face-to-face it can be hard to socialize, it's hard to find nuance and it is hard to have a discussion. Most presence tools take voice as a solution for this and use calls as a way to bring teams together. Yac is applying the same principles to asynchronous communication, not requiring presence anymore and making teams able to scale globally, but also local teams to take out more freedom when it comes to focus times or working at different hours.

The trend to explore more ways to communicate is a good one, and I am not sure which direction will prevail. One thing is sure, remote work – even if not remote-first or just within a certain city or country – is gaining popularity quickly, so there is a place for all those tools mentioned. All of the tools do a brilliant job creating a sense of presence and closeness and therefore reduce isolation and improve communication, which is a good thing. The final say in this will be up to the market. I see a lot more potential in Yac for global, fully distributed and async-heavy teams, while I see a great future for tools like Pragli in teams who are close-by, but not quite in the same location.

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