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There is No “I” in Remote


By Andrew Van Nest

It goes without saying we’re facing uncharted waters.

The term “social distancing” was coined to instruct us to keep our distance from one another to flatten the curve of COVID-19 cases. Staying away from gyms, bars, restaurants and unfortunately, the workplace, is clearly necessary. We agree with the wise authors of the term “physical distancing” as a better descriptor because we believe socializing remotely is crucial now more than ever for us to weather this storm and stay productive and sane.

Our jobs play a key role in our lives, from the physical and mental commitment to the paychecks. The social connections we make are often taken for granted. Thankfully, software giants like Microsoft, Slack and Zoom have created helpful tools to keep us connected with one another across the room or between the 4th and 7th floor, but what happens when a team or company works 100% remote for an extended period? Are the current solutions fully equipped to replicate the human feelings of being connected, belonging and empowered – or do they unintentionally promote connected isolation?

Often, a crisis forces us to look at the tools we have at hand and reassess their functionality. COVID-19 is opening the floodgates for “social enterprise” software as companies practice physical distancing and are adopting a WFH or remote workforce in the current climate. This requires us to examine the effectiveness of a distributed team and to create measurable frameworks for assessing them.

We put together a framework to assess remote work and social enterprise startups across three categories:

1. Engagement
2. Expression
3. Efficiency

To create any effective social enterprise tool or software you need to measure engagement. Without regular daily use, the tool will not be widely adopted nor effective. Over the last few weeks we have seen many stories on LinkedIn, Medium and Instagram explaining why certain tools have risen to the top. Not surprisingly, video and sound quality, security, recording capabilities and APIs are table stakes. If any of these functions are missing or inadequate, the product will not succeed. What seems to spark genuine engagement and excitement are the clever ways the tools bring life and individual expression to the workforce. Our team experienced this transformation firsthand when we switched to Zoom. The custom background feature allows each of us to share a bit of our personality and who we are. While this feature doesn’t always serve an obvious business function, it provides a level of remote engagement with our colleagues that says “this is me” akin to decorating your desk. These features may set certain tools apart in the future.

The implementation of machine learning (ML) and natural language processing (NLP) in businesses around the world has allowed for the expansion of unique use cases. Expression is a hard thing to measure in an employee, even more so when working remotely. Many work cultures are not known for using tools whereby suggestions and frustrations can be vented. Products that try to understand user sentiment by learning from typing style, response time and word choice will gain popularity. The number of applications that utilize their own forms of messaging are almost ubiquitous. Slack, Jira, email applications and others give an accurate representation of mood and sentiment. These tools give managers the ability to monitor employee sentiment and frustration levels without reading or viewing the contents of an employee’s messages or recordings.

The first two categories lead to the next: Efficiency. Employees who feel engaged and comfortable expressing their feedback are inherently more efficient. They know they are a part of a team that listens and values their input. Team members need to have a clear understanding of the corporate goals that they’re being asked to achieve or exceed and their individual and group roles and progress measurements. We predict the most effective social enterprise tools will permeate successful enterprises of the future and will give greater visibility into daily tasks and ensure that the distributed workforce is connected and empowered. This should lead to further gains in efficiency as teams are more happy, collaborative and in sync.

This challenging time creates opportunities for startups to build features and solutions to help others do their jobs better by enhancing the social enterprise software framework. As early stage investors we are often tasked with looking into the future. We think the future is likely to be built on “social enterprise” and we’re all in a global collective Beta test right now. The winners will be those who best understand how to build features that best enhance the workplace and foster feelings of solidarity that we experience professionally and personally through our work.

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