January
05
, 2022

Tandem’s 2021, and Looking to a Hybrid Future

Rajiv is the co-founder and CEO of Tandem, a virtual office for hybrid and remote teams.

The Tandem Team, 2021

2021 was a year of research, discovery and experimentation. Companies around the world realized that there is no “going back to normal”— that remote and hybrid work arrangements are here to stay. As I've written, the shift to hybrid work has as much cause for optimism, as for anxiety.

But before we dive into 2022, I wanted to take some time to reflect on our progress over the last year, and what we've learned while building the virtual office around you, the teams and companies using Tandem.

2021, in the Rear View Mirror

Hundreds of companies around the world embraced Tandem to connect, engage, and collaborate. Here’s a peek at how you’ve used Tandem in 2021:

  • You spent over 1 million hours on Tandem calls, mostly in spontaneous chats. We love seeing all the team connection and collaboration!
  • You sent over 1.6 million Rockets! 🚀 What started as an April Fool's easter egg quickly became your favorite feature. Here's to celebrating small and big wins, and launching even more rockets in 2022.
  • You high-fived each other over 500,000 times! ✋ We hope no one left you hanging.
  • You sent over 1.6 million live chat messages while in calls! (pro tip: try our ⚡️ slash commands /trivia /timer /random)

We’ve also seen some interesting trends and collaboration patterns emerge, mainly the combination of short “bursty” talks (half of all calls were under 15 minutes) and longer co-working sessions (30% of call time was in calls longer than 90 minutes).

Companies Love Tandem

The teams that got to experience the Tandem virtual office have a lot to say:

“Tandem is what’s allowed us to function well as a distributed team. Our average meeting times are shorter than on Zoom, and there’s less friction when you just need to talk to someone for a few minutes”
  • Everett Cook, CEO - Rho Banking powers collaborative finance for fast-growing companies.
“Tandem gives us the space to work on things together, without having to schedule back-to-back meetings”
  • Dani Sandoval, Director of Design - Chipper Cash is the Leading platform for cross-border payments in Africa.

Here's even more of what you've said about Tandem on our website!

Delightful Improvements & New Features

This year, we’ve launched multiple new features to enable seamless collaboration, improve hybrid calls, and help you stay in flow. Here are some of them:

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Tandem's Meeting Reminders & Auto-Join Feature

Meeting Reminders & Auto-Join Meetings: No more nervously checking your calendar! With Meeting Reminders, you can stay in flow until the last possible second. Works for both Tandem meetings and other services - e.g. Zoom, Google Meet.

Team Tables: A new casual conversation mode that allows you to co-work, be available to chat, and have spontaneous conversations with your teammates - just like working around a physical table.

Same Room Setting: Selecting 'We're in the same room' prevents audio feedback on hybrid calls (i.e. when some participants are in-person and some are remote).

You asked. We listened.

As a quickly evolving product, your feedback is critical to us. It allows us to craft a better experience, identify gaps, and prioritize product improvements, based on what you value the most. Many of the features we launched in 2021 were top user requests, including:

Visit our products updates section to learn more about all the improvements, and new features we’ve launched in 2021!

A Look at 2022, and Beyond

The pandemic redefined the meaning of work for many of us, and has shown that there is no going back to the traditional 9-5 in-person work week. As we transition to a post-pandemic world, and in-person interactions are no longer restricted, companies are reimagining what the “everywhere workplace” looks like.

Employees Want Flexibility

Employees got to experience the benefits of remote work, discovered their ability to be productive no matter where and when they work, and they made it clear that they believe in flexible workplaces structures. A recent EY Survey has shown that 40% of employees want flexibility in where they work, and that 54% would consider leaving their job post-pandemic if they are not afforded some sort of flexibility.  

A separate survey, conducted by Gallup, has shown that 39% of employees want to resume in-person work sometimes, and that 44% want to continue working remotely because “they prefer it”.

Gallup’s Covid-19 tracking survey, US adults’ remote work status

These findings highlight that the employees that worked remotely for most of 2020 and 2021 are starting to break into two distinct groups: Those who want to resume in-person work, at their convenience, and those who want to keep working from home. This puts employers in a situation where they need to put in place workplace arrangement that cater to both groups, equally.

Companies Are Experimenting

When it comes to a “flexible” workplace structure, there is no “one size fits all”, and many companies are experimenting with different approaches, different tools, technologies and policies in the hopes of finding the optimal arrangement.

A number of companies decided to embrace a hybrid workplace model, including Salesforce, Google, Facebook, Dropbox, Amazon, and others. Salesforce, for example, decided to opt for a “Flex” work model, where most there employees will be in the office 1-3 days per week for customer meetings, presentation and to collaborate with their teammates. They came to this conclusion after conducting multiple employee surveys that have shown that 80% of their employees want to maintain a connection to a physical space and come in a few times per month.

Others, like Netflix, believe that remote work is a “Pure Negative”, and intend to implement back-to-work policies as soon as a majority of their employees are vaccinated and the pandemic dies down.

A third category that includes Twitter, Quora, and Pinterest decided to go for a “fully remote” or “digital-first” set-up, allowing employees to work remotely permanently. However, most of them will continue to operate office spaces, for the employees who opt to work-on-site.

The Future of Work is Hybrid

At Tandem, we’ve always believed that the future of work is hybrid.

Hybrid is the best of both worlds - It combines the flexibility, work-life balance, and deep focus of remote work, with the serendipity, trust building, and innovation that in-person collaboration allows.

Ultimately, the companies that will thrive in a post-pandemic world are the ones that adapt to how their teams work best, create experiences that reach everyone, and allow their employees to work on their own terms. And in order to do that, they will need to adjust their workplace policies, invest in technologies that bridge the physical and digital world, and empower their teams to collaborate seamlessly, no matter where they are.

And because of that, our team has been focused on developing a hybrid solution that bridges the gap between remote and in-person employees and transforms your virtual office into the ultimate collaborative hub. Introducing: Tandem Spaces.

Tandem Spaces is a solution designed to provide your remote employees with a “window into the office” and make them more powerful than ever before, so they can interact, connect, and collaborate with their peers as seamlessly as if they were present in-person.

As a remote worker, it feels like a way to “teleport” into the office, so you can ask a quick question, say hello to a group of people, or eat lunch together. We’re fine-tuning the solution internally and rolling it out soon to a select group of pilot teams. Let us know if you'd like to be one of the first!

Be the first to know when Tandem Spaces is available for pre-order! Subscribe to our newsletter to get our weekly digest on the state of hybrid work, insights on how to set-up your hybrid workplace, and Tandem product updates.

May
17
, 2021

The Virtual Office is Here to Stay

Rajiv is co-founder and CEO of Tandem.

YC Demo Day, Summer 2019

"Every company is a remote company." I said this on-stage at YC Demo Day in 2019, meaning that every company becomes distributed as it scales (multiple offices, travelers, working-from-home). I didn’t anticipate a global pandemic would make this plainly true. In weeks, Tandem usage jumped 30x.

Paul's reaction to our investor update

What we saw in 2019, everyone saw. Companies of all sizes, from startups to Fortune 500s, needed a Virtual Office. We quadrupled our team to meet the need. The blogosphere and media took note, adding Tandem and other newly launched Virtual Offices into roundups of "remote tools" and "collaboration tools". While not wrong, they failed to capture what makes the Virtual Office a distinct product category.

This post will cover the rise of the Virtual Office and how it transforms distributed work. I'll also unpack the key concept of Presence. In my next post I’ll show how the Virtual Office is merging with the physical office to unlock truly flexible “hybrid” collaboration.

The Virtual Office was inevitable

Before Slack, companies used email for all internal communications. Messy groups and interminable threads made for verbose, chaotic discussions. Slack designed for internal use from the start—reducing friction, increasing speed, organization—and effectively replaced email.

Similarly for real-time communication, companies once relied on dial-in conference calls. Zoom/Meet/Webex added video and web links, but remained conceptually similar: To talk, you must first generate a meeting id, then send the link or schedule it, etc.

Virtual Offices upend this model with a simple mechanism: To talk to a teammate, click on them. It seems shockingly direct at first, but Presence makes it natural.

The four major categories of enterprise communication

What is (and isn’t) a Virtual Office?

Slack and MS Teams are great for async chat, but their concept of Presence is largely meaningless—you're always available. Also, text chat doesn't build trust[1], which explains why Slack can feel more transactional, less human than talking.

Virtual Offices elevate Presence and eliminate friction to create the flow of working in-person.

Unsurprisingly, remote workers who traditionally rely on async chat consistently cite loneliness and lack of communication as top struggles[2]. The Virtual Office solves these in a radical, visceral way.

Virtual Offices elevate Presence and eliminate friction to give distributed teams the flow of working in-person. Put simply: You can see who's around, and talk in a click.

A Tandem Virtual Office. Active work apps (e.g. VS Code, Google Docs) give a sense of presence. Seeing teammates in Rooms and Meetings give you an awareness akin to a physical office, and the ability to drop-in.

Because Virtual Offices are designed for internal use with your team, they tend to share a few other traits. Most have persistent 'rooms' to allow spontaneous gathering. They emphasize collaboration (more on this later). They include fun ways to celebrate and emote that might seem inappropriate on external calls.

Tandem's patented High-Five™

The Virtual Office transforms distributed work

The first thing people tend to notice in a Virtual Office is it feels dramatically easier to talk. The old conference call apps start to feel clunky and restrictive, with minute-long setup and connect times. By contrast, lower friction allows you to have the "tap on the shoulder," water-cooler chats, and hallway conversations before and after meetings.

Room usage from a team on Tandem. Blue bars are time in a call. Note the combination of short "bursty" talks and longer co-working.

While removing friction does help to create spontaneous connection, and the feeling of ease, the true key is really Presence.

What is Presence?

Leaving aside the rich history of Social Presence Theory[3], Presence in modern communication means an intuitive awareness of your teammates' context. For example, in real life, you may want to ask your teammate a question, but decide your question can wait when you turn around and notice they're wearing headphones and writing code.

True real-time Presence creates the feeling of being in an office with co-workers. You don't feel alone. You feel like you can talk to people as easily as turning your head (and, in a Virtual Office, you can).

Presence should be effortless. In Tandem, the option to display your active work app is both automatic and easy for others to interpret. When I see Tim switching between Terminal and VS Code, I know he's coding. With the caveat that each person is in control of their own Presence, more signals are better - for example, their calendar availability, what music they're listening to, or whether they're away from the keyboard. And of course, seeing people talking in the actual meetings and rooms is a powerful piece of Presence.

In Tandem, active work-apps, music, and other signals make for effortless and dynamic Presence.

Presence can also be functional. I can click on a song to listen along to Bernat's tracks via Spotify integration. In a Tandem call, you can click on someone’s Google Doc icon to jump to their doc, allowing you to literally "get on the same page," assuming you have permissions.

Ultimately, Presence isn't about signals, it's about stories. When I see Tim and Bernat in a room switching between Google Docs and Figma, I know they're reviewing specs and designs. When I see Vivy and Vera still talking in their meeting, I know why Vivy's late to our 1:1, and rather than feeling uncertain, I'm glad—it's probably an important conversation!

The Virtual Office illuminates these mini-stories, saves tons of unnecessary coordination, and brings back your team's natural choreography, rhythm, and pulse.

Trust, collaboration, and creativity

For those obsessed with productivity and organizational velocity, the Virtual Office is a game-changer, and it's not hard to see why. Talking in real-time builds trust[4], and trust is speed[5]. Also, more varied, "bursty" communication is associated with highly creative and productive teams[6].

But to see this actually happen is magical. Your team feels more "alive" and connected. Seeing teammates talking with each other creates energy that's contagious. Even introverted team members feel more comfortable reaching out for help, or to share new ideas. Your team feels more like a team again. New team members quickly feel a sense of belonging and camaraderie. Your team gets to know each other, not just as colleagues, but as people.

The Virtual Office is having its moment now

The pandemic accelerated a trend towards more real-time remote work, combined with better audio-video tech and a younger demographic entering the workforce.

Remote 1.0: Don't talk to me

The first wave of modern remote-first companies like Automattic, Gitlab, and Zapier largely solved the challenges of remote work leaning heavily on asynchronous communication (e.g. Slack, Docs).

While their success is admirable, going fully async is a tremendous cultural shift that most enterprises cannot (and don't want to) undertake. We're social creatures, and—as has been studied extensively—we build trust through talking[7]. These companies had no other option, though, as video-conferencing technology was clunky and unreliable.

Remote 2.0: effortless real-time collaboration

Video calls are better now, partly because bandwidth and laptops have improved, and largely due to prior art. For example, our audio-video team at Tandem has decades of experience at FaceTime, Discord, Skype, and Twilio.

We've changed as a species, too. Through the pandemic, we've all become competent (if not fluent) with the basics of video chat. Tandem and other virtual offices would not be able to innovate on calls UX (reducing friction, increasing collaboration) without Zoom, WebEx, and other video conferencing apps paving the way.

Adding to this is the demographic shift as Millennials and Gen-Zers enter the workforce. They're more comfortable and fluent with video and audio. Many grew up playing real-time, multiplayer games and making friends around the world, talking on voice chat apps like Discord and Teamspeak.

In fact, multiplayer games now set the standard for what work should feel like. The rise of multiplayer collaboration in every functional work mode, from documents (GDocs, Notion) to design (Figma, FigJam), to code (replit), calls out for a Discord-like communication meta-layer[8] to allow effortless real-time collaboration.

I can join Bernat on Figma in a click.

It looks like this: When on a call, I can see Bernat is on Figma and in one click, I can join him and work on designs. I can then ask him a question about a Notion spec, without pausing to send the link, and he can join me in a click. This creates a collaborative flow that can be even better than in-person.

To see where this is heading, check out this UI from Minority Report. Look past the specific tech[9], and focus instead on the pace and sensation:

Fictional collaborative UI in Minority Report

This is how collaboration should feel—instant, personal, instinctive—and it's where the Virtual Office will take us.

Final thoughts, and Part II

The Virtual Office is having its moment now, and that isn't going to end with the pandemic. In Part II, I'll show how the return to the workplace and a hybrid future makes the Virtual Office critical, and I’ll explore the ways in which the virtual and physical offices are merging to create the workplace of the future.


Thanks to Kevin Kwok, David Ulevitch, Sep Norouzi, Laura Talbot, Suhail Doshi, Brianne Kimmel, and others for reading early drafts of this.

Want to build this future with us? We're hiring!


References and further reading

Podcasts

[1],[4],[7] In Being there versus seeing there: Trust via video (2001), Bos, Gergle, Olson, and Olson show how group trust builds over time, as measured by mean payoff in a social dilemma game. Note that audio and video reached in-person (face-to-face) levels of trust, while chat never did.

Trust-building in different media. From "Being there vs. seeing there," 2001

[2] See "What's your biggest struggle" in Buffer's State of Remote Work reports: 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021. While "Not being able to unplug" has risen, especially during the pandemic, Loneliness and Collaboration / Communication, when taken together, are by far the top struggle.

2020 State of Remote Work (study by Buffer)

[3] I can't improve much on Cocoon founder Alex Cornell's post on Social Presence Theory, and I've come to similar conclusions. The research is evocative, though of limited direct use in building virtual experiences.

[4] See [1].

[5] Psychological Safety, loosely understood as "group trust," is the best-studied social dynamic of effective teams. Coined by Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School, this dynamic has been extensively studied by Google, who found it the key factor to team productivity.

Edmondson, Amy. “Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams.” Administrative Science Quarterly, 1999 (JSTOR link)

What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team (2016), Charles Duhigg, The New York Times

How to build psychological safety in your remote team (2019), Rajiv Ayyangar, Tandem blog

[6]  In a randomized controlled trial of 52 software teams, Riedl and Woolley (2016) found "bursty" communication patterns in the most productive teams (link). While this was correlation, not causation, it's consistent with our observations of communication patterns in Tandem. The optimal cadence for creativity and execution is likely some mix of rapid communication and uninterrupted independent work - a compromise between the Maker's and Manager's schedule.

"People often think that constant communication is most effective, but actually, we find that bursts of rapid communication, followed by longer periods of silence, are telltale signs of successful teams."
Riedl & Woolley

[7] See [1].

[8] Kevin Kwok (investor in Discord, Figma, and now Tandem) independently came to similar conclusions as we did, and observed the need for Discord-for-work, naming the "meta-layer" concept in his 2019 essay The Arc of Collaboration. Highly recommended.

"Discord is the best analog for what should exist. For a while Slack and Discord were compared to each other as competitors. As Discord has focused squarely in gaming, and Slack in companies this comparison has been used less and less.

But this misses the main distinction between Slack and Discord.

Discord is actually two products bundled into one. It *is* a messaging app that looks akin to Slack. But it is *also* a meta-layer that runs across all games."

— Kevin Kwok

[9] This interface has long been a personal inspiration for me. It was prototyped at MIT's Media Lab and built, in real life, by Oblong Industries. Oblong's co-founder, Kwindla Kramer, later founded Daily.co, which is making real-time video possible for a new generation of apps.