Every so often, you come across a company that is solving a problem that resonates deeply with you. Maybe it’s a problem that you have experienced personally, or perhaps something that so obviously needs to be fixed. Either way, it MUST be solved.
For me, that problem was not being able to work effectively with remote team members. And the company working to solve it is Owl Labs.
I first heard about Owl Labs and its product last summer from Antonio Rodriguez, the investing partner at Matrix. My immediate reaction was, “Yes! I want that. When can I buy one?” After joining Owl Labs last November, I realized I am far from the only person to feel this way. As we finally come out of stealth mode today, it’s exciting to be making a big step toward solving this problem for remote employees everywhere.
Working remotely is becoming more and more common. It’s no longer an experiment or the exception. Companies use remote work as a way to offer flexibility to their employees or as a hiring technique. Perhaps you want to recruit someone with deep industry knowledge who happens to live across the country. Or perhaps one of your remarkable team members needs to move to a new city to support his or her spouse. Remote work as a tool to support a healthy company culture is becoming a norm.
I’ve spent my career working with software engineers, and it turns out software engineers work from home at higher rates than any other profession. Teams, like those I’ve been a part of, need the ability to meet and work effectively when they’re not physically together.
However, working remotely is far from perfect. It’s possible you yourself have felt the pain of working remotely or working with a remote team member. Communication isn’t always effective. Attempts at collaboration fall flat. Truth be told, video conferencing today….stinks. It has been painful at every company I have worked at, and technology has only made it marginally better over the past 10 years.
Here’s a few of those experiences.
In 2008, my husband and I moved from New York to Boston. Luckily for me my company at the time, TheStreet.com, was willing to let me work remotely.
In practice, it didn’t work well. I was managing a team of engineers and juggling multiple projects, and I found it incredibly difficult to do my job without being physically present. I couldn’t walk over to my colleagues’ desks to get an update. I dialed into important meetings, yet couldn’t get a word in. I even took the train to New York every other week to try to close the gap and work better with my team, but I still felt disconnected. I left that job after 6 months. Working remotely wasn’t a viable option with the limited technology and strategies we had at the time.
A few years later, while at HubSpot, I worked with a team of engineers that was largely based in Boston, and there were also a few developers who were remote. Sadly, our remote teammates were often forgotten or weren’t included. Sometimes we forgot to call them for meetings. They missed all of the impromptu discussions that happened when sitting in close proximity. Because of this, they were always a few steps behind on what decisions had been made and what conversations had happened. This was as much a cultural problem as a technological problem. While collaboration tools like HipChat and Google Hangouts helped, we didn’t have the habits to use them well and consistently.
Flash forward to just last year, while I was working at Quantopian. Again, while most of our team was local, a number of important team members were remote. By this time, remote work had grown more common and culturally we were much more mindful about including our distant teammates. We had also invested in technology like Google Hangouts and Jabra microphones to make communication easier. Despite this improvement, I still had a bias around communicating in-person rather than using the technology we had. I would arrange meetings around remote employees’ in-office schedules. Perhaps that’s because when we did have remote meetings, the connection was never as good as either of us wanted it to be. When discussions got intense, our remote team members had a hard time hearing. They could rarely see more than one or two people at a time, and their ability to “read the room” or jump in and join a debate was limited.
As a working parent, I also often worked from home, taking advantage of our flexible culture. To meet with the team, I would join our daily team stand-ups and everyone would circle around the Mac laptop to give their updates. At best, I could hear 50% of what was said, and rarely was the computer in the right place for me to see everyone in the room. It wasn’t an effective way to work.
Needless to say, this has been a pain point for most my my career. And when the opportunity arose take away the pain remote people feel when trying to work with their in-person teams, I jumped at it.
Every workplace needs better tools for communication. I’ve spent the last 6 months talking with IT managers, engineering managers and employee engagement managers. They all understand that the video conference experience needs to be better for the remote employee. What makes Owl Labs unique, is the decision to focus our solution on those remote workers and teams. Remote employees need to hear more. They need to see more. We need to enable them to be productive and have a seat at the table, no matter where they live or work.
Solving this problem will change the way I work every day, and it's hard to find something that resonates more deeply than that. We are nearly ready to offer the world a solution, and I’m excited for remote people across all different types of roles and companies to become more successful no matter where they are.