Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Goodbye Zoom. Hello Discreet ambient snooping

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One year later our very distant existence, executives of white collar companies achieve two things. The first is that they are satisfied (even amazed) with the productivity of the employees. They were concerned that “working from home” would turn into “Netflix and relax”. Instead, their employees kill it: deliverables are delivered, milestones are met.

But businesses face a serious problem. They have lost the chance. Of course, colleagues connect to video chat. But everything is very planned and formal; There’s no How are you meetings at the coffee station. It’s a shame, because these chance encounters help cement a sense of togetherness and can also spawn new ideas, like when the VP of Human Resources eats lunch next to a salesperson and casually mentions a new market that ends up worth millions.

So now people are asking: Could software reproduce some of this desktop magic?

Various startups give it a chance. One is Teamflow, a browser-based app that lets you set up a virtual office that you view from above, in 2D, much like a cartoon Ikea floor plan. You can set up different rooms and fill them with furniture icons (or even weird memey pictures, if you want a MySpace vibe). When employees log in, their faces appear in tiny, round video streams. You drag your icon into the virtual desktop to spend time “close” to others, and also talk to them by voice; the closer your icon is to a colleague, the more it sounds. Move away for peace and quiet.

It sounds weird. Frankly it looks eccentric. But early adopters tell me it mimics a lot of the dynamics of in-person dating. “It really made my life easier,” says Rafael Sanches, the co-founder of Anycart, a restaurant service. We recently met in his company’s Teamflow space. The little video icons for Sanches and I were perched on his virtual desktop; three engineers were grouped together, chatting, in a corner of the office. Sanches slid his icon towards them to say hello, then turned to me.

“I do this all the time,” he says. It will crash near groups of employees, where they will work together, sometimes silently, other times chatting. Sanches will also frequently invite an employee to walk around a corner to talk one-on-one. He likes the fact that other employees can see that he is meeting someone individually; it reproduces some of the quasi-public nature of the conversation in a real office. “Socially, engineers know that I am always there, as if I around», He notes. It doesn’t disappear in Zoom private calls with people.

It all looked suspiciously like a game. It makes sense, because video games pioneered the art of bringing distant people together online. Some workers even playfully used the games as meeting places during the pandemic. When author and artist Viviane Schwarz was working on a project last year, she met her team inside Red Dead Redemption 2, a cowboy fighting game. They would sit around a virtual campfire and talk shop (while watching out for danger: “Was that gunshots?”). Some new co-presence apps, like Bonfire and Remotely, explicitly riff on the aesthetics of the game and allow you to hang out with your coworkers as avatars in a 3D environment.

One thing you can see, in all of these remote experiences, is that audio beats video. Staring at a webcam is tiring. So, most of these apps actively minimize video to full screen, and users seem to like it. Pragli, another virtual meeting startup, gives users the choice of connecting with audio or video, and its co-founder, Doug Safreno, estimates that people use the audio-only method twice as often as video. Think of this as the revenge of the old-fashioned phone call: it turns out we just want to talk.

And, more subtly, to listen. Many of these apps allow for a bit of ambient listening that occurs in an office, where you can look across the room and see two coworkers talking – maybe even getting a feel for what they’re discussing – without logging in completely. The semi-private and semi-public nature of the office chat helps give a team a proprioceptive sense of themselves, which is too often lacking in our world away from one-on-one calls.

An office has a power dynamic, for better or for worse; Part of how we navigate a job is keeping an eye on how other people interact. Does your manager talk to the boss a lot? Maybe that means your team is in trouble? Where you are impressive the honcho chief? We collect intelligence, chew it with colleagues, we become more connected.

One of the advantages of the physical office, in other words, is that it allows us crawl on both. Turns out we maybe want some of that even in our software.

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