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💡 The Big Idea
The pandemic has fueled a burgeoning market for digital tools designed to help colleagues collaborate at a distance. Here’s the TLDR to our guide on the future of the digital workplace.
1️⃣ Workplace tech startups want to fix work by focusing on remote teams. 2️⃣ But we’ve heard these promises before, 3️⃣ even as these tools threaten to make work less efficient. 4️⃣ While some startups are rendering the spontaneity of the physical workspace online, 5️⃣ the best tool of all might be the one that streamlines work.
✍ The details
The pandemic has fueled a burgeoning market for digital tools designed to help colleagues collaborate at a distance: video calling software, workplace chat apps, virtual white boards, note sharing tools, transcription services for remote meetings, and 8-bit office space. These startups existed before the pandemic, but the onset of coronavirus has driven massive new interest, investment, and adoption of the tools they sell.
For the startups that make some of these tools, it’s not just about selling a new piece of software. They are on a righteous crusade to change the nature of work—to make it friendlier for remote workers in particular—even after the pandemic subsides.
Today’s worktech startups are following in the footsteps of workplace apps like Slack, their messianic predecessor and the current darling of the enterprise software industry, which has made its own big promises to usher in a new era of work. In fact, the new startups have bought into that ethos so much that a couple are already promising to fix what’s broken with Slack—even as Slack is still in the middle of its quest to fix what’s broken with email.
It’s a cutthroat, competitive market. If any of these Davids hope to survive the brawl and realize their lofty ambitions to bring about a brighter future of work, they’ll have to take on and emulate Goliaths like Microsoft and Salesforce, which are racing themselves to build the next all-encompassing platform for remote work.
For all the problems they promise to solve, existing tools have limitations—and in some cases, might make us much worse at getting work done. They risk distracting us, can dangerously blur the lines between work and home life, and may threaten workers’ privacy.
“A lot of it depends on how technologies are used, how they’re adopted, and the organizational culture you develop around them,” said Jennifer Gibbs, a communication professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
It’s become clear that workers can still be productive even outside the physical bounds of the office. Virtual office startups think their software is on the cusp of fulfilling the workers’ need to chat, collaborate, and build relationships, which was once done in a physical space. When that happens, they say, the physical office—with all the associated evils of commute times, greenhouse emissions, and 9-to-5 grinding—will be obsolete. Each startup is testing a different hypothesis for what the future of our working lives should look like; whether they succeed in boosting collaboration depends on how companies use the tools.
Modern workplace tools possess the power to ping, invade, and interrupt your thought process multiple times per minute, leaving workers distracted and harried.
In his role as co-founder of a software startup, Quartz’s Michael Coren found this out the hard way. What you need is a process, he writes, and a good tool is one that demands as little as possible, a gear that enables your life to turn a little smoother, more effectively, and then disappears whenever it’s needed for the task at hand. Elaborate to-do systems peddled by productivity gurus more often serve as a crutch for not knowing one’s priorities and how to focus attention.