Cleo McVicker didn’t care about children’s toys. He was a chemist and ex-inventor in the 1920s, and all he wanted to do was create a squishy putty that people could use to clean the soot and dirt off their wallpaper.
It took him years, but once he developed an effective cleaner, he spent the rest of his life selling it to houseproud customers. But that’s not where its story ends.
Decades later, in the 1950s, McVicker’s son, Joseph, watched as kids played with the putty cleaner, shaping it into new, exciting figures. One moment, it was an ugly ball of putty, the next, it was a dragon, bear, or castle. Somewhere in Joseph’s head, a lightbulb went off. “Our putty isn’t a cleaner,” he thought, “it’s a toy.”
Joseph rebranded the putty as ‘Play-Doh’ and began selling it to toy shops across the country. Kids loved it and sales took off like a rocket. Today, the company has sold more than 700 million pounds of the toy putty, cementing it as one of the world’s most iconic toys.
It’s a good reminder that while companies and inventors create new products, it’s their customers who decide how to use them. Today, there’s a new generation of Josephs popping up, except they’re not playing with wallpaper cleaner.
This time, they’re experimenting with communication technology.
Phones, emails, and video chats
The communication landscape is always changing. First it was carrier pigeons. Then it was telegrams. For more than a century, we made phone calls, until we started typing emails.
Today, we make video calls.
Every year, video calling grows a bit more. We broadcast birthdays on Instagram Live, catch up with friends on FaceTime, and record video messages on WhatsApp.
As we’ve become more comfortable with incorporating video technology into our personal lives, it’s spread into our workplaces, too.
In the last few years, we’ve seen an explosion of cool workplace applications. People are building virtual rec rooms, recreating spontaneous office conversations, and helping remote colleagues to chat like they were office mates.
In this article, we’ve profiled four of the most exciting ways people are using video today, investigating how they’re using video to build awesome workplaces.
1. Manufactured social time
Think back about 10 years ago. Online collaboration technology was starting to get popular. It seemed like new messaging apps were popping up almost daily, cloud tech was finally stable enough to use every day, and video calls were starting to become more commonplace at the office.
It was the first time in history that employees could work outside of the office with little or no drop in productivity. Let’s see how Ollie Smith, a fintech entrepreneur, took advantage of new collaboration tech.
Smith founded his financial comparison site back in 2016. From the beginning, he decided to lean into remote working. Instead of recruiting locally in the United Kingdom, he cast the net wider, hiring employees from all across the world.
For the first few years, everything went pretty well. His employees were efficient and productive, and his company developed from a fledgeling startup into a burgeoning small business. But after a while, Smith noticed something was wrong.
His close-knit team had begun to unravel. His employees were a bit more distant and distracted. “I noticed a dip in productivity, which did not correct itself,” Smith tells RingCentral. “This was coupled with a sudden lack of urgency from a number of team members when it came to internal communication.”
And it puzzled him. His team had always run like clockwork and this trend had emerged out of the blue. But productivity doesn’t disappear on its own and Smith knew there had to be a root cause—all he had to do was dig. He called an all-hands meeting and encouraged his 10-person team and asked them what was wrong.
He wasn’t the only one with that problem.
They’d worked together for eight hours a day for several years, but they still felt like a group of strangers. Without a shared office or even shared working hours, no one struck up a casual conversation and got to know each other. Smith’s employees felt isolated and alone.
As a remote company with employees working from every corner of the globe, Smith knew this would be tough to fix. His company didn’t have a rec room for his employees to congregate in or even a water cooler where they could chat.
If Smith’s remote employees wanted to get to know each other better, it was up to him to manufacture social time. After much brainstorming, he came up with an idea he named Team Thursdays.
Now, every Thursday morning, Smith and his team jump onto a video call just to spend some quality work-free time together. Sometimes they’d play games. “Last week we played Draw the Picture, which involved a team member describing a set of pictures and everyone else drawing what they think it should look like,” Smith says.
But most of the time they just hang out, talk about their lives, and get to know each other as people.
At first, it might seem like an inefficient way to invest a company’s time, but Smith is convinced his plan produces good returns.
After rolling out Team Thursdays, Smith noticed a sharp uptick in productivity throughout the entire business. “It is clear that a bond has also developed between my team members since we initiated Team Thursday,” Smith says. “That closeness was not evident a year ago.”
And there’s science to back him up. A recent study found that people who allowed 15 minutes to socialize with their colleagues at the start of the day enjoyed a 20 percent uptick in performance compared with those who spent all their time alone—that’s like working an extra day a week!
2. Always-on virtual meeting rooms
Connor McMorrow, an industry solutions architect at customer assistance platform Linc Global, was an early adopter of video in the workplace. To boost his sales team’s close rate, for example, he had them include personalized video messages and screen recordings in their sales pitches. Prospects loved being able to see their rep, and sales jumped.
Later, McMorrowdiscovered another problem and once again, the answer was video. The company’s growth team, which McMorrow also managed, was entirely remote, and its team members were starting to feel lonely and disconnected. But McMorrow had a plan to re-engage them.
“We had to get creative in order to continue collaborating as if we were all together in one office,” McMorrow says.
He rolled out a virtual meeting room for the team’s cold-calling power hours. “It works just like it sounds,” McMorrow says. “One teammate queues up a video call, invites all members, and everyone joins.”
The key difference between this and a normal call is there’s no purpose or objective. The call runs in the background and everyone just gets on with their individual work, which, in this case, was making cold calls to prospects.
In between calls, conversations naturally ebb and flow, just as they would in a real office. McMorrow says that their communal call helped build friendships between remote employees, who were used to working in isolation.
The idea was so effective that McMorrow evolved the concept into an always-on virtual meeting space. Instead of having an employee set up a call for each power hour, McMorrow set up a call and has left it running permanently.
Members of the growth team can drop into the call whenever they need some camaraderie and leave whenever they want some quiet time. “It helped a lot with productivity,” McMorrow says. “Our remote team was able to get quicker responses to their questions and, since we had an open forum framework, it inspired a lot of group discussions, allowing team members to join in on relevant discussions.”
While always-on virtual spaces worked for McMorrow, he says it might not work for everyone. He recommends people start slowly, rather than jumping straight in with a permanent virtual space.
“Start off with specific meeting initiatives and an agreed-upon format,” McMorrow says. Test it out with your team, collect feedback, and use that information to help design an always-on solution tailored to your team’s specific needs.
There are tons of ways to use video meetings.
Join us and learn about them in this webinar.Watch now
3. Ad hoc meetings
In December, 2017, Kara Barnes joined forces with an old friend to start a design studio.
There was just one problem: she and her business partner lived 750-miles apart.
Faced with a 30-hour round trip for every face-to-face meeting, the obvious solution was to build their company around remote working. And while her idea was a good one, it was a steep learning curve for two founders with zero experience working remotely.
To replicate the feel of her favorite past office environments, Barnes turned to video. “We use video conferencing for regular meetings, training events, and project updates on a daily basis,” Barnes says. Seeing her employees on a daily basis created the feel of a physical office and quickly turned a group of remote employees into a strong team.
But where Barnes found the most value with video was with short, sharp, ad hoc catch-ups.
In late-September, 2019, a media request dropped into Barnes’s inbox. It was a journalist looking for experts to talk about innovative communication systems—just the sort of topic Barnes loved. But she’d recently appointed a new press relations supervisor and hadn’t yet briefed her on her how they would respond to marketing opportunities like these.
“We wanted to make sure that we were on the same page,” Barnes said. So she set up a discussion channel in her collaboration tool and invited people to discuss their approach.
Barnes tapped out a quick message but struggled to properly explain what she meant via text. Eventually, she decided an ad hoc contextual meeting would be better and set up a call within her collaboration tool.
With the call sitting alongside the context of her discussion, Barnes quickly recapped the background and pitched her response idea to her coworker. The call took five minutes, but effectively aligned everyone’s approach.
After the call, everyone logged off and got straight back to work.
Ad hoc calls are great because they can quickly clear logjams. But beyond the practical benefits, Barnes says ad hoc meetings help colleagues get to know each other better. “It gives us all a chance to connect on a more personal level,” she said. They’re like drive-by conversations in the office—they’re spontaneous, friendly, and build strong bonds between colleagues.
But ad hoc calls can go wrong if you aren’t careful. “It’s important to develop a structure so that everyone knows what is expected,” Barnes said. By setting clear objectives and time-boxing the call, it’s easy to keep the conversation on track and avoid disruptive diversions down rabbit holes.
4. Buddy breaks
Imagine a typical remote worker who we’ll call Dave. Each morning he fires up his laptop in his makeshift home office and is online in time for his team’s daily huddle and he spends a few minutes chatting through his goals for the day and any roadblocks he can see. After the call, he logs off and gets started on his work.
Throughout the day, Dave answers a few project queries via team chat but other than that, he works on his own.
Dave’s day is pretty similar to millions of other remote workers. When interactions require effort, people tend to default to what’s easiest—working alone. This is a real problem for organizations with remote workforces, as isolated working ruins our communication, collaboration, and productivity.
This is something that Sid Sijbrandij, founder of DevOps tool GitLab, has dealt with for years. His company has been fully remote for years and now employs workers in more than 40 countries. Through trial and error, Sijbrandij developed a couple of great techniques to promote more face-to-face communication within his team.
Chief among them? Randomized coffee breaks.
Sijbrandij began pairing up members of staff at random and scheduling a shared coffee break in their calendars. Because Sijbrandij’s staff are all remote, this all takes place via video chat. These unexpected chats mimic the chance encounters common in real offices. When two employees are paired up, it’s like they’ve met in the cafeteria line and struck up a conversation.
During their shared break, employees are free to talk about whatever they want—weekend plans, engagements, baby announcements, dreams, or even the latest Netflix show. What employees talk about isn’t that important. What is important is that they have the opportunity to communicate with their colleagues. And by consciously thinking about employee interaction, Sijbrandij thinks his employees actually speak with each other more than teams who work in the same office.
“Rather than fewer social interactions at our remote company, we find that we have more,” he said. “We make a point to intentionally socialize throughout the workweek.”
Unearthed with experimentation
Computer scientist Sebastian Thrun once said, “With any new medium, the full power is only unearthed with experimentation.”
That’s just as true for computing as it is for video meetings. Or Play-Doh.
When you think about it, powerful, stable, and affordable video communication platforms have only been around for a handful of years. Even these “out there” ideas are just the start of something larger. As more people start to use video technology and experiment with the possible applications, we’re going to see a ton more exciting use cases.