The global switch to work from home blurred the lines between work and personal life, resulting in remote employees often feeling stressed and overwhelmed.
While working from home has its perks, the nature of this practice also presents a variety of challenges – with communication issues, burnout, and disconnection among teams being some of the most common ones worldwide. Our guest today believes, that the solution is not only adopting an effective communication system but also defining clear hours for working, collaborating, and meetings.
To discuss how companies can enhance their communications when the workforce is distributed around the world, we invited Raj Singh, CEO of Pulse – a company helping teams collaborate and stay connected.
How did the idea of Pulse come about? What has your journey been like?
My last company was a partially distributed team. About half the team was based in the Bay Area, with the other half spread within California, across the US, and abroad. In 2015, we were acquired and the parent company was very much an in-office culture at the time. Our remote team members would have to fly to the office one week every month. After leaving, I’d check in with some of my former remote team members and they’d mention feeling “out of the loop” and “disconnected” when not at the office.
I started thinking a lot about how to make teams feel more connected when remote. This culminated in Pulse, where we automate your status in Slack to bring some of the feelings you get when you’re working together in person into your digital office. We are starting with Slack but have plans to extend Pulse to all digital offices such as Microsoft Teams and beyond. The journey here though wasn’t without a few missteps and a couple of direction changes.
When we started, we had a primary hypothesis. Distributed teams missed those ad-hoc side-by-side and serendipitous moments to connect. As COVID began, we got increasing amounts of data that supported this hypothesis along with reinforcing input from numerous customer interviews. We built towards this and through some zigs and zags, we landed at Pulse, which is now growing rapidly amongst Slack organizations.
Can you introduce us to the Pulse app? What are its key features?
Pulse automatically updates your Slack status in real-time based on your preferences, work hours, level of focus, calendar, and the apps you use.
It goes beyond the simple green dot to signal your true availability, reduce interruptions, increase focus time, coordinate collaboration moments, or however you choose to configure it.
Pulse automates your status however you want. Automatically detected focus time, “working after hours”, “on holiday”, “in a meeting”, and out-of-office times – these are just a few of thousands of statuses that you can set up to be visible on your account.
I would say that these are the main benefits of our solution and of course all based on how you configure it and how you want to represent yourself in Slack:
• Your teammates can get a better sense on when you’re “on a call”, “in a meeting”, “screen-sharing”, or other scheduled events. It works regardless of the conference solution you’re in and if it’s a calendared event.
• You can set expectations and clear boundaries for teammates about when you're working outside of set office hours, if your day is busy, when you’ll likely be available next, and more.
• You can share your work location automatically, if you wish: working from home (WFH), working from the office, or even your favorite coffee shop.
• When teammates are in the same meeting, color-coded emojis will be displayed. This truly makes your Slack experience feel like a virtual office.
• AI automatically detects and displays when you’re in a focused state of work — so your daily workflow has fewer distractions and more focus time. This in connection with calendar rules you can create means Pulse can deliver on both scheduled and unscheduled focus time.
• Can connect to dozens of popular apps to share the mode of work you’re in. Pulse takes over to display your availability to your team based on your desired settings for each app.
• Deeper integrations to Google Calendar, Google Drive, Jira, Trello, Office 365, Zoom, Google Meet, Salesforce, Figma, Notion, and more, which allow you to share the file names of the apps you’re working on or recently worked on for increased team awareness and to signal ideal moments of collaboration.
• Pulse custom status and suggested status options bring more fun to the workspace.
Since work from home became the new reality, what practices are crucial for teams to maintain smooth and secure collaboration?
There are many tips from utilizing asynchronous recording tools to being more present on video calls, to even your workspace video setup. I believe the key to smooth remote communication relies most importantly on establishing a work culture that respects work and home boundaries. For this reason, online workers should have clearly defined working hours, timezone, and communication preferences visible across the team's communication tool or via a shared document, directory, or even displayed within the status. Beyond this, the real improvements to work communication happen when teams are able to strike the right balance between availability for communication with the team and time to do real, focused work without any interruptions. For this reason, setting expectations for one another's availability throughout the day is critical. Many take this further and even create blocks of time in the calendar that are dedicated to focus time, and other times when you are available for synchronous discussions or meetings.
Regarding security, we have seen a number of best practices being adopted with distributed teams from the obvious such as setting two-factor to less obvious such as using VPNs.
How did the recent global events affect your field of work? Were there any new features added to your app?
Pulse was directly impacted by COVID as we are building for distributed teams. Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve seen how remote worker wants have evolved. Whereas early in the pandemic, many were eager to return to the office, now, most want flexibility and will prioritize that over salaries and more.
While all of Pulse’s features are geared towards improving remote work and giving employees more freedom, these developments directly feed into our product planning. For example, we recently introduced our “Places” feature which lets users opt-in to share whether they’re working from home, office, or other set location they’d like to share. This is important because as teams adopt flexible or hybrid work options, it can be challenging to keep up with knowing who’s in or out of the office on any given day. We also introduced more offerings around facilitating users' ability to find more “focus time” as remote workers increasingly report being overwhelmed by notifications and interruptions throughout their day. This focus time feature also includes AI which works to predict if a user is in a deep state of work and automatically updates their status to “focused”.
Besides quality collaboration solutions, what other security measures do you think every modern company should implement?
An increasing amount of software is being built on AWS or Google Cloud. This, by very definition, addresses some 80% of the sort-of security issues you might encounter if you were building your own data center or other. To the extent that you can remain serverless and use off-the-shelf AWS or Google Cloud services will further help. Independent of this, making sure that you spend at least a week reviewing basic SOC II security guidelines to help improve some of your internal processes is a must. Most of these are simple things like rotating passwords on a specific cadence and having procedures in place when a breach is detected and so forth.
What industry sectors in your opinion should put extra attention towards securing their collaboration channels?
Not surprisingly, the most security-focused industries are also slowest to often adopt new tooling because of their requirements. Healthcare, government, and finance all remain very security conscious. Many of these sectors still only use limited cloud-hosted software and prefer to self-host or use private clouds and often lean on more open-source software that they can audit and control.
That said, I think all companies, big and small, can benefit from better security and especially security practices. The last 20% is always cumbersome but there is 80% that many companies can adopt now with limited effort and significant upside. Obviously, as your company scales, you want to work towards that 100% number.
Recently, maintaining creativity has been a serious struggle for some organizations. How can companies foster creativity and innovation when the majority of employees are working remotely?
This is one of the harder challenges for remote teams. Collaborative innovation and creativity typically happen spontaneously when working side-by-side. Some tools are making it easier to collaborate and meet more informally than in scheduled meetings. As an example, there have been a number of digital whiteboard products, each with unique feature sets, introduced in the past few years where ideas and discussions can happen that are not centered around face-to-face video. Other tools are helping teams have more ad-hoc discussions outside of scheduled meetings. Slack introduced “Huddles”, which lets teammates jump into quick calls with each other. There is a trend for collaboration apps like Figma and Google Suite to support multi-player views where edits and comments are made visible to all viewers in real-time. This is something we think a lot about at Pulse by allowing users to more easily share when they are available for ad-hoc collaboration or other. Asynchronous recording tools like Loom have helped too and have certainly made the workplace more inclusive for those globally distributed. But most importantly, when feasible, finding time for in-person team gatherings (whether weekly, quarterly, or other) is critical.
What innovations in the workplace do you hope to see become commonplace in the next few years?
We really feel strongly that presence is what's missing in remote work. Without presence, you miss connectedness, you miss serendipity, and you miss new ideas and innovation and you simply have less control of your day.
Solving presence is really, really hard while distributed but there are tools that at least try to make it more equitable for distributed workers, some of which I mentioned earlier. Hardware like Owl Lab 360° view conferencing cameras, for example, that have a 360° panoramic view and speakers to allow remote meeting participants to feel as if they are in the room with on-site colleagues is really exciting. Even Facebook’s Portal is interesting as a way for remote workers to get a peek inside the office but more importantly to hopefully stimulate more spontaneous conversations between on-site and distributed teammates. From a digital perspective, as teams communicate and collaborate in and out of their online workplace, we selfishly believe automatic status via tools like Pulse can be a game-changer as they enable more presence while also giving you more control.
Can you give us a sneak peek into some of your future plans for Pulse?
Over the next 12 months, we are extending the Pulse Automatic Status beyond Slack to other digital office and workplace communication experiences such as Microsoft Teams, Google Workspace, and Zoom. We are also opening Pulse into a platform with APIs for services to publish presence data to Pulse and/or subscribe to presence data on a user or team to then feed into their own applications. Finally, we are continuing to integrate more data sources to enhance our understanding of focus time, improve productivity through integrations like Figma or enable more empathy through integrations with sports and other interests that users can share into status.