August 10, 2021
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14
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How Our Virtual Office Empowered Us to Go Remote-First

by
Jean Yang
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At the beginning of Akita, I subscribed to the advice that early-stage startups need to be in-person. How else could you collaborate closely enough to bring something into existence?

But life doesn’t always go how you expect. When the lockdown happened in March 2020, my early-stage team and I were forced into working together remotely.

In the last year, remote work has gone so well that we’ve decided to become remote-first. During this time, we pivoted the company, ramped up our new direction, and reset the team—all completely remotely. Not only has the current Akita team never worked together in person before, some of us have never even met in person before. If you had asked me at the beginning of 2020, I would not have believed it was possible to go through these kinds of ups and downs remotely. Looking back, a big part of this was getting our virtual office right.

Every time I’ve mentioned our virtual office, I’ve gotten a lot of questions. This blog post, in addition to being a love letter to offices, is about what life was like in our physical office, our rough transition to Slack and Zoom, and how we found our groove after “moving in” to our virtual office, which we’ve built using a platform called ohyay. We’re still small and early and figuring things out, so we’d love to hear from others about how you approach early-stage remote work. (And, if how we work sounds fun, we’re hiring!)

Our teammate, the office

A friend once told me something his favorite comic book artist had said: there’s always an additional character. For children, that character is their environment. For adults, that additional character is their baggage.

For tech startups, that additional character is, undeniably, the office. The term “early-stage startup” evokes images of empty pizza boxes, empty coffee cups, and that faint buzz of late-night fluorescent lighting. To me, the physical office was where the magic happened.

In the Before Times, I took pride in making the physical office an active, dynamic member of our team. Our first office in Palo Alto was a former laundromat with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the parking lot we shared with 7-Eleven. There was space to work, space to eat, space to get to know teammates, and even space for the occasional stretch break. After our office-warming party, we even picked up a couple of “friends of Akita” who occupied our spare desks in exchange for their good company.

A photo from our office-warming party.
A photo from our office-warming party.
Stretch time in the office.
Stretch time in the Before Times.

Before March 2020, our team traditions centered around the office. The day started with a 9:30 standup, was punctuated by lunch together at noon, followed by a walk. Our days involved a lot of working together: at the whiteboards, or with chairs rolled over to each others’ desks. There were many days when we would pile into the conference room and whiteboard until either the day was over or we came out with an answer. During the work time we made progress on the product; during the other time we cemented our bonds as a team.

405 Waverly: the holiday edition.
405 Waverly: the holiday edition.
Our holiday spread—and a dog!

Recognizing its importance, the team and I rearranged our lives to accommodate our teammate, the Office. When we moved from Palo Alto to San Mateo, two of our team members moved within a mile of the office to be closer to work. One of the people on our team commuted over three hours a day, for a while across scooter, train, and bus. We turned down multiple job candidates who wanted to work remotely, or even work from home some days of the week. During this time, I really felt we had something special.

Picking up—and dropping off—on Zoom

Under normal circumstances, we would have probably treated the pandemic lockdown like a harrowing dentist appointment: with frequent repetition of the mantra, “And this too shall pass.”

But we didn’t go into lockdown under ordinary circumstances, so we were forced to adapt.

As we were shutting down the office, a new office that we had just moved into the month prior, we were in the middle of a pivot out of being an API security tool. The week before lockdown, we decided we needed to take a new approach, but hadn’t yet made a plan for what the new approach was. Leading up to lockdown, I was spending my days with my team in the conference room. If it had not been for a global pandemic, there is no way I would have agreed to move the discussion to be virtual.

Over the course of March, April, and May 2020, we gradually coalesced around the decision to refocus on being a developer-first API tool. Because we were making big, company-altering decisions over these first couple of months, we were forced to figure out our communication and collaboration strategies. We experimented with how often to schedule daily check-ins (twice a day didn’t work; we stuck to just the morning standup); we experimented with meeting formats (the winner: highly structured with an agenda and notes ahead of time). We experimented with the threshold of when a Slack thread should turn into a video call (as quickly as possible). We tried Discord; we tried Remotion. (Neither stuck.) We tried weekly social activities to replace our daily lunches and walks. This evolved into a weekly game of Dominion, which became weekly show-and-tells, which then devolved into no social activities at all.

What we finally settled into was short, to-the-point synchronous interactions and large amounts of written documents being passed back and forth. With our cobbled-together Slack/Zoom/Notion/Google Docs interactions, we found that working synchronously the way we previously did was exhausting. With these tools, we managed to find ways to make progress on the product, but with very little room for spontaneity or amplification of each others’ creativity—or for any interactions outside of work.

Artist's rendering of what it felt like to work on Slack and Zoom only.
Artist's rendering of what it felt like to work on Slack and Zoom only.

Moving into an ohyay virtual office

By the fall of 2020, we had pivoted the product into a much more productive direction, but we realized that we needed to pivot the team as well. The team we had built to go after a security product with a top-down go-to-market was quite different than the one suited for iterating quickly on a developer-first API tool. And so those of us remaining were faced with the daunting task of building up a team, but without our trusty teammate, the office.

But I had an idea. Between May and November of 2020, I had become one of the first external users of a platform called ohyay, a tool for building browser-based video experiences. In the browser, you can essentially build a video chat app as easily as you make a Keynote slide deck today. During lockdown, I had fallen into doing a matchmaking project (see JeanDate), which led me to co-produce a Zoom show called Zoom Bachelorette, which led the ohyay team to pitch us on using their platform to do our next show Zoom Bachelor. After seeing the platform, my friends became obsessed with ohyay and started using it for their own events. Soon, I was using ohyay for all of my social activities, even hosting a virtual New Year’s Eve party in ohyay. The more I thought about it, the more I realized ohyay would be perfect for our office needs.

Before I talk about what a virtual office gave us, let me talk about what we needed. If I were to distill out exactly what our office gave us, that our cobbled together Slack/Zoom setup did not, it is this:

  • A shared sense of place. When we had an office, there were notions of “going to the office” and “meeting in the office.” Our team members loved the office so much they would bring friends by on the weekend, and relatives by during the workday, to “give them a tour of the office.” The office was where you went to see your teammates; the office was the physical manifestation of your work life. Slack is designed to fit in with the rest of your life, not to be your life; Zoom is ephemeral. Something I noticed in the early months of remote work was everyone was now interacting with their own personal home-office characters.
  • The feeling of working “together.” There’s something nice about knowing that other people are working hard near you. In the Before Times, walking into the building and seeing lights on, or walking past offices and seeing people in there, had been enough to motivate me to work harder. I’m also a big fan of coworking. (In fact, during lockdown a couple of friends and I experimented with being on a shared Zoom all day and livestreaming it to get this feeling.) If you’re only engaging with other people when they’re not heads-down, as is the case if you’re only interacting on Slack and Zoom, you lose this feeling.
  • The ability to casually see if someone is available to chat. Something that was nice—and led to many spontaneous ideas and product improvements—in the physical office was being able to walk over, see if someone was interruptible, and talk to them. In our Slack/Zoom regime, a Slack message already requires something to have a well-formed topic and already to be to-the-point. We previously had a rule that all Slack messages over five lines should move into a call, but this doesn’t solve the “let’s talk in person if it’s not too much trouble to anyone” case.

At first glance, it may seem like “virtual office” is one of those buzz phrases that is unlikely to solve any real problems. But I knew that ohyay could fill the gap, so one night I made an ohyay office and invited everybody to join me there the next day. Here are some of ohyay’s top “office” capabilities:

  • The ability to make customized “rooms.” ohyay lets you lay out video feeds, images, and more however you wish across a room, making it possible to play architect. Here I show our main conference room, which has a Minecraft theme, and an open-faced poker room Mark Gritter, our resident poker expert, made for the purpose of playing open-faced poker together. I also show the “kitchen,” where I spend most of my day.
Meeting in the Minecraft conference room.
Meeting in the Minecraft conference room.
A contentious game of open-faced poker.
A contentious game of open-faced poker.
My kitchen-office.
My kitchen-office.
  • Presence indicators. ohyay makes it easy to configure how you want to see the presence of other people in the space. In our office, we’ve set things up to make it easy to see the names of everybody else in the space. If I’m hanging out in the ohyay office, I can easily glance at the room directory to see who is around and who is currently working with whom.
It's nice to be able to see who else is "around."
It's nice to be able to see who else is "around."
  • The ability to have multiple rooms, all with fixed location. The directory above is more than a chat directory: you can actually “visit” someone in their room! Each of the rooms live at a fixed URL. You can always find the Akita office and you can always find each room. When I first knew that ohyay was working was when, after a Zoom call the team and I had at night, we all instinctively met back in the virtual office to debrief. For anyone feeling self-conscious about people barging into their conversation, however, ohyay recently added a “door” feature. You can lock a door and people can knock on a door to be let in, even if the door is open. The “knock” feature is particularly useful to see if someone is available to talk!
What it looks like when I've locked the virtual room I'm in.
What it looks like when I've locked the virtual room I'm in.

Working in the Akita virtual office

The Akita virtual office has empowered us to have a sense of place again. There’s a notion of everybody “showing up to work” in the morning. There’s a notion of “let’s go find so-and-so.” And we’re able to have low-friction, unplanned conversations across our team to address issues quickly as they arise.

In the Akita virtual office, we now start our days by gathering in the Minecraft conference room for standup at 9:30. A few days a week we have an additional sync: prioritization on Mondays; user conversations and metrics sync on Wednesdays; retro on Fridays. When we’re not meeting we go back to our “offices.” Our primary tool for fast communication is still Slack; I’m able to keep track of most of the daily goings-on over Slack. I’ll drop in on people’s virtual offices pretty often to see if they’re available to talk live, for instance:

  • If there’s an urgent user message or other time-sensitive issue.
  • If that person just sent a Slack message that I might have a question about.
  • If I have something that’s easier to say “in person” than over Slack and I want to quickly check if that person is interruptible.
  • Occasionally, just to say hi.

Here are a few ways the virtual office has made communications lower-friction:

  • Sometimes, I’ll “knock” or stop by someone’s office first, instead of Slacking first. If they’re available, we can have a quick conversation and it feels super frictionless. If they’re not available, I’ll send a Slack message. Being able to get onto a video call quickly, knowing that I’m not interrupting the other person too much, is huge.
  • People will come find me the same way! I’ve gotten into some really good, productive conversations that way.
  • One of my favorite interactions is when I’m talking to one person and we decide to “go find” a third person. This is something that we’d previously done in Zoom too, but would take five to ten minutes, instead of the almost zero minutes it takes now.
  • Hanging out with the team is also more fun in ohyay than on Zoom. We’ve done a couple of open-faced poker nights in ohyay and we do our monthly diversity and inclusion group there. In the height of lockdown, we also had some fun happy hours where we invited a handful of non-Akitans. People stayed to do karaoke for well over the scheduled duration of the happy hour!

I’d like to think that the virtual office helps give a sense of the team better than Slack and Zoom in the ether: the new people who joined Akita said that their onboarding was made much easier by the fact that people were around in the virtual office.

And here are some interactions we haven’t quite yet figured out in the virtual office:

  • The feeling of coworking. While ohyay makes it much easier to get the feel of other people working at the same time, we haven’t found a good model for sitting in the same virtual room and coworking. The ohyay team has been working on some interactions for an “open office,” but we haven’t yet tried it out. This may also be a feeling that is hard to achieve virtually. When things open back up, we may encourage team members to join local coworking spaces if that’s what they’re looking for.
  • Spontaneous social interactions. The lag of video adds just enough friction to make it feel like work to spend time socializing on video. While I personally have hung out on ohyay for hours with certain friends, I know a lot of people get tired after an hour or so. Because of this, our team hasn’t had multi-hour whole-group social events in ohyay. I’m excited to do more of this when we do meet in person.

And while in-person gathering is always going to provide a nice supplement to all-remote work, it’s nice to have found ohyay to give us the essentials of a real office feel.

We’re excited about our remote-first future

Our now-vacant San Mateo office, which we had moved into only one month before lockdown.
Our now-vacant San Mateo office.

When we became a remote team out of pandemic necessity, we thought that the benefits (lack of commute; people being able to work from anywhere) were poor consolation for the overhead of having to work together separately. Saying that it’s grown on us is an understatement: we’ve come to really appreciate how much you can get done virtually. Earlier this year, we committed to being a remote-first company. We now envision a future where people can live in locations they find the most fulfilling and still be able to collaborate on meaningful work at Akita.

As of September, half of our team will live outside the Bay Area and we will have had our first post-lockdown in-person team meeting. We’re having fun—and we’re excited to welcome more team members who don’t necessarily want to move to the Bay Area to work for a Silicon Valley startup!

If you’re interested in creating your own virtual office with ohyay, here are a few links:


With thanks to Kayvon Fatahalian, who works for ohyay, for edits. Photo by Cookie the Pom on Unsplash.

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