Daniel Lee & Rohan Suri, July 14th 2021
Over the past year, we've had the privilege to work with a stellar team at Nooks. It's been an electrifying and challenging experience building a startup from the ground up while the world has been on lockdown. As a young team of computer scientists from Stanford, we've approached the challenge from the unique perspective of GenZ students, workers, and entrepreneurs. Moreover, we're designing our product to solve our own problem: how do we build a high-performing team when everybody's not physically working together?
Building and using Nooks with our team, we've had the opportunity to experiment and iterate A LOT. In this blog post, we'll explain our inspiration for creating Nooks, then describe some of the things we've learned, adopted for our team, and built into the product.
Fast-paced work requires real human connection
Studying in incredibly innovative learning environments and working at startups that moved insanely fast, we experienced a magical high-performing culture where work no longer feels like "work". But when everything moved online, this culture disappeared because it relied on real human connection. We sorely missed it, so we built Nooks to bring it back.
Our Nooks office is made of customizable rooms for drop-in conversations, co-working spaces, project rooms, hangouts, and more - all under one virtual roof. Nooks users can see where everyone is at any given moment, and talking with a teammate is always one click away. By using Nooks ourselves, and with thousands of users from other teams and organizations like Stanford, Embroker, and Workato, we've anchored on three important principles that I'll share below.
1. Use Presence-driven Communication
The default mode of communication for most teams is scheduling a Zoom meeting or sending a Slack message (or god forbid, an email). But this will slow you down. Texts are quick to send, but low-bandwidth. 20 minutes of back-and-forth on Slack should've instead been a 5 minute conversation. Meetings are high-bandwidth but high overhead to schedule, and often waste (at least one person's) time.
We knew we wouldn't be able to move fast enough if we spent all day on emails, Slack threads, and Zoom meetings. Instead, we arrived at a system that we call "presence-driven communication". On our team, we all have an intuitive awareness of what everyone's up to. When the time is right, you can drop in, ask a question, get an answer, then return to deep work. Information fires from one team member to another instantly.
To create this collective awareness in the Nooks virtual office, we built features that let you effortlessly share which room you're in, who you're with, and what you're working on. For example, everyone gets their own virtual desk (rent-free). We stay at our desk to indicate we're free to talk and people can drop by, similar to office hours. This helps our team have quick, casual conversations and impromptu collaboration.
When we're co-working in Nooks, everybody is there - it's easy to see if someone is heads-down designing in Figma or if they're reviewing your code in Github. And simply unmute to talk. Co-working gives us the collective energy and instant connection of working in the same room.
2. Build Rituals with Place
Our team has been operating remote & hybrid over the past year, with some people living together and others distributed around the world. For the group working in-person, we gradually developed rituals like quick debriefs after user interviews, regular bug-squashing pair-programming sessions, and Thursday game nights. These rituals increased our efficiency, naturally promoted the right behaviors, and made our team feel like a cohesive unit.
But it was hard to develop similar rituals virtually. We tried to recreate them with scheduled meetings, but this just felt forced. We realized that organically developing shared rituals relied on having shared context - in person, this shared context comes from being in the same physical place.
So we built this concept of "place" into Nooks, adding room environments, layouts, ambiance, and apps to bring context to interactions. This helped us create some valuable rituals in our Nooks virtual office.
For example, when we found some nasty bugs, we placed a bug-tracking dashboard in the virtual kitchen, where our team often eats meals together. This encouraged more conversations about bug-squashing efforts over lunch and ultimately created a culture around delivering a quality experience.
As a new manager, I found the ability to shape team culture and rituals by intentionally designing the places in our virtual office a critical tool for building a high-performing team.
3. Make Work Fun to Build Real Connection
When was the last time you smiled when you an hour-long meeting got booked on your calendar? How about when you received your 429th Slack notification of the day? When you're physically isolated and communication is rigid & impersonal, it's hard for work to feel enjoyable or fulfilling.
But, we come from a generation that's looking for community and purpose in their work.
On the Nooks team, we make work fun so our team feels like a community. Stronger personal connections facilitate collaboration and bolster team performance & happiness. We've found this particularly helpful with onboarding - we create a fun, inclusive environment so new people feel like they're part of the team, buy into the mission, and work together more effectively.
For example, we do a daily icebreaker during our stand-ups in Nooks to make sure we learn something new about our teammates every day. We also make it easy to change the room environment to liven the mood. You can even send emoji reactions (with sound effects!) to make conversations more fun & expressive.
What's up next
Through countless iterations over the past year, we've improved how our team works together and poured that back into the product. But we're just getting started. We believe this new way of working can help remote & hybrid teams around the world achieve velocities and levels of connectedness even better than physically working together.
If you're interested in a faster, more human way to work with your team, sign up here!
P.S. if you enjoy working with a fast, fun, and friendly team - we're hiring!