Making remote work feel less remote
Ehlo recreates the human part of office life that many miss
Today’s main startup attraction wants to become “the biggest provider of offices in the world, but with no physical spaces” - all thanks to its pop-out sidebar that helps teams recapture the sense of spontaneity often lost when teams go remote.
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Ehlo wants to make remote work feel less remote
I used to manage a globally distributed team of journalists. One thing I’ll always remember was the day one of my best writers let me know he was quitting because sitting at home working remotely via his computer was bad for his mental health - he needed to be surrounded by colleagues in a physical space.
As distributed workforces become more normal, that physical-first setup he craved is becoming less common, but our need for a sense of connection with colleagues hasn’t changed. But one thing that fans of ‘back to the office’ keep arguing is that online work will never capture the spirit of free-flowing collaboration that you often find when sharing the same location.
Ehlo is a London-based startup with its own fresh take on team communication. The platform is billed as “the virtual workplace that helps recreate the little moments that get lost when working remotely.”
In practice, it’s a pop-out sidebar for your computer that gives you an instant overview of which of your colleagues are online, whether they’re in meetings, which meetings they’re in and with whom, and their current timezone. Then if they’re free, rather than risk interrupting their flow with a non-urgent message, you can ‘knock’ to attract their attention.
If they’re free, you can then jump into a text or video chat and share files and links all from the lightweight interface. And rather than breaking you out of your flow with a conversation that takes up your whole screen, video calls happen in a small overlay.
And integrations with third-party tools like Google Meet mean that even when you’re on a call outside of Ehlo, your colleagues know you’re busy.
A simple connection
If this all sounds like a simpler version of Microsoft’s Teams or Salesforce’s Slack, you’d be right. CEO and co-founder Sean O’Keefe says it’s all about bringing a sense of ‘human connection’ back to online working:
“The initial plan for us was just to bring back the conversational side of work… But what we realised is when we removed barriers to communication, we gave people this real freedom of connection, collaboration, and communication, which has opened up a world of freedom for people.”
O’Keefe notes that in an office, seeing if someone is free can break you out of your workflow as you walk around to locate them. And it might result in discovering they’re not free after all, meaning you have lost minutes out of your own workflow to no avail.
By contrast, Ehlo’s approach is to be always just offscreen while you get on with your work, and a quick mouse swipe away when you need to get in touch with someone.
If Ehlo keeps ‘human connection’ as its north star, as O’Keefe says it is, the startup could be onto something.
While the likes of Slack are supposed to solve the same problem, in reality they often become just another inbox, and a trip into your team communication app to find the person you want could again mean breaking out of your own flow while you get distracted by group chats, other ongoing conversations, and cat GIFs.
Ehlo also wants to recreate the sense of ambient activity you get in an office - things going on around you that it’s helpful to know about.
“If you go to the office, you absorb a lot of information, you learn a lot of things just from what's going on around you…. those passive pieces of information. And for us, one of the main functionalities is being able to see what's going on…
“Even if I'm working on something and I can see a couple of my teammates are having a call in the Design Feedback room, I know that that's happened. I can catch up with them later,” says O’Keefe.
“So without having to actually do anything, you're absorbing a lot of information. And it also means that it's a point of access to multiple spaces. So if two people are having a call and they wanted to ask me a quick question, rather than rearrange the call for another time they could really quickly bring me in.”
O’Keefe also sees use for Ehlo as a universal video collaboration tool across existing ‘multiplayer’ platforms. So if you’re working on a Word doc together, or a design in Figma, or a working together in pair programming tool, Ehlo is a way to very quickly get clarity on something without breaking out of your workflow.
“We want to make the work you're trying to do, and the collaboration and communication, one and the same. At the moment it's very separate. I can be on Figma and I can be working with you and I can see your cursor moving around.
“But if I want to then have a call with you, I need to go to Google Meet and send you a calendar invite, or send you a Slack message and a Zoom link, and it breaks up that workflow. So part of these integrations is just about making a much more compounded product where you go to work every day.”
Welcome on board
O’Keefe says one unexpected use case Ehlo has discovered through their early users is onboarding new employees.
“When you start a new remote job, it’s basically just you, your laptop, and your calendar. If you don’t have any appointments or meetings in the schedule… invisibility becomes really clear. For that person to initiate a conversation with anyone is seen as an extremely intrusive act, ‘not to be done’, almost.
“We want to create that ability where anyone in the team can really quickly engage with someone just have a quick hello, not an organised, formal, half-hour meeting… New users… can really engage with their team from day one, and we've seen that team camaraderie and culture build up a lot quicker than if they're sitting in the sidelines waiting for a team meeting or waiting for meetings to be scheduled.
“But not only that, it becomes much easier to pull them into meetings to collaborate with them, to just involve them rather than around a much more formal structure. So for us, that's a really, really strong use case.”
Product or feature?
Dropbox founder Drew Houston once recalled a 2009 meeting with Steve Jobs in which the Apple chief dismissed Dropbox as a feature, rather than a product.
While the company has lost much of its mojo these days, Dropbox clearly became much more than a mere feature for a good long while in the last decade even though its core original concept was copied by others, including Apple. The story is a great example of how seemingly lightweight, easily copyable products can spawn much bigger companies than cynics expect - and how even Steve Jobs could be wrong sometimes.
I was reminded of this while talking with O’Keefe about Ehlo. But he believes that Ehlo is so fundamentally different in approach from the competition (there’s that ‘human connection’ north star again) that a copycat product from Slack, Microsoft, or Google is very unlikely to trouble him.
“I've done hundreds, if not thousands of research calls with teams, and a lot of those teams use Slack… I think only one team that I spoke to in maybe 500 or 600 was using the Slack video calling function.
“They've built a very good tool which has had excellent integrations. I think the big difference is we're becoming that layer on top. If Slack was to completely change their product, they'd have to focus on completely rebuilding their platform. It's not a small change. It's very much the basis of what you can believe and what you do.”
You had me at Ehlo
O’Keefe co-founded Ehlo with Will Slater (CTO) and Timothy Lui (COO). They were all working on separate food-related startups, but the pandemic’s shakeup of the restaurant industry–and every other industry–led them to look together at how remote work could be done better.
The prototype was essentially a “walkie-talkie between two computers” designed to recreate the workplace water-cooler chat or shared coffee break.
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