YACT! Not YACHT! Seriously. Y-A-C-T.

2021. COVID-19. Remote first. Asynchronous work. Flexibility > colocation. No, I'm not going to re-visit the status quo (hooray!) - this post is about something different.

We've embraced the new model of work, enjoyed its pros, but I haven't seen much work done to address the drawbacks/constraints it brought (especially the ones related to "richness" and "bandwidth" of communication). Obviously, there was a lot of trench-level evangelism, coaching, and preaching the importance of transparency. But when it comes to tools - I didn't see a tectonic shift.

Maybe the tools we've used before were so good there's no space to innovate here? I dare to disagree. Even when 100% remote, I see folks complaining about the pre-pandemic topics (like meetings stealing their time or never-ending waterfall of emails).

I don't have enough hubris, to tell you that I know the silver bullet. But I can share some ideas/speculations - what (IMHO) could work or is at least worth experimenting with. Who knows - maybe you know such a tool (already in existence) - a one I was completely unaware of.

Let's check.

YACT - envisioning

First of all - my goals and priorities: what I'd like to achieve:

  • I like separate, long-living contexts for topics (/conversations, /relationships) with people or groups - something like a channel on Slack, but maybe less linear and more "fork-friendly" (because collaboration is rarely strictly single-threaded)
  • Next, I need something much more expressive than a chat (even with a freakillion of highly inclusive emoticons ...). If you want to describe something non-trivial, it becomes a wall of text - that increases unnecessarily the cognitive threshold ("feck, it's long, I'll read it tomorrow").
  • Third, I need a complete collaboration space. E.g., I can now create a diagram in Miro and link it in the discussion on Slack (two separate apps), but since then, those two artifacts may have completely independent lives (detached, de-synced, discontinued) - I want them to be parts of the same, shared space.
  • Additionally, I want to synergize the benefits of asynchronous collaboration with the high bandwidth of video/audio communication - there are so few tools that have even tried that (e.g. Loom).


How could such a tool look like?

Imagine creating workspaces like channels on Slack.

Each workspace serves some (single) purpose - it's dedicated for a group of people (team, group of similar interest, etc.) or a short-lived endeavor (project, incident, some event); If the purpose is not there anymore, the workspace gets archived.

Workspace could look like a whiteboard in Miro - you can sketch there, write, slap a diagram, share some file or link (with full attribution, timestamp, etc.). The relationships between those elements are not just a bunch of raster pixels - these are persistent connections (that remain when you shuffle items a bit).

What is more important - you can have asynchronous conversations there (in the very same workspace):

  • if you want to send a message (a new topic or a reply to the one that already exists), you can either write it down textually (like on Slack) or record it (vocally)
  • the recorded message is automatically transcribed - the author can edit or annotate (add emphasis, formatting, even a diagram at a given timestamp) it before sending; the idea is that both forms are entirely in sync (you can't cut something out of the text but leave it in the voice form)
  • the recipients may read or listen to the message (asynchronously, at the time of their convenience) - and - annotate (simple reactions, like thumbs up or down) it or "attach" the answer/comments (again with voice + transcription); attaching may spawn "threads" that fan out visually like in a mind map (for the sake of convenience they may be tagged/titled/etc. - to make sure we all stay on the same page (metaphorically)

Voice mail (on steroids)

What would be the benefits of such a model?

  1. First of all, the communication on a 2D, flexible whitespace invites a creative approach to organizing and structuring the work ("this is our team's collaboration mental model") - e.g., when we discuss some proposal, we embed SWOT directly into the discussion.
  2. Second of all, we reduce friction by replacing "walls of texts" with annotated, transcribed voice messages; as it's a "voice-first" approach - it seems like a good compromise between the speed of building the message and the convenience of tuning its form.

Obviously, the idea is still pretty rough and raw. For example:

The linear text chat (like in Slack) has its cons, but it's chronological, implying a clear association of message "freshness" with its importance. In other words - it's less prone to become messy because older messages disappear naturally (they got "scrolled away into history").

But what about a non-linear workspace? Won't it get chaotic?

True, there is such a risk. That's why there has to be a functionality that "collapses" (sucks in) whiteboard sections/regions. Once something is not relevant anymore (ticked off, completed, discarded), such a "pocket universe" could be transplanted into (browsable, completely linear) history log.

What about people who don't like to talk? Good question. Well, they can stick to writing their texts down manually (the Slack way) - their messages would not have a voice form (or Alexa would take care of that ...). I don't think it will be a bigger problem than the one faced now by people who don't like to write ...

All right. So how does it sound? Would you use such an app? Do you think it would increase the efficiency/productivity of your team? Would it make asynchronous collaboration faster? Or more convenient?

I'm not naive - such a tool would definitely require some getting used to AND there will definitely be some teams w/o people with enough organizational skills to take advantage of such a level of flexibility. But maybe you already know (have used) something similar, and you have some exciting experience to share?

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