A Primer on Remote Work Tools in 2020

Dear subscribers,

With tech companies like Facebook, Twitter, Square, Coinbase, and Shopify all going remote, the need for remote work tools is greater than ever. Below is a primer on the remote work ecosystem — including leaders and notable players in each category. At the end of this post, I’ll also share some thoughts on how I think the ecosystem will evolve.


Why do companies hire remote work tools?

I believe companies hire remote work tools to help their teams perform three jobs:

  1. How can teams communicate with each other?

  2. How can teams manage projects and share knowledge?

  3. How can teams develop employees and build culture?

Traditionally, companies hired all-in-one productivity suites (e.g., G Suite, Microsoft 365) to perform the jobs above. But employees clearly want more, as demonstrated by the thriving ecosystem of remote work tools:


1. How can teams communicate with each other?

Messaging and email

Leaders: Microsoft Teams / Exchange, Slack, Gmail

Notable players: Quill, Threads, Superhuman, Front

For many tech companies, Slack, Teams, and other messaging apps have replaced email as the primary tool for asynchronous communication. Instead of dreaded "reply-all" email chains, these apps use channels to let everyone view and contribute to a conversation in one place. As Slack writes on their website: "You could get buried in email. Or you could get real work done in Slack."

But is this claim entirely valid? Instead of reading email inboxes, many of us now struggle to manage multiple Slack channels with rapidly climbing unread counts. Messaging, according to the Basecamp team, is at its worst “like being in an all-day meeting, with random participants, and no agenda."

Messaging and email are arguably the most used tools for remote workers. Several startups are trying to improve how we communicate through these channels:

  • Quill and Threads are re-imagining messaging to focus on threads about a particular topic instead of channels. These threads give room for more thoughtful, focused discussions compared to Slack messages.

  • Superhuman and Front are re-building the email inbox for speed and collaboration, respectively. Superhuman strives to provide a lightning-fast email experience through performance and keyboard shortcuts. Front gives teams a shared inbox to respond to emails and messages in one place.

Video and Voice

Leaders: Zoom, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams

Notable players: Facebook, Amazon Chime, Loom, Tandem, Chorus.ai, Fireflies.ai, Otter.ai

Zoom grew faster than any other tech company during COVID-19, reaching 300M daily meeting participants in April 2020 (up 30x from 10M in December 2019). Zoom's rapid growth stems from its best-in-class video performance and frictionless meeting invite system.

But Zoom made it a bit too frictionless to join meetings and ran into significant security problems. Now, tech giants are doubling down on video calls while startups are trying to innovate around the edges:

  • Google Meet comes bundled with Gmail and Google Calendar, making video calling even more frictionless than Zoom links. Given the broad adoption of G Suite, I believe this was always Google's market to lose. The company needs to simplify its video communication products further - keeping Meet, Hangouts, Duo, Allo, and other brands around is confusing. 

  • Facebook Messenger Rooms is Zoom built into Facebook's massive scale with fun filters. 700M people already participate in calls every day on Messenger and Whatsapp. Although Facebook is marketing Rooms to consumers, it’ll become a key component of Facebook’s Workplace suite for businesses as well.

  • With Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and other large tech companies competing in video calling, startups need to focus on more specific use cases to differentiate themselves. Loom lets people send asynchronous messages using video instead of text. Tandem replicates the feeling of being together in an office by providing easy access to video calls, screen sharing, and more. Finally, several AI startups (Chorus.aiFireflies.ai, and Otter.ai) let people analyze, transcribe, and search the contents of video calls easily.

Calendars & Meetings

Leaders: Google Calendar, Microsoft Exchange

Notable players: Calendly, X.ai, Clockwise, Navigator

Like many tech workers, my calendar governs my workday. Whether I'm trying to find a meeting time that works for everyone or an hour-long block for uninterrupted work, managing my calendar has always been a hassle. Unlike messaging and video calling, no product is seriously challenging the dominance of Google Calendar and Microsoft Exchange in this category. Several startups are trying, but their products feel more like features than a re-invention of the calendar:

  • Calendly and x.ai help people schedule meetings without back-and-forth emails by automatically finding a time that works for everyone. I see it used most often by recruiters to schedule calls with job candidates.

  • Clockwise moves your meetings around to give you uninterrupted blocks of time to focus on work. 

  • Navigator provides structure around meetings by prompting people to share meeting agendas and notes.


2. How can teams manage projects and share knowledge?

Project management

Leaders: JIRA

Notable players: Monday.com, Asana, Basecamp, Productboard, Linear

Atlassian's JIRA is the juggernaut in the project management space. As a JIRA novice, I can't help but feel my life pass by when I have to wait for it to load or understand one of its few hundred features. At the same time, I've seen JIRA experts execute complex workflows with a few keyboard strokes.  

Competing with JIRA is challenging, but several startups are seeing success:

  • Monday.com and Asana are well-funded startups that let teams create Kanban boards, manage priorities, and monitor projects in one place.

  • Basecamp is a project management and communications tool designed specifically for remote work.

  • Productboard is a platform for product teams to gather customer feedback, manage feature requests, and track progress towards launch.

  • Linear is a startup that markets itself based on JIRA's shortcomings - from speed (performance, keyboard shortcuts) to offline support. 

Knowledge

Leaders: Google Docs, Microsoft Office, Dropbox
Notable players: Notion, Coda, Airtable, Roam Research

Google Docs, Microsoft Office, and Dropbox have been around for over a decade, but a few exciting startups are building better docs to improve collaboration and knowledge sharing for teams:

  • Notion and Coda provide simple writing and collaboration experiences for teams with the ability to support many types of content (spreadsheets, tables, etc.)

  • Airtable has been called a “spreadsheet on steroids” by letting users input, organize, and view any type of information.

  • Roam Research uses bi-directional links to remove the need to organize documents at all. This post explains how Roam works.

Design

Leaders: Figma
Notable players: Sketch, Invision, Abstract, Adobe XD, Canva

It was only a few years ago when we were all switching from Adobe's suite to Sketch for design and prototyping. Now, many companies are moving to Figma from the combination of Sketch, Invision, and Abstract:

  • Figma was built from the ground up for teams to collaborate in the cloud on designs and prototypes. The company recently raised another $50M and has clear momentum in this category.

  • Sketch, Invision, Abstract, and Adobe XD all have various strengths (e.g. Sketch for design, Invision for prototyping) but lack the momentum that Figma has.

  • Canva is another rapidly growing startup that targets graphic designers instead of product designers. The company provides thousands of templates for people to create posters, advertising, and other visual content. 


3. How can teams develop employees and build culture?

Leaders: None
Notable players: Betterup, Strive, 15Five, CultureAmp, Reflektive, Peakon

With workers going remote, it's more important than ever for companies to develop employees and build culture. As far as I can tell, this category has no real leader. Many teams use communication and collaboration tools for team rituals and 1:1 conversations, but I still think there's a market for dedicated products in this category. Several startups are trying:


Is there one remote work tool to rule them all?

I started this post by covering the three main jobs that companies hire remote work tools to perform:

  1. How can teams communicate with each other?

  2. How can teams manage projects and share knowledge?

  3. How can teams develop employees and build culture?

The tools that we covered above are trying to address these needs better than all-in-one solutions like G Suite and Microsoft 365. But having to use dozens of tools isn't sustainable long-term.

So who will become the new all-in-one solution?

Companies in the remote work ecosystem are taking two different approaches:

1. Build an all-in-one solution in-house

Incumbents like Microsoft and Google are aggressively bundling new tools with their widely adopted productivity suites. Microsoft, for example, has reached 75M daily active users for Teams by bundling it with Office.

Meanwhile, startups like Notion and Lark are also building all-in-one suites. Notion's homepage actively promotes how it replaces multiple tools for knowledge and project management workflows. Lark (from Bytedance, the company that also makes TikTok) provides messaging, calendar, and docs on one platform.

2. Stitch together an all-in-one solution through integrations

Category leaders like Slack and Zoom are pursuing deep integrations with other tools to stitch together a new all-in-one solution. Dropbox is taking this a step further by trying to become a cloud operating system to help users organize other tools and workflows in one place.


My personal opinion? Messaging is the dominant use case for remote work. A company that can deeply integrate a best-in-class messaging experience with other categories (e.g. get a non-spammy message when a coworker sends you a calendar invite or mentions you in a doc) will be a market leader.

One thing is clear — as more workers go remote, it'll be fascinating to see if the number of tools continues to expand or if new all-in-one solutions emerge.


If you find this post valuable, consider sharing it, subscribing to my newsletter, or adding your favorite remote work tool in the comments. Thanks for reading 🤝

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