How To Nail Internal Communication in Distributed Teams

In 2021, there’s no shortage of productivity apps, chat tools, and documentation software for asynchronous communication. All these apps and systems exist to support the growing number of companies moving to hybrid and remote work.

Some trends in the workplace require us to adopt new ways to work, communicate, and brainstorm. One of those ways is to use audio or voice communication as the primary internal comms method.

Gable recently spoke to Justin Mitchell, the founder and CEO of Yac, an async voice and video message app for teams. This whole interview was done through Yac, and it was a great experience!

Justin, can you give us a bit of background on how you met your co-founder and started Yac?

Yac was actually built out of our design agency, So Friendly. I had been doing freelance design for a number of years to help fund one of my first startups. After that startup went public, I exited and went back to freelancing. I brought along an intern, and we started So Friendly together - he brought in his college roommate who joined us.

The three of us have been running our agency for a number of years and we'd always been a remote team. We saw a lot of opportunities in the remote work space to build software that we thought played the rules a little bit differently.

We saw a lot of remote work tools that really viewed remote as a problem instead of as a solution that didn't necessarily have the right tools for it. What everybody else was building for remote was kind of like “Hey, we don't have an office. We need to build towards a virtual office because that's the thing that remote is missing”.

We didn't really feel like remote was missing the office - we felt like it was just missing better communication tools and that the office was actually the most distracting part of work in general.

So we built Yac inside of our agency, with a team of designers and developers that have all been working with us for 7+ years. We built it as a hackathon project for Product Hunt and really didn't think anything of it at the time.

We just thought this is our cool twist on what remote work needs. And there was a category in the Product Makers Festival - the very first one - for remote work. So we submitted it.

We built this thing over a four-day weekend during Thanksgiving break. I'm very grateful to have a team of designers, devs, and co-founders who all thought, “Hey, this is what I want to do in my Thanksgiving break!”. We put it out there and it was wildly successful.

It received much fanfare, lots of downloads, lots of sharing. We were on Product Hunt, blog, the newsletter, they were tweeting about us. They're posting about us on Facebook, and we're getting a lot of downloads from teams that we didn't necessarily think of as remote teams - big companies like CVS Pharmacy and Roche Healthcare, and ABC Television.

We saw a couple of companies like Google and Nvision and a few startups sprinkled in there. But once we started seeing these big heavy hitters and their companies come through that download list, we thought - well, maybe this is more than just a fun hackathon side project. So we started updating it, giving it a full-blown website, adding screen sharing, fixing bugs, and making it a lot more stable.

And then, basically out of nowhere, a venture capitalist dropped in and said - I like what you're building.

Jordan, Hunter, and I have been working together for a number of years for other startups at our design agency. And I had a background already in doing startups, albeit not at a founder level. We just combined all of those skills and tried our hand at a remote work startup, and that's the genesis of Yac.

Why do you think audio is the new way to communicate and work?

So why audio over any other form of communication like slack or an email? Well, when we say audio, we mean voice and with voice communication, you hear tone and emotion, you get the relationship-building aspect of hearing that person's voice every single day.

You get to tell when they're tired, happy, or even angry. It makes a huge difference, not just in day-to-day communication but also when really tough conversations come up, like feedback sessions. You can understand that person is currently upset with you or just giving you some tough feedback that's really only possible through voice.

How does your team navigate internal communication? When do you use Yac internally, and when do you use other channels?

Internally, everything is either Slack or Yac. Inside of Slack, sometimes we'll hop on a huddle if we ever need to do some synchronous, in-the-moment brainstorming.

We don't have any scheduled meetings outside of one-on-ones or check-ins just to see how everyone is doing. They’re more social and less productivity-focused. Anything that's centered around productivity, we typically do async over Yac. We use real-time for brainstorming and emotional check-ins to make sure someone is doing okay, isn’t currently behind any blockers, or needs us to purchase something for them.

As a co-founder, how do you approach employee experience and engagement? Do you have any tips for other founders and managers?

One thing that we've done that was really cool and worked out well for us is that during our morning stand-ups, we started asking questions of the day. Those range from What's your favorite food? and What's your favorite memory? to What's a hobby that you enjoy outside of work?

We use that as a way to get to know everybody. So along with each of their morning stand-ups, each team member was required to also give a little fun tidbit about themselves from the prompt.

The nice thing is we just had anybody, whoever basically got their stand-up in first, got to choose what the question of the day was. It ended up being fun because it also encouraged people to be the first ones to dump in their stand-up because then they got to be the ones who asked the question of the day.

It was a really great way to get to know our team, to hear their voices. You actually get that emotion, that relationship building and you get to hear them talk about something that they're passionate about, excited about, love, or maybe even feel sadness around.

One of our teammates talked about her late grandmother's soup - how she loved her soup and how she misses getting that soup because it was unique to something that her grandma would make for her. Hearing moments like that, it's really humanizing, helps you bond with your team more. And it also creates a camaraderie between teammates, which is really exciting for a remote company and something that you typically miss out on not being in an office environment with each other every day.

Yac is mostly used by remote, distributed, and hybrid teams. How do you see the huge shift to remote work in general, and the ecosystem of tools and incredible companies like yours that rise to support it?

I think you're going to see a whole new class of products coming out that have absolutely nothing to do with collaboration or communication but are completely based on things that you end up lacking or falling short of when you don't have an office.

Simple stuff like online pizza parties, group events, online classes you can do together as team bonding exercises. We’re going to see an emphasis on hanging out and enjoying each other's company in a way that brings teams closer together and isn't necessarily duplicating or replacing something that the office brought you, but augmenting it with a totally new experience. So I think that you'll see a lot fewer brand new productivity tools coming out.

There will be a lot of things that hinge upon relationship building and team dynamics, and I think that's super exciting because remote has been around for a while. But we're just now seeing companies realize how important a lot of these things are to the health of their company, their team members, and their employees.

And a lot of that is going to depend on startups building great tools and systems that encourage different ways of interacting with your employees. Whether that’s benefit programs to get snacks and better WiFi in your home or it's a bonding activity so that everyone can do a virtual pizza party, you're going to see a lot less productivity SaaS and more workplace happiness SaaS.

What is your take on flexibility in the workplace? Why do you think it matters, not just in terms of where people work from, but also when?

Flexibility is the only reason that Yac exists in its current form. We have a very strong policy, and always have, that you work whenever you want as often as you want, however long you want - as long as you get your work done. That comes in part from a history of understanding that not every team member works at the same pace as everyone else.

Everyone has a different life. They have kids, pets, other obligations, they may want to sleep in, or stay up late. We're really big on this concept of each team member being able to be flexible to work whenever they feel is best. And that includes being able to take a break in the middle of the day to watch TV, play video games, go for a walk, go fishing - whatever they want to do and then be able to come back to their work when they see fit.

The first step is eradicating the schedule and getting rid of scheduled meetings, getting rid of a calendar. That is what defines your day and so asynchronous communication is the thing that really opens that up.

Flexibility is insanely important to an organization's ability to be productive and allow each of its team members to work the way that they feel best. But also in the ability to build a team culture, be able to hire from anywhere, not limit yourself to a 30-mile radius, to a certain country, or a certain time zone. Flexibility matters for general employee happiness.

Having the flexibility to allow someone to go pick their kids up from school without having to do a meeting in the car on the way there, or being able to work late if their partner works at a different time, and being able to spend time with them and have dinner with them and being able to flip their schedule if they ever need to. It all adds up to higher employee happiness.

What are some other startups, in any industry, that you think are doing a great job?

We are huge fans of Hypercontext, formerly known as Soapbox. They provide agendas and meeting setups to better run your meetings so that you're not just there, flailing in the wind and talking forever and ever with no purpose or set agenda.

I'd also like to shout out WorkFrom - they’re working on some really cool stuff that lets you do virtual co-workings where you can get rid of that loneliness factor that happens with remote work. We’re big fans of both of those companies and everything that they're doing.

Schedule Your Workplace Policy Session

We’re excited to hear your policy, show you how others are tackling challenges are doing, and give you practical advice.
Let’s talk
Andrea Rajic