Emma Giles is the Co-Founder and COO of SoWork, a fast-growing startup on a mission to move the world of work from the Earth to the Cloud by building virtual spaces. We discuss the future of virtual work, tips on working remotely across different time zones, and what it’s like to work in a virtual office.
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Put Your Remote Team In Your Pocket With Emma Giles
In this episode, my guest is Emma Giles, the Cofounder and COO of SoWork with a mission to move the world of work by building virtual spaces that impart teams to crush it from anywhere in the world. Emma, welcome to the show.
Steve, thanks so much for having me. I’m excited to be here.
This is going to be our first episode, metaverse-related. I’m already looking into this because there are lots of things you told me on our pre-call but let’s start from the beginning. You graduated as a neuroscientist. How does a neuroscientist become a COO of a metaverse startup? How does that even happen?
One of the things I realized when I was deep in my PhD Computational Neuroscience was I was between Harvard and MIT. When I started, I realized there are amazing resources. While I’m at school at these amazing places with these amazing minds, I should take advantage of what’s here. One of the places I wanted to take advantage of was the Harvard Innovation Labs, which is a place where students go to get support in starting their ventures. I didn’t have a venture but I wanted to hang out and immerse myself in that as one of the many resources that the school offered. When I got there, I realized I am not a specialist. I’m a generalist very deep in a PhD program.
Being around that opened my eyes to what got me excited. I woke up and I realized I’m deep in a specialist field. I need to back myself out and lean into my more generalist tendencies. From there, I was lit up by everything that was going on. I have a million ideas and ways that I can make the world better. I found a way to borrow from my background. I had a psychology background and then more of a computational neuroscience background. I use that in my leadership style and communication. I was able to lean more into my generalist tendencies by starting to run startups. I haven’t looked back since.
You went from a science background. You’ve discovered that you have this generalist inclination and then you made this cautious switch, which sounds pretty unique. I’ve not seen people be aware of that but maybe that’s because you’re a neuroscientist. You are seeing your thinking and tendencies. That’s pretty cool. Tell me a little bit about how you came upon this whole concept. You said that the startup didn’t begin in this direction and you had a couple of pivots. What happened? How did you find this metaverse positioning that SoWork is pursuing?
Like many young companies, we pivoted. We started in one space, learned a lot, realized it maybe wasn’t a big market and tried something else. This company that we’re working on, the product we’re building called SoWork, is from two pivots. We started in the education space. I used to work at Khan Academy and created content for nursing and medical students. At first, I was like, “This process is brutal. I could create software to make it easier, better and faster.” I then realized I’m solving the wrong problem. There’s too much content out there.
How could I think about helping people navigate content, not contributing to content proliferation? How could I make it easier for learners, whether students or others, to take advantage of the content in a way that worked for them? We then moved into, “Let’s flip the problem on its head 180 degrees and build recommendation algorithms.” You can tell my slant came from computational neuroscience because I had a bit of a recommendation bent. I said, “Let’s build recommendation algorithms that consume the content that’s out there and try to tell students, ‘This is maybe an order you can try to move in one piece of content at a time.'” It’s a very hard problem but we had some traction. The pandemic then happened.
During the pandemic, people weren’t looking for ways to work by themselves and be asynchronous. They were looking for ways to be synchronous. Our team was the same. We were thrown online as everybody else but we had something that we did about it internally, which is we created a very janky, hacky product for ourselves that allowed us to come together in a room and be in the same place. That was the very original version of our product. We allowed our students who were using our other product to use it as well.In the pandemic, people weren't looking for ways to work by themselves and be asynchronous. They were looking for ways to be synchronous. Click To Tweet
As soon as they did and we started taking our meetings in our product, the second one, we realized we were onto something much bigger than what we’d been working on before. It became a question and we argued with our investors about this a lot, “Is the world of work truly going to change forever after the pandemic or is this a temporary moment in time and you should stay the course with what you were working on before?” We had a strong conviction that work would change. We took the leap and then everything left off from there.
You can’t put the genie back into the bottle. It’s so interesting. During the pandemic, some of my clients hired remote people because it didn’t matter at the time. They then realized that by doing that, they opened the door to remote hiring and now they couldn’t close it. They are embracing it. It turns out they are a virtual company and then they have to deal with all the fallouts and negatives of it. I’d like to ask you about how that works. Before that, I quickly want to go a little bit in a different direction. The theme of this show is management blueprints. Do you have a favorite framework that you have applied or that you are applying in your business? Have you discovered, created or tweaked it that you would like to talk about?
I love frameworks so I love the entire purpose of what you’re doing here. I’m a strong discerner, which means I usually borrow ideas from others and then smash them together to form new things but I didn’t create them someone else did. In true form, one of my favorite frameworks is Working Genius with a twist. A brief overview, what I love about Working Genius is not that there’s anything wrong with something like Predictive Index or Myers-Briggs but those are static. You are an INFP or a venturer. With Working Genius, it doesn’t matter what you are. You have different things that you feel stronger in doing and that you maybe feel less strong in doing. It focuses on the phases of work, where we move from wonder to implementing an idea.
If you could think about it in plain English, you say, “This could be done better. We could do work better. That would be a wonder. I have an idea. Let’s build a virtual workplace or a workplace metaverse.” There’s then something called activation, which happens in the middle. Before building the workplace metaverse, Working Genius has exposed that some important steps happen in the middle that we maybe didn’t have language or ways to think about them and activation says discernment, “Hold on. Do workplace metaphors solve the problem that you wanted to solve before it? If it does, here are some gaps that I see.”
The discerner sits there and says, “If you want to do this, let’s stay here and make sure we work this out based on what we’re trying to accomplish.” I’m a discerner, often seen as annoying but in the end, people appreciate it. There’s then galvanization, which is like, “We’re there and ready. Let’s do it. Let’s get everyone excited and involved. Let’s make it a team effort.” That’s your galvanizer. Your enabler says, “If we’re going to do that, Steve does well if he’s set up in this way so let’s give Steve this. Janet maybe needs this so let’s give Janet that.” It’s your enablement. Tenacity says, “I’m going to do this through to completion. Give me a task, let me run with it and check it off.
I love that so much because anyone can play any of those roles. However, many of us have parts of those phases of work that we’re more naturally inclined to. You can think of it as, how you bring individuals together and help them lean into their thriving zones. Together, we all move through that and accomplish line great. It allows individuals to be put together in teams. That’s why I love Working Genius. The twist that I add to it, which I’ll present at a high level, is those phases of work aren’t linear. Work goes backwards sometimes and work goes forwards. It’s also not happening at one level. There could be strategic moving through ideas and there can also be more execution.
I like to introduce these different dimensions to the Working Genius framework. It’s so dynamic so it lends itself nicely to say, “Are we in the strategy phase? Are we in the execution phase?” Very different phases of work but all of them have wandered through to tenacity. The other is, “Are we going backwards? Did we implement something?” We then realize something, “Now, we’re going backwards through the framework, we’re maybe going back to the idea and then maybe going forward again.” You can use those different components of work to figure out where does your team thrive?
Not just in which phase of work but are you more interested and excited about strategic work? Can we get bored and frustrated once we’re in the implementation execution details or maybe the opposite? I love to twist it to get a bit deeper into what does it mean for people to thrive and work and how can you combine them into these magical units to form superpower teams?
For those of you who are not familiar with The 6 Types of Working Genius, it’s a book by Patrick Lencioni that just came out but the program had been around since 2022. It’s a very simple framework and powerful. As always, Pat Lencioni explains it through a fable so it’s very easy to grasp it. I recommend reading and listening to the book and then embracing this. I already scheduled some of my annual strategic planning meetings with my clients. I’m going to teach all of them how this works and we’re going to figure this out. It’s going to be great. I love that you added two other dimensions. It’s a four-dimensional matrix.
You’ve got the six widgets, wonder, invent, discern, galvanize, enablement and tenacity. You then have the strategic and execution, plus it can be, go forward or go back. That’s a pretty complex one. You probably have to go to Harvard and be a computational neuroscientist to visualize this. Let’s talk a little bit about your company SoWork and this whole metaverse idea.
A lot of companies have come to the conclusion that they have to embrace derivative work, which is based on Zoom or Teams so people understand that you can have meetings on Zoom and maybe you just meet once a quarter. How can you take this to the next level? What does SoWork does that takes this to the next level? What does this look like?
One of the things that we can think about is what we described there. You have your meeting tool, whatever that is and there’s nothing wrong with those tools. You have maybe your threaded chat tool. That’s common. A combination in that stack could be Zoom and Slack. One of the challenges that we’ve seen when we think about the problems that our market has and why our product aims to solve them and in what way is something like Zoom, a particular type of synchronous work for a scheduled meeting.
If we roll ourselves back and think about the office, you and I are together at the same time, either in video or another form and we’re working at the same moment, there’s only one type of synchronous face-to-face work of the scheduled meeting. There’s also something that I like to call unstructured or spontaneous meetings or sync work. The unstructured spontaneous connection, which is the most human form of connection, is the serendipity and spontaneity that we talk about. You can’t inject that back very easily. What ends up happening is people start to bring in more tools into the stack to try to inject delight, funds, spontaneity, humanity and connection.Unstructured spontaneous connection is the most human form of connection. Click To Tweet
What ends up happening is the tech stack proliferates but none of them come together cohesively to solve these problems. One bucket of how we’re different and what we aim to solve is we recognize there are other types of work and they just so happen to be the ones that are very human and sometimes, associated with innovation, collaboration or breaking down silos. They can’t solve with some of these tools that were never made to solve them. The video conferencing wasn’t intended to solve that kind of synchronous connection. It was intended to solve this scheduled meeting. I can go a little deeper on this as well.
Another bucket of what we solve is because people have been using tech stacks of tools that weren’t intended for full-time remote teams, particularly ones that are more distributed where we end up with time zone, work hour flexibility and all these chaos variables, we see side effects of that. When customers come to us, they’re often saying, “I’m spending eight hours a day in Slack. I’m not sure if I’m getting anything done.” When we interrogate, “Why are you spending so much time in Slack,” what we end up seeing is that they’re using tools to solve problems that weren’t intended and they’re seeing side effects of that.
We aim to solve those problems in the intended ways. Some teams may or may not keep those other tools. It just depends on the makeup of their team and what they need. Those are the two big buckets of things that we aim to do that are different, bring back modes of work that other tools didn’t solve and deal with the side effects of smashing together tools that weren’t intended for particular use cases.
In practical terms, if I go on your website or watch your videos of this metaverse application that SoWork has, what I see is that there are these little computer game figures. They are in an office. Sometimes, they sit in a conference room. Sometimes, one of them sits in a box that looks like a sauna. Another one walks across their sofa and communicates with each other. All the Zoom screens pop up and then people talk with each other. Sometimes they show a PowerPoint-like presentation. How does it work in practice? What do people need to do to engage with this application?
I love your description. It’s both funny and exactly right. The idea is that with say the metaverse as a solution, what you get is people working from the same place. We have to talk about what that introduces so there’s like, “Can I be off? Do I always have to be on?” Those are problems to be solved. The big magic is that you’re working from the same place and you can see other people that are with you, even if you’re not interacting with them. That creates this sense of place cohesion and impacts loneliness. What you can layer onto that is the ability to connect. You might connect by waving to someone.
You’ve got your little characters walking around. You can wave at someone. That doesn’t interrupt your or their work but it creates this moment of recognition and connection that you can’t get with other tools without maybe dropping someone a Slack GIF. The problem is that will notify them in the same way that something important will notify them and they’ll end up with a lot of notifications. We want to break that cycle down. We can layer on a third piece. We can allow people to come together to work. The atomic unit of our platform is you can walk up to someone to connect and we use fluid proximity audio video.
When you get close, if you’re available, you will connect. Now, you cannot be available of course. Your video and audio will connect and you can choose which one you want on and off. You can have a planned or spontaneous meeting. You can bring up your tools or just talk and walk away. That’s the essence of it. There’s lots of functionality around that to deal with the technology considerations but that is the essence of what it’s like to work for the metaverse.
Let’s say I am in this metaverse office working on writing an article. Do I keep this on the corner of my screen and I glance at it every now and then to see if someone is waving at me? How do I know if someone waved at me? Do I only see it then if I’m looking at the screen or there’s another way to see that?
Everyone’s a little bit different in how they do it. Some people love to have a little version of the office up in their corner or on a second monitor if they’re at home with a setup like that so that they can feel like they are with others. They can see like, “I saw someone come in. I do want to grab them.” Some people choose to have it all tucked away because maybe they want to be in the office but they want to be deep working. At that point, you can control what you are alerted by. We default to only urgent things. Our default setting is we will not pull you from your deep work unless someone signals that they have an urgent blocking issue. Otherwise, you’re left to work.
When you return, whenever that next moment might be, maybe you have a meeting when you want to come back into the office, when you return from that focus mode, we’ll update you on what you missed while you were gone based on what you feel is most important to you. For different types of workers, those are different things. Managers want to know if someone’s blocked. Someone might want to know if one of their teammates is around so they can collaborate and those types of things.
Do you find that this works better for certain people? For example, extroverted or introverted people, do they react differently? Do you have people who resist this? What is their argument? How do you handle this?
At the end of the day, the premise that we’re built on is we want to come together as humans at work to do great work. To do great work, we generally work in teams of different dynamics. At the end of the day, we’re usually on a team doing some version of teamwork together so that we can drive impact and results, make progression or careers, all those types of things. No matter what the composition of a team or the style of the people is, they need to work together in some way. What we do is create a place where you can lever what that looks like for you based on your preferred style and how your team tends to work together. Engineers need more deep work than a sales team which might want to collaborate all day long on sales calls.At the end of the day, we all want to come together as humans at work to do great work. Click To Tweet
The key with any platform and this is what we try to focus on as well, is that you should be able to adapt the virtual office to allow you to work in the way that you need to and accomplish teamwork. No one should feel like the tool is pushing them towards a style that they aren’t. If you are more introverted, you spend more time unavailable and leverage tools like memos, which tell you based on urgency, who needs you but by default, you’re never surprised. If you’re more extroverted, you spend more time on available and you’re delighted by people walking up to you and everything in between. We got to give ownership to the people so that people feel great, they can work together as they need to and everything flows from there.
What types of companies do you recommend try this and how do they try it? Let’s say I’m a business owner. I’m uncertain about this. I don’t know anything about the metaverse. I don’t want to make a mistake. I don’t want to look silly. What’s an easy way to test something like that?
Our whole movement is based on that. For some teams, it’s a big change. What we love to do is scope that way down. We say, “Do not change all your meetings to the office. Don’t try to work here if you’re a startup with 60-plus hours a week. Don’t worry about that. Don’t cancel your tools.” The number one thing that is the core value that we offer can be experienced in one short block per week or however you want to do it. What we learned from our customers who’ve done this is they started with something that we’ve called Teamwork Blocks. Teamwork Blocks are very simple. Their blocks on the calendar, maybe 1 or 2 hours, it depends on the team, where you work from the office.
That allows you to be from one place together. Your team can decide what does that mean? Are you available? Are you unavailable? How are you doing with the dynamics? We help teams. We have templates for these because teams have figured out different flavors of this and that’s it. Maybe you have a one-hour block for the first time where you’re working from the office together. That’s the simple step. What that does is it delivers the magic. It puts you in one place with your team. People you haven’t seen in ages. It feels natural. It’s delightful and not super disruptive. You see the control that you have and the benefits that you get. From there, we watch teams take off and adopt it as it suits them.
They then can roll it out or do it more hours a week. Naturally, either it becomes part of their modus operandi or if they don’t like it, then they discontinue.
With the Teamwork Blocks too, if you don’t like that and it doesn’t help you, you learn that early because the core value we offer, we deliver in those types of blocks. It’s good if you learn early if you don’t need it and then you don’t have to spend more time on it.
I’ve been reading about the metaverse and there are some big technical challenges. One of them is resilience. If something happens, a picture on the wall, if you spill coffee on it, maybe your program doesn’t do that but then, how does it stay there and need this for this kind of program that’s a more advanced phase, which you don’t have to worry about? The other thing is real-time. Everyone has to be in real-time. You have a lot of people concurrently have to communicate that can overburden the system and it doesn’t work. Do you experience any of these technical issues? How are you dealing with it?
There are some interesting challenges in this space. We root avoided several of them by targeting our technology to users that are more on the go, mobile and lightweight. Our solutions are therefore not leveraging some of the complex technology, whether hardware or software, that isn’t from our perspective quite ready yet for some of the standard use cases that our customers have. For example, we get asked a lot about the hardware. Do they wear virtual reality headsets? Do they need a big computer? What’s happening? Is it 3D? There’s so much potential benefit around the immersion but the consequence is that if the technology isn’t quite ready, the burden of that ends up being the end user who’s trying to get their work done.
We decided to say we will build our software in a way that allows us to adapt to the technology as it gets better and better but we’re going to start with, “You should be able to connect with your team on your phone.” We then go from there. That’s the experience we aim to deliver. A lot of these challenges that we read about technology-wise about the metaverse are coming from products that have been using very immersive technology or hardware that maybe isn’t quite ready yet so we’ve root avoided that.
There’s another angle I could talk about as well, which is around we have a lot of tools that allow teams to ebb and flow between sync and async. Our idea is that we want you to feel like you can work from the office, not just have to be meeting in the office at all times. We watch teams. They flow naturally. They have an all-hands. Maybe 100 people are meeting together but sometimes it’s just 5 people while the others are doing deep work at their desks. We built ourselves to be able to handle the more natural flavor of work.
Whom would you say is the natural target market, the sweet spot type of company that would benefit the most from this in terms of distribution and industry?
We have companies that start with two people wanting to sit beside each other through to big companies, thousands and thousands of teammates. We like to hone ourselves. We believe that we deliver different value for painful problems that happen for companies as they go from, “We’re in the early stage startup. We’re about that 20-person size growing to 200 people.” The reason is that there was so much breaking and reforming that’s happening during that period.
Everything’s changing so much, including how we share information, keep people connected, build teams, break down silos, build culture and hire. We do such a great job for those problems at saying you have a place and you have tools that allow you to cut out the consequences of some of the reshaping and reforming that’s happening during those moments that put a lot of strain on digital teams in ways that we saw in person but they’re worsened, earlier and more frequent when you’re digital because stuff breaks differently. Our target customer is right in that zone because we do offer differentiated value there.
They’re knowledge workers and often technology companies going through a lot of change in those early phases. We call them startups and scale-ups. In terms of the team, it doesn’t matter if you’re co-located but you just like to work digitally or from home. We are particularly helpful for teams that are a little bit more distributed. Whether that distribution happens in terms of time zone or work hours flexibility, those can lead to the feelings of distribution. If you are working at a different time than I am, we need ways to easily come together, move work forward and feel connected. Those are the traits of the companies that we are helpful for.
I have a final question. What if someone is in a different time zone? What if I have teammates who are in India or the Philippines? Is there any way for us to ever connect? Does the software create an overlap? Even if the time zones don’t match, can they leave some traces of themselves so that they feel that they were there?
What you raised is a real problem. We do a couple of things. We provide insights to teams to start and say, “We’ve assessed your distribution. You only have an hour overlap across your teammates in this one moment.” Many of us, when we were hired during the pandemic, we didn’t factor that in. You raised this a little bit at the start. We say, “Let’s level set. We’d like to share it with you. You’re navigating ten time zones. The average distance is nine hours apart. You don’t have any overlap except for this one block. We wanted to highlight that to you. Your teammates haven’t connected in person in ten weeks.” That one moment that you have overlap, we highly recommend Teamwork Blocks.”
Teamwork Block is that single unit so leverage that. That’s the synchronous piece. That’s step one. Step two is, what do you do about all the rest of the time? This is where we have tools that allow you to move seamlessly from sync to async because you are hand being worked off. “We’ve only had ten minutes to sync, now we’re going to go async. I’m going to see you tomorrow where we’ll be syncing. How do we help teammates bridge the sync moments?” We have tools that allow them to do that. That’s why distributed teams and however they’re distributed, teams that have less overlap, benefit maybe a little bit more.
It’s an exciting new technology. I’m very curious how this could be leveraged maybe some of my clients. I’m going to start talking to them. I know that some people freak out when they hear metaverse. My wife was upset like, “It’s a scam. You shouldn’t even talk about this.” It’s interesting how people react to this. This is coming in many ways. If you’d like to check out how you can create more cohesion in your workplace by introducing this tool, then go to SoWork.com. Emma, where can people connect with you or find out more information? Should they go on YouTube? Do you have a video? Are there some videos on LinkedIn? What do you recommend they do?
My number one recommendation is if you go to SoWork.com, there’s a big button right at the top that allows you to come to our office. I live in our office. I’d love to connect with you there, not to push a product on you but just to show you what our world is like. That’s the place where we spend all of our time. Come to our office. It’s open and free. I’d love to see you there.
Do you have 24/7 office hours?
We work hard. We have a distributed team so someone is always in the office.
That’s very interesting. I’m going to check into your office as well.
Emma, thank you so much for coming on the show and sharing about this new technology. This is going to be very exciting for some companies that are struggling with what to do in the post-pandemic era with their teamwork.
Thank you so much for having me, Steve.
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