Here’s the tool we’ve built to overcome remote isolation in our team

For more details, check out the finished app at oskar.hanno.co or view my follow-up post on how we built Oskar. And if you’re looking for your own Slackbot, check out our chatbot development services.

Working remotely has a lot of benefits: you’re location-independent, enjoy flexible work hours, and usually have more autonomy and less distractions. If you have been working remotely for a while though, you may have noticed that it’s also very easy to slip into isolation, without anyone noticing. To avoid this from happening, we created a Slackbot that regularly checks in with every team member and makes sure they’re fine. In this post, I’m going to explain how the idea came about and how we put it into practice.

Back in February at our design thinking workshop (that we have already blogged about excessively here, here and here) we were given the following challenge:

How can we eliminate isolation in remote teams?

During our workshop, we did some crazy brainstorming on the topic, and eventually came up with the following idea: To create a Slackbot (Slack is our communication tool of choice) that regularly asks team members how they are feeling.

Yes, feeling. You read that right!

Slack window showing the Slackbot Oskar interacting with the team
Our new Slackbot Oskar giving and receiving feedback on Slack

As we’re shifting to become more and more of a teal organization, we would like all team members to just be themselves at work. And part of being yourself involves sharing your mood and concerns with the team, so that problems—no matter if they’re personal or work-related—can be solved more quickly and easily.

This is the goal we want to achieve in order to prevent people from slipping into isolation inside a remote team.

Why is this an important goal?

In his book Reinventing Organizations, Frederic Laloux emphasises that:

In traditional organisations […] rationality rules as king, while the emotional, intuitive, and spiritual parts of ourselves often feel unwelcome, out of place […], whereas Teal Organizations have developed a consistent set of practices that invite us to reclaim our inner wholeness and bring all of who we are to work.

Now the emotional well-being of a team, especially when working remotely, is something which is quite hard to measure, because our feelings are normally hidden behind a static smiling avatar. The only thing that’s really visible to others is the results that people deliver and the comments they leave online, but that usually leaves a lot of room for interpretation. In most cases, a person’s emotional state or the problems they may be struggling with are completely invisible (and perhaps even considered to be irrelevant) to others.

So how would a teal organisation deal with this?

At Hyper Island, students working together on a project apply a technique called check-in/check-out where team members can reflect on their projects and how they feel about their day at the beginning and end of it, allowing them to be seen and heard by others.

At Hanno we tried this during our workshop in Buenos Aires and were very surprised by the positive effect it had. People really enjoyed sharing their thoughts with the group, and felt relieved when they could share their frustrations with everyone else. It seemed to create a sense of community and commitment among the team, as it reminded us of the fact that nobody is perfect, and everyone has to deal with uncomfortable issues from time to time.

Screenshot of the Oskar dashboard showing all team member's status
The Oskar dashboard shows at a glance how the team is doing

Now, since we can’t easily replicate this technique in a remote environment where the team is spread across many timezones, we decided to take a different approach.

How we think Oskar can help us eliminate remote isolation

The obvious solution of course would be to foster more interaction between team members and have them check-in with each other every morning. And to an extent, we’re already doing this by setting up regularly stand-up ‘pair calls’, where people get together to discuss and review their weekly objectives.

But this approach has a few downsides:

  • it doesn’t surface issues reliably enough
  • it doesn’t track the evolution of someone’s mood over time
  • it has to be done manually

Luckily, it can be automated.

That’s why we created Oskar: he’s a Slack bot who checks in automatically with every team member once a day and asks them how they’re feeling.

We think that by giving people the opportunity to express their current state of mind at least once a day will help us surface potential issues and prevent people from slipping into isolation.

To simplify, we decided that feedback would be provided as a simple number on a scale between 1 and 5, where 5 is “Super awesome” and 1 is “Really bad”. Oskar then saves this value in a database and makes it visible to the rest of the team. If your status goes below 3, he also lets you add a comment to your check-in, so others on the team can see what’s wrong and how they can help and support you.

Does that really work?

We don’t know yet. The bot is currently undergoing some internal testing and iteration, and will soon be tested with other teams as well, to gather feedback and figure out what could be changed or improved. As we do with client projects, we first wanted to go ahead and create a very basic prototype of the idea to see if it even makes sense in practice.

Screenshot of the Oskar dashboard showing a team member's evolution
The Oskar dashboard also reveals the evolution of someone’s well-being

Beside the common bugs and weird behaviour of the bot we have already tracked enough data to say that this is an interesting experiment. We have created a dashboard (sort of like a happiness gauge) where everyone can see how the team is currently doing, and a detailed view to see the evolution of a particular person.

As a next step, we’re planning to make Oskar sound a bit more human, because his current tone is a bit dull and repetitive. We’re also planning to implement notifications, so that other people on the team can see when someone’s mood is going downhill.

So far, we think that Oskar is really beneficial for our team. The idea was to prevent people from slipping into remote isolation, and the result is that we can now follow team satisfaction more easily, because it is transparent and visible to anyone. Actually, I’ve found that just sharing your status with Oskar gives a little relief, and helps you to feel better, knowing that the team is now in the loop and ‘has your back’.