Filling the void between Slack and Quarterly Planning

There is a gap between quarterly planning and daily communication, where business efficiency goes to die.

Quarterly planning has its uses. Without it, you're inviting misalignment. You risk your team focusing on the wrong tasks to hit the wrong goals.

But a business is a complex system. And in any complex system it’s impossible to plan for every eventuality. Unexpected things you can’t plan for are inevitable. They’re something that every person in every business has to deal with and take action on every day.

As the daily hub for company communication, these unexpected actions come up in Slack. But Slack optimises for communication, not for driving action. The important messages that require action are often missed, forgotten or ignored.

The accumulation of these missed, forgotten and ignored actions becomes a major bottleneck. It slows down execution speed, and frustrates and stresses out employees.

We need a way to bridge the gap between the planning layer and the communication layer. Without one, we're doomed to be unproductive and frustrating work environments for employees.

The everyday messy reality of collaboration

Quarterly planning works because it aligns a company on what’s actually important. When you define your objectives, you can use them as a filter to make decisions about what to do and what not to do.

Each team gets busy completing the tasks that help them hit their objectives by the end of the quarter.

One problem though. This top-down planning style can never account for the whole picture.

You can plan an initiative with 20 tasks and 100 sub-tasks and assign them to your team. With due dates. But that will never account for interruptions, crises or new information. Ad hoc tasks are inevitable. There is a 0% chance of ever accounting for everything..

And it gets messier. In theory a task can handled by a single person.

In practice, tasks require collaboration. Isolated tasks that don't need any input or feedback from others are the exceptions, not the rule.

And collaboration requires two things:

  1. communication

  2. actions from others.

And where does this communication happen? For most companies, in Slack

Slack: Where work happens collaboration gets messier

Slack is now the daily communication channel for most businesses. So that's where most collaboration gets kicked off. But communication is only one part of collaboration. The second part requires actions from others.

And while Slack excels as a communication channel, it comes up short as a way of managing actions. It’s distracting, easy to miss things and can feel relentless. Important collaborative actions get mixed in with more general communication. There’s so much noise that the signal get buried.

One solution is to try and move the communication layer into a project management tool. This can work great for certain teams with very specific workflows. Developers stick out as an obvious one. As a team, their work can live in a ticketing tool. Communication can sit in context-specific issues or cards.

But for the departments that live closer to the customer, it’s harder to keep communication out of Slack. Think sales, ops, customer success. And things fall apart when different teams don’t use the same project management tool. Slack becomes the default for making requests of other teams.

Slack messages that require action are ‘open loops.’ We need to close these open loops to move forward.

But Slack is not great at closing these open loops. They either get missed outright. Or they jump to the top of a to-do list because it’s front of mind, meaning more important work gets pushed back

We need something that:

1. help close these loops

2, assigns them the right priority within an employee’s to-do list.

Planning will never account for most of these inevitable open loops. And Slack is poor at closing them. We need to bridge the void between quarterly planning and daily communication. Our productive potential depends on it.

Closing the loop with Acapela

It takes three steps to close the open loops. We need a way to:

  1. capture open loops.

  2. organise and prioritise these captured loops.

  3. notify relevant team members that loops are still open, or that they’re now closed.

Capturing

We need to collect the open loops we attract in Slack into a clear inventory of meaningful action items. This needs to be simple and not involve big changes to people’s workflows.

At Acapela, we do this by:

  1. turning Slack messages into Acapela requests. When a colleague makes a request, you can capture it in a couple of clicks with a simple Slack action.

  2. making requests of your colleagues. Using the /acapela command, you can turn a Slack message into an action item for your colleagues.

With open loops captured, we can now start to deal with them.

Organising and Prioritising

Once we capture our open loops, we need a way to help organise and action these tasks. We want to understand what’s urgent and what’s important, so we know when and in what order to do this.

In Acapela, all open loops appear in a simple dashboard. They’re prioritised by due date and level of importance. A team member can view their actions in Slack or the Acapela web-app if they prefer a distraction-free space.

This reduces the cognitive load on each team member. They don't have to guess what they need to do first. They can focus on the thing that matters - closing loops and unblocking their colleagues.

Notifying

With open loops organised, we need to make sure everybody understands their status. That way, nobody needs to chase anyone or waste time following up for a status update.

In Acapela, colleagues are notified when you add an action item to their dashboard. Acapela prioritises these for them. Then as the due date approaches, they’re nudged to complete the task. Actions get completed when they’re needed, without any frustrating chasing of colleagues.

This simple three step system helps to make the communication layer more actionable. By making it easy to capture, organise and close these open loops, we tone down the chaotic nature of Slack. These inevitable open loops get closed quickly and effectively.

That means better collaboration, more focus on action and happier employees.

_________

Acapela is currently in beta and we’re looking for early adopters to help us shape the future of our product. If you’re interested in making remote work more actionable, then you can book in a demo call with our team. We’d love to hear your thoughts!

Making remote work more actionable

Why Acapela exists

How it began

My Co-Founder Heiki and I had the idea for Acapela in early 2020. And we started working on the project in a remote setup.

Being in different countries and time zones opened our eyes to the benefits of remote work.  We believed that it creates more freedom, flexibility and free time for the people who do it right. We wanted to make it easier for other organisations to do remote work well.

And then the pandemic happened. Twenty years of technological adoption happened within a span of weeks, as millions of people started to work from home. That came with a lot of good. Many people realised they could still do their jobs outside of the office. But with more flexibility, more time with their kids and zero time spent commuting.

At the same time, this new working environment was far from ideal. Trying out a new way of working against the back-drop of a terrifying health crisis, lockdowns and school closures wasn't ideal.

But an equally pressing issue was the way most companies went remote. While they might have been working remote, they were doing it in a synchronous, office-lite way. They copied and pasted the same work practices they had in an office into a new remote setting. And that didn’t work.

Zoom fatigue became a thing. Employees burned out. Worse quality of work eroded any quality of life gains.

The need for better remote workplace tools moved from nice-to-have to absolute necessity. Millions of people’s working lives depended on it. We knew that this was more of a pressing need than ever before. And we set out to create a solution that improved people’s remote working lives.

We didn’t know exactly what the product should look like at that time. But we believed in a few core principles:

  1. Remote work is here to stay. The pandemic opened Pandora’s box and there is no going back. Millions of people had a taste of no commutes and more time with their families. People are spending higher percentages of their work working from home.  And many have started fully-remote positions. Remote work is an everyday reality now.

  1. If a company isn’t office-based five days a week, then they need remote tools.  Not all companies are remote, but not a single company we have spoken to is back full-time in the office. It’s now the norm to let employees work from home at least one day a week from work. And one person working from home one day per week means your companies need to adjust to them. Otherwise, remote employees feel excluded and collaboration breaks down. Hybrid work is just another form of remote work.

  1. Remote work is best when it’s asynchronous. i.e. it’s done without the expectation of people being glued to video calls and Slack all day. This allows people to focus, get into deep work, be more proactive and feel more fulfilled. Remote tooling should enable this.

The challenges of remote work can be overcome with the right tools and processes. And that's what we set out to create.

Acapela v.1

Our initial focus was on helping companies move away from synchronous office-like practices. Zoom fatigue had become a huge issue during the pandemic. We heard time and time again that employees were in too many video calls and wanted out.

Listening to our users, we built a tool that lets people do their meetings asynchronously. Fewer Zoom meetings, more time for focused work.

It soon became clear that although meetings were a pain for some, this was only a small part of the wider problem. The much greater and prevalent pain was coming via the tools people were already using to work from home.

Tools like Slack, Notion and Google Docs made digital collaboration possible. But they weren’t built to enable the ideal remote working environment. They were made for a more synchronous world. They didn’t empower users to be their most productive selves.

Busy channels and incessant notifications made it easy to miss important requests. Gathering feedback from colleagues would take days rather than hours. Decisions took forever to make and descended into endless comment threads.

On a personal level, people felt frazzled by having to be on top of their notifications. They felt frustrated by not feeling like they were able to do as much as they wanted to.

For companies, missed messages and unclear actions blocked team members and caused delays. These delays wasted resources and were bad for morale. They were struggling to default to action.

Making remote work actionable

The latest version of Acapela makes remote work more actionable. It does that in a few key ways.

  1. It sits on top of your existing tools

Companies are already using collaboration tools for their remote work. Acapela isn’t trying to replace these tools. We're enabling them for a remote working environment.

Acapela isn't another tool you add to your stack that you struggle to get employee buy-in for. It acts like a collaborative layer that sits on top of your existing tools. It’s not there to replace them but to make them more effective.

  1. It adds a layer of accountability to everyday work

Remote work is messy. You can try to dictate strict processes for your team. But the reality is that tools like Slack are where people make requests and collaborate.

Acapela acknowledges this messy reality. It focuses on bringing accountability to these existing tools. That way, action items never get missed or forgotten. Whether it's:

  • acknowledging you've read an important message;

  • gathering feedback on a document from a group of people;

  • getting a decision made without a lengthy Zoom meeting;

Acapela makes it easy for your team to turn these requests into action items. And it does it directly from the tools they use every day like Slack.

Every important conversation becomes accountable. Everyone knows what they need to do next to push things forward, without needing to chase people. It organises the everyday requests that help drive effective collaboration forward.

  1. It’s lightweight and easy to use

Project management tools are great for organising large team projects. But you need strong systems and processes to make them work. All it takes is one person not updating their tasks and the whole system starts to break. And the everyday actions that push projects forward often get made in tools like Slack anyway.

Acapela is lightweight and easy-to-use. It’s focused on one thing and one thing only: action items. It makes it simple to capture these and flag the importance and urgency of a task. It then organises and prioritises these action items in a simple dashboard, so you know what to do when. It works in tandem with existing task managers and project management tools.

______

The result? Teams default to action. They make quicker and more effective decisions. They ship things faster. And they're able to spend more time getting into flow.

More focused and less frustrated employees. More productive teams. Better remote working.

Interested in trying us out? Acapela is currently in beta and we’re looking for early adopters to help us shape the future of our product. If you’re interested in making remote work more actionable, then you can book in a demo call with our team. We’d love to hear your thoughts!

Challenges and benefits of working in a hybrid-remote setting

Why it is worth overcoming the culture and collaboration challenges in a hybrid-remote setting to unlock productivity, cost savings, and global hiring.

Ever since the pandemic started, remote work has been adopted at a crazy pace all around the world. Today, organizations don't ask themselves whether remote work will continue to impact our lives post-pandemic but rather to what extend. As we at Acapela were a hybrid-remote company from the beginning, we have had our fair share of learnings in the past. However, before we jump into the experienced benefits and challenges of hybrid-remote teams, we created a short recap of the three major work settings so we're all on the same terminology.

Recap - 3 major work settings:

  1. Fully remote: There are no office spaces and all employees work in a fully remote capacity.

  2. Hybrid-remote:

    a. There are office spaces. All employees live in close proximity to the office and can decide whether they want to work at the office or at home.

    b. There are office spaces. Some employees live in close proximity to the office and go there daily. Some employees don't live in close proximity to the office and are fully remote.

    c. There are office spaces. Some employees live in close proximity to the office and can decide if they want to work at the office or at home. Some employees don't live in close proximity to the office and are fully remote.

  3. Fully onsite: There are office spaces and all employees work there.

For further context: Acapela has office spaces; some employees live in Berlin, Germany, and go to our HQ during some days of the week; some employees don't live in close proximity to the office (Poland, Estonia, USA) and are fully remote.

Challenges of a hybrid-remote setting

Before diving into the challenges, we should stress that these can be avoided and overcome if the company implements processes countering these potential pitfalls. If you're curious about how to do this, there is another blog post already waiting for you.

  1. Remote employees have worse access to information
    Most companies transitioning to a hybrid-remote work setting haven't been fully remote before but rather fully onsite. This means that informal office chats and random meetings exist to share information and develop culture. In a setting where not every employee is present all the time, information sharing can be a challenge that can eventually lead to confusion, frustration, and eventually underperformance.

  2. The onsite experience dictates the culture
    Hybrid-remote employees often have a suboptimal experience when it comes to bonding with other team members. This can lead to onsite vs remote struggles where co-workers might pass over their counterparts for promotions or development opportunities. Additionally, companies that build culture primarily in the office have a hard time offering remote workers an equal experience when it comes to physical perks and benefits.

  3. The feeling of being lonely and forgotten
    During the pandemic, almost everybody felt somewhat disconnected from their co-workers - imagine that for the rest of your career but nobody noticing it. Although a situation like this is definitely a two-way street, remote workers have a harder time expressing their mood as they are not surrounded by people all the time which makes it easier to hide when they are feeling bad and harder for co-workers to notice if something is going on.

Benefits of a hybrid-remote setting

After reading through the challenges you're probably quite doubtful whether hybrid-remote makes sense at all, but bear with us. Although there the challenges should definitely be taken seriously, they can get overcome when the right processes are in place. And then, the only thing left to do is to enjoy the significant benefits of hybrid-remote.

  1. Productivity gains through uninterrupted working time
    Being in the office is great for connecting with other people or having a change of scenery from a remote setup. However, if a deadline is closing in quicker than anticipated it helps to work from home and thereby having no commute and no co-workers pulling you into a random meeting or social event.

  2. Better access to talent due to flexibility and an increased talent pool
    Every company is made up of the employees that work there. Attracting, hiring, and retaining employees is crucial to every business. Companies offering more flexibility to their employees not only have a much bigger pool to hire from but also attract much more diverse candidates which is crucial for every team's decision-making and cultural setup.

  3. Cost savings resulting from reduced office space
    For an early-stage startup, the business case deriving the savings in office space from having a hybrid-remote work setting exists but is obviously limited. However, as the company scales, cost savings become increasingly apparent. For bigger companies, it will be much more enlightening - to put a number in your head: Capgemini's remote workforce survey showed that expected real-estate cost savings due to remote working will range between 20% and 48% across all industries in the next 2-3 years.

Final thoughts

Having these challenges and benefits in mind and continuing to experience and iterate on our work setting while talking to other teams, we believe that in the future all companies will start offering some variation of hybrid-remote to their employees. Prominent tech companies such as Coinbase, Dropbox, Figma, Spotify, and many others are already championing this evolution, and established corporates such as Siemens and most recently Deutsche Bank are also pulling along. Given the added complexity of a hybrid-remote work setting, we at Acapela figured that teams around the globe need tooling to facilitate this new way of working. If you're interested in what we are building, have a look at our website and reach out if you have any questions or want to discuss the future of work.

The power of asynchronous communication

What we can learn from companies working in a fully remote setup for years

The shift to remote work caused by the pandemic has been one of the most profound changes in the workplace in the last decades. While for some of us this felt like an emergency landing on a different planet, others simply carried on. 

Companies like Gitlab, Automattic, and Zapier have been working in a fully remote setup for years (in some cases even forever). One thing all-remote companies rely on? Async communication.

We took a closer look at how async communication helped their teams navigate the challenges of team collaboration in a remote setting. So that one day we hopefully can all fully enjoy the benefits of working remotely!

Here are 5 reasons why async proved to be so powerful:

1. Autonomous Work Flow

When collaboration isn’t tied to a specific time and location, discussions can continue at any time of day or night. Especially for organizations operating across time zones, multiple discussions can be underway simultaneously operating 24/7 for days, weeks, or even months. Free of time constraints, team members have the autonomy to decide when they want to participate while still being mindful of deadlines. They also can determine themselves when they want to focus for long periods of uninterrupted time to produce quality work. Especially for working parents, being able to avoid a strict 9:00 to 5:00 allows for a heightened sense of work-life balance.

2. Fewer Annoyances of Sync Meetings

Sync meetings are and always have been time-consuming. Since working from home they have contributed to a new problem: Zoom fatigue. With async collaboration, everyone can contribute when it suits them. There will no longer be any timing issues, meetings running overtime, or people being late. Tech problems, such as slow internet or sharing functions not working won’t be able to slow down teamwork. Neither will last-minute cancellations. Imagine never sitting uselessly in a meeting again feeling like you’re wasting your time.

3. Encouraging Thoughtfulness

Our hyper-connected society has increased expectations to be always available. When cooperating asynchronously, it is not expected of you to be always “at your desk” and ready to immediately respond to your team members. Thoughtfulness is prioritized over urgency in async workflows. Instead of feeling the pressure to produce an immediate response, team members are given a chance to digest and think about a response before hitting send. Reactive responses are often not your best, anyways.

4. Creating a Knowledge Base

Asynchronous communication keeps an archived record of all conversations and decision-making that is automatically digitized. The documentation produced from asynchronous communication is also more efficient than in synchronous environments where notes must be created while the message is being received. While tedious and time-consuming in the short-term, the long-term benefits of documentation can be scaled as it is revisited time and time again. Because everything is documented, anyone in the company can ask to peer into meetings to gain the context needed to fulfill their role at any time.

5. Diversity & Inclusion

When communicating asynchronously, organizations are able to operate with flexibility and empower geographically dispersed teams. Want to work in a different city than the one your company is headquartered in? Go for it. When team members are able to communicate across physical and social boundaries the potential for increased diversity among teams presents itself. This means that organizations can recruit talent outside of the location of their headquarters without feeling “blocked” by physical distance. Furthermore, asynchronous communication levels the playing field e.g. by raising the voices of introverts or enabling working parents to circumvent a strict 9:00 to 5:00 schedule making the work environment more inclusive.

It’s been over 12 months since teams have been on a quest to find the right set-up and mode of collaborating. By now, we all know that remote is here to stay. Even if not all companies will be fully remote, most companies will have some sort of hybrid setup after the pandemic has ended.

Whether a team is fully remote or in a hybrid setup, the tools and systems that need to be in place don't differ much. Async collaboration has become the gold standard for remote teams and should be for hybrid teams as well. With Acapela, we’re on a mission to build the next-generation collaboration platform for remote and hybrid teams. We believe it’s finally time to end your meetings before they start! 

Pssst 🤫 You can sign up for early access here.

Make Teamwork Feel Like Music

Where the Acapela brand comes from and what it means to us

The Acapela B(r)and

Everybody loves music. We do, too. (Even Donald Trump thinks everybody loves music). Music has a positive effect on how we do things. It can push us, calm us down, or help us focus. It gets us into "the zone" just by listening to it. Many musicians even get into "the zone" when making music. It’s a flow activity.

So, when Heiki and I started building tools to make team collaboration better and more delightful, we immediately thought of names related to music. We came up with a bunch of different ideas. Polyphone, Impro, Jive, Cadence. Not good enough. How about Acapella? Acapella definitely struck a chord with us. As we looked into more audio-focused features like voice notes and voice messaging, the name began to make even more sense. Because there are different ways of writing the word in different languages, we decided to go for the simplified "Acapela" (conveniently, we were also able to get the .com domain for that...).



Music and Teamwork

Choosing a name for your product is never easy and very often, there is a point when you question your decision. However, with Acapela this has not been the case. It was rather the opposite experience: ever since picking the name, we have discovered even more connections between the worlds of music and work. 

For instance, both are often best done in a team. Sure, Lang Lang is a great solo pianist and Einstein's work on relativity is mind-blowing. But for some things, you just need more people. How about performing Bohemian Rhapsody at Wembley or landing a rover on Mars? As a consequence of this collaborative aspect of music, there is a common language describing music and teamwork: "Let's have a jam session." "We have to find the right rhythm." "It feels out of tune." "That's the right cadence."

Music Principles for Work

This language connection of music and teamwork is great and lends itself to many comparisons. We asked ourselves if it’s possible to take it one step further. Ideally, could we derive some principles from the world of music to improve the way we work? Could those ideas help us build better tools for team collaboration? Here are some of our thoughts:

Like in music, in teamwork you want to have the right people in the right role: someone providing the beat, someone responsible for creative parts, and someone leading the whole band.

When thinking of team composition it’s crucial to have the right people in the room - or in our case, in Acapela. To collaborate productively, the setup must empower the right number of people to play together nicely, so that everyone finds the part matching their skills. For instance, it’s difficult to imagine The Beatles having six band members or John Lennon playing the drums.

Like in music, in teamwork you need to find the right balance between playing nicely together and giving enough space for an amazing solo from time to time. 

Thinking of a band or orchestra playing together as a metaphor for teamwork, there should be time for individuals to shine. Very often, everyone on a team has their distinct super powers. There must be enough uninterrupted time for these virtuosos to do deep work, i.e. their solos. Keeping the right balance between collaboration time and focus time is crucial for each team member. For Acapela, this is an integral part of our mission. We want to enable remote and hybrid teams to have more focus time while staying connected with asynchronous meetings.

Like in music, in teamwork you don't want to have everyone playing the same tune. You want people to play different, individual tunes that fit well together.

When talking about meetings, playing the same tune equates to having the same opinion as everyone else or blindly following the most actively voiced opinion. Team dynamics are crucially important for the outcome and the decisions made. Whether it's because of groupthink, power dynamics or personality factors (e.g. extroverts vs. introverts), there are many reasons why the greatest ideas sometimes do not come out on top. With asynchronous conversations, Acapela helps to mitigate these influences by providing a more level playing field.

Make Teamwork Feel Like Music

For many people, a brand is just a name. It has to sound good. It should be easily recognizable and the logo should look nice. For us, it’s much more. Ultimately, it touches the core of what we’re trying to achieve with Acapela. How can we enable teams to work together more effectively, ideally achieving a flow state in their collaboration? How can we bring back more joy into their working lives? Can we make teamwork feel more like music?

Thanks for reading. For a sneak peak of what we’re working on, visit www.acapela.com. Stay tuned.

Roland 

(Founder, Acapela)

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