When the covid-19 pandemic forced Less Annoying CRM to go remote, like many companies, we had to figure out how to replace our in-person workflows. In particular, we were missing the informal, unstructured collaboration that comes easily when working from the same office. Zoom works fine for meetings, but it's no replacement for sitting in the same room as someone and having a spontaneous conversation.
I evaluated a bunch of different tools to help with this problem, and we ultimately landed on Sococo. Even though I think it's a tool worth using, it's got some significant rough edges. In this post, I want to talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly. I'll also share some tips for how we use it.
What is it?
If you've never heard of Sococo before, it's basically just a virtual office. When you first set it up, you can choose one of their pre-made floorplans, and then invite your team. Each person at your company gets a little avatar that they can move between rooms. If you turn on your mic, everyone in the same room can hear you, so it's easy to talk with other people without going through the hassle of setting up a meeting in Zoom.
It's sort of like a more businessy version of Gather.
Why use it?
Sococo solves two core problems for us:
- Informal communication - If you're going to schedule a meeting and expect someone's full attention, a Zoom call is perfectly fine. But Zoom is terrible for simulating the experience of sitting in the same space as someone, but not necessarily interacting with them the whole time. Zoom is also bad for when you need to knock on someone's door to see if they're free to chat.
- Fighting isolation - Working remotely can feel lonely. Humans are hard-wired to understand in-person interactions better than remote ones. Because Sococo uses the metaphor of a physical office, as soon as we started using Sococo, our employees reported feeling more connected to each other.
What it does well
When you first look at a Sococo office, it probably seems sort of cringy. It looks like the most boring video game ever made. But actually, I think the gimmick, tacky as it is, is a huge strength. It's just realistic enough to lean on humans' innate spatial reasoning, and just silly enough to be on the correct side of the uncanny valley.
I really like the room abstraction. It's surprisingly powerful to be able to start talking and know who can and can't hear you. For example, if a handful of people are chatting during lunch, you can notice that and join in without them needing to actually invite you. You could certainly have the same conversation in Zoom, but there would be no way for other people to know they could join without you explicitly inviting the whole company.
In terms of the communication options, I love using Sococo for audio chat, and sometimes screen sharing. I don't personally use their video chat feature (more on that later) but I actually think that's ok. Video is exhausting, and I think a lot of video chats should actually be audio-only. With audio, you can sit in the same room as someone else for long stretches of time and talk only when you have something to say. Trying to do that on Zoom would be miserable.
What it doesn't do well
Overall, I'd describe Sococo as useful but extremely unpolished. Here are some of the rough edges we've had to deal with:
To put it bluntly, Sococo is poorly designed. I know I listed the goofy design as an asset in terms of making it seem silly and fun, and I stand by that, but the unpolished design becomes a liability when you're actually trying to use it as productivity software. For example, trying to navigate their settings (especially billing) is a nightmare.
This is related to their poor design. They technically support video calls, but the user interface is so bad that it's basically unusable. They have two modes: 1) Everyone's face is a little circle you can barely see or 2) Everyone is a slightly larger square at the bottom of the screen, and 80% of the screen is taken up by screen sharing even if no one is sharing their screen. It's seriously just inexcusably bad. Don't use it.
Video call integrations
Their answer to the low-quality video experience is that they integrate with Zoom, Google Meet, etc. While this is technically true, we've found the integration (at least with Google Meet which is what we use) to be pretty poor. Starting a new call takes almost as long as just creating it manually and Slacking a link to someone, and it fails to detect when the meeting is over, so old dead meeting links are floating all over the place. Thankfully, we found a nice workaround which I'll explain in the tips section below.
The software is pretty buggy. The main situation where this is a problem is that the connection to the audio server disconnects, but Sococo still thinks it's working. So you go into a room, turn on your mic, and start talking. There's no real indication that it's not working, but eventually you figure out that since no one is replying to you, something must be wrong. Refreshing the page fixes it, but it's frustrating how much time is wasted figuring out a refresh is necessary.
It's not cheap. It starts at $15/user/month, and that only includes 500 minutes of audio/video per user per month (less than 30 minutes per work day). It feels a bit strange paying significantly more for a buggy low-quality version of Zoom than you pay for Zoom itself.
Should you use it?
You'd think that since my "what it doesn't do well" section is twice as long as my "what it does well" section, I'd conclude that it's not software you should use. I wish I could say that. But for us, I just think it's so useful, it's worth putting up with all the warts.
Of course the final decision will depend on your circumstances, but I'd recommend using Sococo if:
- Your employees want to feel more connected and have low-friction, real-time conversations. I wouldn't recommend this for an asynchronous-first company.
- You are fully remote. After the pandemic started, switching to Sococo was great. However, as soon as we re-open the office, even though we're planning on still being remote ~3 days per week, I don't think we'll use Sococo anymore. I think we'll get all the social interaction we need in those 2 in-office days each week, so Slack+Google Meet will be just fine for the remote days.
Tips for getting the most out of Sococo
If you decide to give Sococo a try, it matters a lot how you set it up. Just like with an in-person office, your norms and etiquette will have a huge impact on culture and collaboration. After a lot of experimentation, here's how we ended up using it:
Sococo may replace a physical office, but it shouldn't mimic one
Sococo looks like a digital version of a real office, but it's not even remotely the same thing. If you try to operate exactly like you would with a physical office, Sococo is going to be a disaster. It's important to understand not just the limitations of a virtual office (some things won't work as well) but also understand the advantages (some things are possible virtually that don't work physically).
Keep this in mind when reading the rest of these tips. If you want Sococo to succeed, you need to be very deliberate about when and how it's used by your team.
Give each person their own private office
We picked a floorplan that's meant for a company much larger than we actually are. This allows everyone to have their own private office. This is nice because it makes it easy to have impromptu conversations while still giving people privacy.
For example, you might be chatting with someone on Slack, and you realize the conversation is getting too complicated for text, so you need to switch to audio. You can just knock on their door in Sococo, they'll let you in, and you can start talking. Again, you could do this with Zoom, Slack audio, etc. but Sococo just feels like a more natural experience.
Speaking of which, I recommend requiring people to knock before entering a private office. One of the great things about remote work is that it gives employees more peace and quiet to get their work done. If someone is in the zone, you don't want them getting distracted by a co-worker barging into their office. Our policy is that if someone knocks on your door, it's not rude to ignore them. If only in-person offices worked that way.
Make permanent video call links in conference rooms
As I mentioned, Sococo has terrible video calls, and their integrations don't work very well. But there's a nice workaround: Each room has a little "plus" icon which lets you share links within that room. I created a different Google Meet link for each conference room which is always active. So anyone can go into a conference room and click the link to join the video call for that specific conference room.
Again, from a functional standpoint, this isn't radically different from just sharing a video call link with the attendees of a meeting, but it really does feel different to say "let's meet in conference room A" vs. "here's a URL for this meeting".
Put instructions in each room
Using the same link sharing tool I described in the previous tip, I wrote up instructions for how each room is meant to be used and shared them in the room. So if anyone forgets our norms (e.g. is this an audio-only room, or a video call room?) they can just click the link and read about how the room is meant to be used.
Schedule "group work" if you like the open office vibe
I know that open offices are a controversial topic these days. Done wrong, they can be distracting and unpleasant for everyone involved. As much hatred as they get, after surveying my team when we went remote, I found that most people missed the social aspect of the open office.
If your team also likes the ability to be able to chat with their co-workers, you can schedule specific times for people to work in the same room. We do hour-long blocks called "group work" with about six people in the room. It's audio-only which makes it more natural if no one is talking (with video people feel like they're being watched, so they feel pressure to talk with others), and it's understood that conversations can be about work or anything else.
It's probably overkill to try to recreate the open office vibe all day, but a few hours a week can be refreshing and fun for employees who might otherwise feel isolated working remotely.
Note: We also have a "co-working space" room which is effectively an open office that employees can use whenever they want. But even with that, scheduled group work time has been helpful.
Make rooms for different purposes
Sococo may be expensive, but the good news is that the floorplans are all included for free, so there's no reason not to have a ton of different rooms. We have rooms for group work, scheduled meetings, non-work socializing, eating lunch together, and more. Figure out how you want people to use Sococo, and make space for that.
One of my favorite rooms is our "situation room" which is where we go anytime something urgent needs to be discussed. For example, at one point a hacker was trying to take down our site, and we needed to respond. All of the developers quickly met in the situation room to put together a game plan. This is helpful because everyone else at the company could immediately see we were responding and anyone could pop in and listen to the status so they could communicate with the rest of the company (vs a Zoom call where people couldn't easily join unless they were invited).
If you'd like to read more tips about our switch to remote, here's an article I wrote on our remote culture.