I’m working with a client this winter that is a client of Roam. Still in beta, Roam’s premise is “to bring a whole distributed company together,” which means combining text, voice, video and conferencing functions in one place, with an added UI layer that creates a sense of space.
That last bit is the differentiator, and it’s interesting to experience. The default Roam screen is a grid of employees. There are additional, smaller visual grids off to the side, representing “floors.” Several of them are organized by department, while one floor contains meeting rooms of various sizes and an auditorium.
Each person has an “office” with quick links to booking appointments and sending text messages. An office has two spots in it, one for the employee and one empty. Anyone can click on the empty spot and invite themselves into their coworker’s space. It comes complete with a knock-knock audio ping. If the knockee accepts, two people can then talk voice directly to one another. Text messaging is available everywhere.
The most important feature of this app is that Roam tries to place its users for the benefit of everyone else. If I go into a meeting room, for example, I no longer show as being in my “office”; it’s empty until I exit the other room. When coworkers are in conversation, their icons pulse lightly when they speak. And if a user switches to Roam’s mobile app, it disconnects the desktop app, and vice versa—a person can’t be in two places at once, after all.
The idea is that Roam is replicating in-person office culture. If we’re in a modern, pre-pandemic office, we most likely have open floor plans, low cubicle walls and glass-walled rooms. We know who’s in a meeting, we see who’s doing a 1:1 or a pull-up or even having an idle chat with one another. Wouldn’t it be nice, Roam asks, if we work remotely and still have that?
What’s interesting to me is this sense of place. Roam’s assertion is that what remote offices are missing is the being-there component: looking across the way, knowing your colleague is plugging away at a file, noticing that two peers are in conversation, that a few other folks seem to have stepped away: finding a new level of situational awareness. Being there, as it were.
My colleagues like the Roam app because it feels tangible: they can see the whole company (60-odd employees) at once, and they know who’s around and what’s going on. It’s obvious that they miss in-person office culture despite embracing full remote.
I appreciate the sentiment. I’m a big fan of the Huddle feature in Slack, which I’ve described more than once as the desktop equivalent of, “Hey, got a sec?” And I get why a company or leadership team would want this. It’s nice to know by looking, just like a live office, who’s around. Even if it’s a bit apocryphal—the app doesn’t know, for example, if a user going idle represents a lunch break or an hour deep in code—it feels good to have a pulse on the cadence of the org. The team is actively thinking of ways to leverage that knowledge to improve cross-team communication and camaraderie, which is great.
What remains to be seen is whether this is an advantage, or if it undermines some of the very things that make remote work pleasant. I’m curious to see how the app evolves, and where its founders (who are rapidly iterating, and devouring user feedback) take it.