The Remote Pop-In

May 2021

This page describes a method of dealing with one of the missing features of fully remote teams: the pop-in.

The Pop-In

The pop-in, back before open floorplans, is when you physically walk into someone's office to ask them a question or spitball an idea. In an open floorplan you can instead swivel your chair or walk to their desk.

The pop-in is valuable because it's as informal as email, but as high-bandwidth and low-latency as meetings. It's interruptive to be popped in on, but that interruption power is self-limiting: the effort of physically going somewhere is high, and the tools available to the target like doors, signs, and social cues are numerous and don't require much thought to implement.

Slack DMs come close to replacing the pop-in, but they reduce the effort too much. This leads to more interruptions (a little lower in intensity, but a lot higher in number) and even to the replacement of trackers, emails, and wikis with DMs.

There's a lot wrong with the pop-in, but like any tool it has its uses. Many great products—companies, even—have been built on the shoulders of the pop-in.

The Remote Pop-In

There's really no remote equivalent to the pop-in. There are products that help you "hang out" like Facebook Portal, but nothing that implements the pop-in.

At YourBase we decided we needed one. Rather than build another tool, we experimented with Discord. I'm happy to say we found something that works, and even solves the worst problem of the open-office pop-in: the inability to shut your damned door.

The Setup

In our company Discord server, we give everyone one voice channel of their own. This is your "office". When you are online and able to be disturbed, you join your office, alone. You stay in there as long as you are "in".

Because of how Discord works, everyone can see who is in what office at all times. But you can only hear conversations for the room you're in, and you can only be in one room at a time. Joining a room plays an obvious audio chime and is not something you can do sneakily.

When someone wants to pop in, they join your voice channel. The chime plays, they say hello, you unmute and turn on video if you like, and have your pop-in. And that's really it.

If you're going to the restroom and will be AFK, you can join the restroom channel. You're in, but away. No one is actually wearing a headset on the toilet, it's just a fun way to feel like a real office.

We've even fallen into some typical office behaviors:

The oddest one is that when it's slow around the office, you can tell. You can almost hear how quiet it is when you're the first one in or the last one out.

The pop-in is valuable because it's informal, high bandwidth, and low latency. Enabling it using Discord has worked very well for us over the last six months, and we didn't even have to build anything.

Thanks to Discord for making such a flexible platform. Thanks to YourBase for being so open to crazy ideas. (Check us out if your CI is slow.)