Audio apps recreate the chatter and other sounds of the office

After months of working from home, people are finding comfort in new apps that produce familiar sounds and ad hoc discussions.


The Sound of Colleagues

Image: Screenshot, The Sound of Colleagues

While there's something to be said for the sounds of silence, people are finding comfort in the sounds of the office now being replicated in a slew of new audio apps.

Apps including Clubhouse, Chalk App, Space Soft, and Watercooler, all use voice to provide a range of experiences and are making a splash in the age of working from home during a pandemic.

"COVID-19 is such an opportunity to reinvent how our society functions on many profound levels," said Dorothy Shamonsky, chief UX strategist at Boston UX. "This ilk of apps is at the far end of just slightly new. They are taking experiences that we find highly valuable–phone calls, teleconferencing, text messaging–and looking for subtle variations now that we are so dependent on them." 

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Many seem to be designed for a certain white-collar office worker who misses the banter around the Keurig in the morning, Shamonsky said.

Watercooler, for example, aims to recreate casual conversation among employees. Users can set up rooms for conversations or join an existing one.

Voice messaging service Yac is hoping to recreate the human connection by letting users leave audio messages for coworkers and also hear their colleagues' tone and inflection. The platform also seeks to help companies be more inclusive of remote workers, according to the Yac founder Justin Mitchell in a recent blog post.

"In an office environment, leaders could comfortably assume that everyone has the same internet access, the same chairs, and the same access to stationery or snacks,'' Mitchell wrote. "In a remote work environment, this is no longer the case—everyone's unique circumstances means that companies have a new challenge when it comes to inclusion … That's where voice comes in—compared to reading walls of text or booking meetings at a moment's notice, voice helps companies be more inclusive of remote employees."

For people who like to talk, voice is a natural tool, Mitchell noted. "Voice naturally includes people who prefer talking—but it easily becomes text via transcription for anyone who prefers to read."

Some apps facilitate conversation at a set time, or on a specific topic. Chalk offers secure voice rooms and users can either build or join group conversations. Users can also send direct text messages on the app.

Space is an audio app that lets users speak live or schedule sessions and invite speakers.

Twitter has also ventured into audio by allowing users to send 140-second audio tweets.

Voiceroom was designed to help people who are tired of "people's zoomed-in faces," which "can have a significant mental and physical energy strain on humans, according to the developers, writing in a Medium blog post. It can be used to complement traditional remote meeting software. Voiceroom, they said, "aims to bring the social and enjoyable aspects of physical hangouts into the virtual realm."

When you're missing all the office noise, there's an app for that

There are also audio apps that produce noises simulating the office. For example, Calm Office, released in March at the start of the pandemic, provides sounds like keyboards, copy machines, printers, and air-conditioners. Users can adjust the volume of certain sound effects and tones using a series of animated sliders.

Similarly, Sound of Colleagues offers rain, the coffee machine—even the "office dog."

While audio may not replace video, it offers a respite for people who are growing tired of constant face-to-face interactions.

Beyond social networks, audiobooks and podcasts are also skyrocketing in popularity. Deloitte estimates that the global market will grow by a whopping 25% in 2020, up to $3.5 billion. "The anticipated growth in audiobooks and podcasts is part of a larger trend of better-than-you-might-think growth in audio overall," Deloitte said. 

But don't expect people to stop using video for work-related or social conversations, said Boston UX Founder and CEO Peter Winston. "Video is great for formal communication … about the topic we are working on. Socially video can be informal, 'just checking in,' but at work, video means stop what you are working on," as opposed to audio, which suggests a more informal chat-like structure, he said.

Ultimately, people will gravitate to the communication tools that fit the situation, Winston said.

"I think that the bottom line," he said, "is that you can't flirt at the virtual water cooler." 

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