When Subrato Sarker had to start working from home due to the pandemic, he found himself struggling to stay productive while being on his own.
Help has come from a host of strangers across the world who – at the other end of a one-on-one video call – sit and silently do their work while Mr Sarker does his.
The 26-year-old software engineer from Dhaka, in Bangladesh, has hooked up with these “digital buddies” via a website called Focusmate.
It links home workers to others around the globe. The idea is that you have just one minute to say hello to the other person, before you then both sit in silence and do your work for 50 minutes. When that time is up, you can have another quick chat before the call ends.
Focusmate will pick someone at random for you, or you can choose a person you already know by sending him or her a link.
Mr Sarker has now worked with more than 100 other Focusmate users, from Europe, North America, Australia and Asia. He lets the website choose people for him.
“I generally give my Focusmate partner a friendly chitchat before and after the session,” says Mr Sarker. “I usually ask what he or she has done in that 50 minutes, and ask some questions that don’t require any deep knowledge about the subject.”
New York-based Focusmate, which charges a subscription fee, is one of a number of similar firms now connecting home workers with strangers via video calls.
The company says it saw user numbers soar more than fivefold in 2020, with the monthly number of sessions hitting a peak of 108,000. Founder Taylor Jacobson launched the business in 2017 after his own difficulties with procrastination when working remotely.
Previously a freelance writer, he says that Focusmate started out as “a crazy experiment, my own ideal fantasy of how I wanted to be supported and held accountable by another person”.
Currently if users opt to connect to someone they don’t know, the only thing they can pick about the other person is their gender, but Focusmate is looking at giving users other choices in the future, such as age parameters, or specific countries.
“As we do this we’re extremely conscious of the need to prevent discrimination, and be inclusive of vulnerable populations,” says Mr Jacobson. “So we’re approaching the process with a lot of care.”
But what if you are connected to someone rude or unpleasant? Or just someone who won’t stop talking?
“We make it extremely easy to report your partner during or after a session, and you can leave instantly in one click if needed,” says Mr Jacobson. “You can also block users if you’d prefer not to match with them again.”
Another tech firm offering a similar video call service is Caveday, which is also based in New York. Where it differs is that instead of connecting workers on a one-to-one basis, it joins them in groups of 20 or so people.
In its video sessions or “caves”, users balance periods of individual work with communal break activities, such as games or breathing and stretching exercises that are led by a trained Caveday guide.
Bernard Pollack, a think tank boss in New York, says that using Caveday helps him get his work done when working from home.
“I don’t feel like I am working in isolation,” says Mr Pollack, 40. “It gives me a community, and improved focus and discipline, a sense that I’m not working alone.”
Mr Pollack, who pays a monthly subscription, says he uses the service three hours a day on average.
Caveday founder Jake Kahana compares the idea of the business with group exercise classes.
“In the age of distraction, deep focus is a super skill,” he says. “We’re helping people strengthen their focus muscles.”
Caveday started in 2017 and says it now has nine times as many users as it had at the start of the pandemic. Its users are spread across 25 countries, and are generally aged between their late 20s and early 40s.
Another service that is doing similar things is UK-based RemoteWorkmates. Free to join, members meet on messaging platform Slack to participate in group video activities or challenges, from work-related to wellness activities such as yoga sessions, or a “buddy scheme” to support new joiners.
“We’re here to make sure remote work is never lonely work,” says RemoteWorkmates co-founder Alex Hirst.
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With more than one third of UK employees continuing to solely work from home, and similar levels in other countries, home working is going to continue for most of us until the Covid vaccines are far more widely rolled out.
And even then, several studies suggest that some level of home working will continue after the pandemic has finally passed. Twitter has even gone as far as saying that its staff can choose to work at home “forever”.
Business consultant Chris Dyer is an expert on remote working, advising companies on the issue. He says that services such as Focusmate, Caveday and RemoteWorkmates are responding to a real need.
“When we feel connected we are more productive,” he says. “Now that the world has changed, and remote work is a heavy part of our short or long-term strategy, this kind of structure can help.”
David Johnson, an expert on workforce productivity at business consultancy Forrester, agrees that services that help connect remote workers “have a lot of merit… and I do think this space and the vendors will grow”.
Back in Bangladesh, Mr Sarker says he enjoys working in silence while someone else does the same at the other end of a video call. “It is a platform for doers who are trying to achieve something, and consequently I do feel quite comfortable.”