Let’s Get Real Episode 36: Let’s Meet at The Café: Enabling Connections for Better Employee Experience
Discussions on the Workplace and Corporate Real Estate Podcast
Key Takeaways & Discussion Points
- How can signaling apps like Café help to enable hybrid workers to engage with each other? Can they help with loneliness, isolation, and disconnection?
- Employees are now being given more choice and flexibility in where and when they work — what value can your office offer to them?
- Can virtual connections create that same creative spark or collaborative energy as in-person moments? Can you effectively mentor or network remotely?
- Do we need to focus on the individual’s benefit, the “what’s in it for me?”, when designing solutions?
- Not everyone is looking for the same thing when it comes to a workplace experience, especially between different generations of employees.
- Are we stuck in old-school thinking? Are there newer, better ways to move forward in your career and climb the ladder than the way we’ve always done it?
- Is the future of work self-directed? Is permanent, long-term employment on the way out?
- How can a signaling app like Café provide your organization with useful data on space usage and working patterns?
- Even if the traditional office is no longer, enabling connection within your organization is still an extremely valuable goal. Encouraging social ties based on non-work interests can help with this!
Hey everyone, welcome to Let’s Get Real with Sandra and Friends, a workplace consortium podcast brought to you by Relogix. I’m excited to be sharing conversational musings about current events and how we envision the ever-changing world of work. I’m Sandra Panara, Director of Workplace Insights at Relogix. With 25 years of hands-on experience, I help value engineer global workplace portfolios and employee experiences by aligning workplace analytics with corporate real estate needs.
Have any questions, comments, or suggestions for future podcasts? Please drop me a line at [email protected].
This week, I’d like to introduce you to Tom Nguyen. Tom is the founder of Café, a workplace engagement platform that helps companies optimize in person gatherings and improve workplace culture. Tom’s background is in software development and B2C apps, and he has been instrumental in building a high adoption rate for his solution.
Hi Tom, really happy to have you as a guest today. I know that you’re the co-founder and CEO of Café, so why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Well, first, thank you for having me. There’s not a lot to know about my background. I graduated from an engineering school, and I’ve been working in Product Management for a long time. I launched my first company five years ago, a social network for teenagers. And now I’ve launched another venture, which is called Café. That was three years ago, during the pandemic. It’s a B2B SaaS company that enables hybrid organizations. So yeah, that’s me!
Great, so tell us a little bit more about Café in particular. When you and I chatted, I had asked you what was it that inspired you to build Café?
Well, it was more a personal problem than global inspiration. For context, I’m French and I launched this company with my older brother as a co-founder. Basically, what happened is we were both managers at the same company. We wanted to go back to the office when the first lockdown was finished, which was about in the summer of 2020 in Europe. We only got locked down for three months in a row. And everyone wanted to be back in the office less than they were before, maybe once or twice a week, but there was no easy way to find out what the best day was. This is how we started Café, trying to solve that specific problem and then iterating to understand the bigger picture.
So how is the Café solution different from a booking system?
The biggest difference is that it’s more a signaling app. You could input your schedule for the two upcoming weeks and tell your coworkers where you’ll be working from: when you’ll be in the office, working remotely, not working, or from a coworking space for example. And that enables you to compare plans and meet on specific days, making sure that you show up on the right days.
Interesting. I’m just thinking about the whole signaling thing, which I think is really interesting. As we think about work in general, what are some of the challenges that people are now facing as a result of everything that’s going on in the world of work? It just feels like every angle of work is being disrupted. What would you say are some of the bigger issues when it comes to how people now want to work in comparison to how we used to work before as part of a regular routine?
Well, when we think about the pre-pandemic world, the office was just a default option. There was not a lot of space to optimize for your personal life and optimize for your commute time, for example. I think that the hybrid mode and remote work brought a lot of flexibility and comfort in terms of when you will show up to the office or work comfortably from home.
And I think there was a big shift, thanks to remote. On the productivity aspect, there are a lot of studies that show that people are quite productive at home. But the downside of it is that people are also feeling more lonely and more isolated towards the whole organization and the company. And I think that’s where it’s interesting, because most companies are seeing that new hybrid model and remote work as an opportunity to have fewer workstations in the office than employees, which is possible, right? You can go down to a ratio of 0.8, 0.7, maybe 0.6 based on the total number of employees. But in the end, you’re not going to save money on your space because you need to rethink your workplace and the whole purpose of your office to be attractive.
And I think this is maybe where a lot of people are getting misguided on this: we’re not going to just save money on real estate, we need to redesign the whole experience. You have all this productive time, which is the focus time when you’re working comfortably from home. But you need to also have part of your time dedicated to collaboration and creative sessions, which should be in person. And that balance is hard to find. This is where I think most companies are struggling today and in the next two to five years.
It’s interesting, one of the things that I’ve recently started to think about is, with the advancement of hybrid, what are the different work styles that we think about now? Most companies seem to think you’re either working in the headquarters, so basically the company office, or you’re working from home. But in reality, there are so many variables in those two opposite ends of the spectrum. Working “in office” could mean working in a headquarters, it could be working in a co-working space, it could mean working in a partner’s office or a customer’s location, or you could be traveling. Remote is the opposite end, which in traditional pre-pandemic days, meant you were out of the country, out of the province, out of the state, and therefore you couldn’t access the office. But that was your arrangement, you were 100% working remotely and you came into the office, if that was a requirement, once a year, once a quarter for quarterly meetings. Then you had work from home, and again, the proximity was there, so you could go to the office, but you were basically assigned to work from home the majority of the time. There’s all of that in between, in terms of the variables of when you come into the office, when you don’t go into the office.
And having been one who worked that way, I sort of worked on both ends of the spectrum. One of the things that I found that was really interesting was the coordination effort. When you’re working in a traditional office setting, you don’t really think about who you’re working with that day, or what you’re going to do that day. You just go to the office and you figure it out as you go. But when you’re working in a remote setting, working from home, any time that you’re not in that regular routine of going to the office every day, you need to be proactive about that. And for me personally, I think the biggest pain point was the coordination of schedules. And even then, even when you coordinated on a day that everybody was going to be in the office, you still had people saying the day of, I can’t make it today because something came up. All the plans really got messed up.
So how does this solution help that? Is it still based on helping the coordination of who’s going to be there? I’m trying to understand the angle. Is it more about the awareness of who’s in the office, in order to kind of nudge people to be there? Or is it more around the coordination of the team, so to speak?
It’s definitely important and necessary to have access to the information that we call location management, which is basically, “who’s where?”. Because now you need to be intentional with the way that you’re going to meet with people. Because the office is not the default option. You need to know beforehand who will be showing up on which day. So, you can optimize for high value moments and just meet in person.
There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to hybrid. There isn’t one thing that works for all companies. But we do see generally two sorts of hybrid. The first one is flexible hybrid and the second is strict hybrid. Strict hybrid is basically when companies ask people to come back three days a week to the office. You can think of Apple, you can think of Amazon, you can think of a lot of companies that just announced this. What’s super strict about it is that you have a number of office days, plus you have strict office days. So it’s a team day, which is all the marketing folks are showing up on Tuesday, all the IT folks are showing up on Thursday.
And that’s very bad for the company. Why? Because it doesn’t mix people together. It means that only the same folks from the same department will be able to show up, connect, and build relationships. It’s reinforcing the silos.
So, what we’re building is based on knowing who’s where ahead of time, and also knowing who’s who. Who is from which department? But then how do you get to know each other with non-work related topics? So everything that’s social you can think of, like who speaks which languages, who likes to do which kind of hobby or sports, and how do you create connection on an interest-based level. Helping people to show up on the right days is not just about your teammates, but also your favorite people from other department that you like to hang out with. Maybe you just like to have lunch together or just have a coffee break or water cooler moment, whatever.
The idea of Café in the beginning was, how do I make sure that people show up and make the workplace attractive again? The workplace experience is something new. As you said, in the old world, we’re just showing up because that was the default action. Now it’s more like a theater, like a movie. I need to plan my trip to the office ahead of time and say, oh, there’s something I like on that day. I will show up. I’m deciding and I’m intentional in my choice that I won’t show up on that day because maybe someone’s here, maybe something’s happening, like an event or something. And that’s where it’s the biggest change from the old way: people now have that choice, they have the flexibility of selecting what days matter the most to them. It’s a people-first experience. You need to offer something to the employees and to the end users because what’s the need for me as an employee to show up to your offices if I don’t get something out of it?
I totally agree with that. I like the reference that you made to the high-value moments. I think that hit the nail on the head.
I have a question to ask you. Depending on who you’re talking to, furniture vendors, brokers, companies themselves, we’ve been hearing a lot lately in the Corporate Real Estate industry about this idea that companies can actually create high-value moments. I completely agree with what you said, that it’s people-driven. You can’t design a space to create high-value moments, because those interactions can happen technically anywhere. They don’t necessarily have to be just in the headquarters. Going back to what I was saying before, people can meet anywhere. Based on your experience, is there a push for this type of interaction to happen in the headquarters? Why do you think that is the case, or not?
People can totally create relationships virtually. We’ve been doing this for years now, and especially since the pandemic. But it’s different when it happens in person. I also think that a lot of folks just look at the problem from a space perspective. The visible part of the iceberg is that you have empty spaces, ghost towns, or you have companies that have fewer seats than people and are struggling with over-capacity, but there’s no in-between. That was the first problem everybody rushed into: how do I solve my space problem?
But if you dig into that, and look at the invisible part of the iceberg, it’s about people, interactions, connections, and creating relationships. The fact that you can create relationships at a distance, virtually, it’s less impactful because we’re social creatures. We’re human beings. Something is different when it’s in person. I’m not saying that I promote 100% in-person connection, that would be silly. But it’s just different.
So how can we optimize for those high-value in-person moments to improve employees’ sense of belonging within the corporate world? We know that not relating to the company’s mission and values and DNA creates disengaged employees, and disengaged employees have a two times higher churn rate. So if we look at this problem from the lens of employees and users, we can understand very quickly that it was never going to be about just space. It’s about designing your space to optimize for X, which can be creative sessions, collaboration, all those new things we’re doing in the office that we weren’t doing three years ago.
When you talk about the value of interactions, I look at it a bit differently. If I think about a small company, whether it’s a start-up or has under 2000 employees in one city center, you’re generally in the same city area. And the in-office experience, there’s value to that because the people are all able to connect in person.
But when you work for a larger company with a global, national, international presence, you’re basically having to go across borders. Often your teams are decentralized. They’re not in the same city or location. So, this type of interaction is part of your day-to-day. I think that’s where a lot of the debate comes from about mentoring or networking or developing relationships. It depends on the perspective that you’re looking at it from. If your experience has only been in the vicinity of other people, then that’s going to be high value for you.
But when you’re worked for an organization where you have no choice, you need to work with someone from another country, a different time zone, and you work with that person on a regular basis; that relationship isn’t any less valuable than one with a person you can sit down with in person. You can still work effectively together.
It’s interesting to me that the arguments about coming into the office and the value of relationships is about what underlies the value of the relationship itself. It goes back to what you were saying at the beginning, that you’re making the decision about what draws you in to a place. It’s not because I can collaborate better, or meetings are more effective, or whatever. There’s a reason why, that’s usually driven by the individual, a sort of “what’s in it for me”? So if you want to develop stronger relationships with someone, maybe because it allows you to move ahead — some people say that if you’re working remotely, you’re not going to have the same opportunities available to you.
But I completely disagree with that. I’ve personally experienced working 100% remote, and opportunities are just as available to me as to those who go into the office. Again, it all comes down to the organization that you’re working for and how that information or those opportunities get presented to people.
But I think the whole concept of the individual making that choice, that decision, is what’s really important here. With companies, it’s usually that old idea of “build it, and they will come”. You’ve probably heard lots of talk about what can you do to entice people to come back to the office, or to attract people? I’ve been thinking lately about what we’re building. Are we building or rebuilding the workplace for the future, to entice or to attract, or are we building it to basically align with how people actually want to work?
Ultimately, it’s the people that decide when, where and who they want to work with. I think that’s really what the future of work really is all about. It’s not something that you can shape and form. Yes, you have to provide the venue, where you meet. I know on your team, for example, Danielle is always on a plane travelling somewhere. She tells me about getting together with your team when she’s in the US and you’re in France, but you enable that sort of interaction where people can still feel a connection to the brand. And that’s a small company. So is that something that medium to larger companies can do on a more regular basis too?
Yes, it changes a lot from company to company based on how they structure their workforce. For example, in our case, we only hire employees from two cities, to enable people to meet each other at least once a week. It’s basically an 80-20 model — we all meet once a week for creative sessions or brainstorming or collaboration. Then for the other four days, it’s about production and shipping. And everyone knows their priority because they met once a week.
But when you’re looking at a larger company, you want to attract people, not just make your workplace attractive. You want to give value to users, to employees. You want to give them something that’s worth the trip, because nobody wants to do 45 minutes in the subway, show up, and nothing is valuable to them when they show up. We need to be thinking about the workplace as a very strange new place where people will not all be there on the same days.
And on top of that, we have different generations in the workforce together. Sometimes 4 or 5 generations. And the leadership team of most companies doesn’t usually value the experiences of the younger people. A lot of people, they’ve just graduated, never stepped foot in any workplace, and they’ve been virtual their whole life. It’s definitely not the same experience as someone who’s 40, has kids, and has been with the company for five years. This is also why the workplace needs to be redesigned, and we need to think about the purpose of that company and workplace. Because not everyone is looking for the same thing, when it comes to workplace experience. So we need to also take account of that.
That’s a great point. I think that there’s definitely truth to that. So, in your own words, what is it that you think the younger generations are looking for in the workplace or the workplace experience?
That’s kind of logical to me. When you join a new company as someone that’s 22, 23 years old, you want to expand your network and grow and learn from people, and that’s harder to do remotely. It’s possible, but it’s harder to connect and create that relationship when it’s fully remote.
There are lots of studies about creating relationships with managers and mentors and growing your network and networking skills.
But do you think that, for lack of a better word, habit or behaviour is in play, because you’re basically being forced to conform to what or how work has been predefined? I often think about the younger generation who’s gone through university, and even the younger kids in high school who haven’t yet stepped foot in an office. They see their parents working in offices. And maybe, in the last five to ten years, when flexibility started to become a bit more mainstream, they make decisions for themselves about what type of experience they want to have. But their entire life, almost from when they’re born, is entirely digital. And you hear about the impact of working from home on building social skills and some other human skills. It’s hard to imagine how to do that when you’re not in person. So, we kind of look at it from the framework of how we perceive how we build relationships.
On the flip side, I have a nephew who’s eight years old who plays Roblox and all those online games. He’s got virtual friends and they collaborate on what they’re going to do on Roblox. They’ve never met, but it’s amazing to watch how they interact with each other to achieve something. To me, that’s almost a training ground for the future of work. You have a goal, and everyone comes together, whether you know each other or not, with a similar goal and you work together to achieve that goal. And then you transition from a virtual world that you’re completely comfortable in to a new one where you have to get serious and conform to how things work in the working world based on an old-school mentality.
That’s where I think this debate is happening. If you’re talking about work in the traditional sense of how you develop relationships and how you move on in your career, climb the corporate ladder, and all that stuff, it’s very old school thinking. Is that something that the younger generation still wants? Or is it something that the older generation of workers is saying to the younger ones, that this is how you succeed?
To me, it feels like, for the younger generation, the concept of work is very different. They’re coming into it with these digital skills — there are things that younger kids coming out of school can do, whether they’re educated in tech or not, that they can do way more efficiently than older generations in the workplace. They can accomplish a task in a quarter of the time that it takes someone else who doesn’t have those skills. I hear this from my daughter, who’s 30, and I hear it from her friends all the time. You go into the workplace and look at how the older generation does things, and then you hear, if you use this tool, you can get it done in a fraction of the time. It’s almost dinosaur-like, how some workplaces function. And that’s the way people want you to work. So when you think of it from that perspective, there’s this digital element of working, and then there’s conforming to how work has been done in order to keep the idea of work and workplaces alive. And those are two totally different camps.
Yes, I think the skills of the younger generations is very interesting, because they way that we’re learning skills and looking at our careers is very different. Some studies and research show us that the newer generations just want more freedom and flexibility. That means not being with the same company their whole lives, or at least not spending more than five or ten years in the same place. They want to grow, they want to try new things, they want to be challenged.
That’s also linked to skills. The new generation learns new skills easily and doesn’t want to be stuck in one position or one skill set their whole life. It’s definitely linked to wanting to grow their skill set and network, not just stay in one company. They want to work across different experiences, organizations, departments, and not get stuck. That means we need to create bridges, create those opportunities within the company and across companies to build something of your own.
Your point about the growth opportunity is an interesting one, for sure. We’ve talked about this before, that people want to cross-pollinate. Having a career path, how you want to evolve your career, goes beyond the offering of just one company. The days of people being loyal to one company for their entire career, like our parents did, is long gone. People will go in, pick up some experience, learn about something new, and then move on. You might get people moving every two to three years. That’s where we’re at right now. It’s very rare to stay ten plus years, and when people do that, it’s usually because there’s a pension or a retirement fund or something that would make it crazy to leave.
I’ve been thinking lately, is the future of work more self-directed? The whole concept of permanent employment, vs being able to work for multiple organizations and choose the type of work that you want to do. That’s potentially what the future of work is for younger generations, because there are lots of interesting people out there and interesting things you can do for your career. There’s constant learning because you’re not always in the same space, the same world.
It addresses many of the challenges that are being talked about right now that are problems for organizations. As we said at the beginning, there are a lot of issues that each company has to work through.
But going back to Café, and thinking about who the users are, it’s obviously the employees in the company who are indicating who they’re connected with. Is there a data output from that solution? What kind of data is available, and how do companies use it?
We bring three kinds of data sets that are really interesting and not really available on the market right now. The first one is most popular, and it’s everything about location. How much are offices used in all the different subspaces within the workplace, what is their status rate?
Then, how are people adopting the product and making sure the data is relevant. That’s huge. It enables us to have lots of social data about how many events are created, how many random coffee chats are happening, what are the top events with most attendees, what’s the most active workplace? Each workplace has its own sort of scoring when it comes to social activities. It helps the whole organization understand what they can improve the different workplace experiences, and understand what events are performing best. So that’s the social information.
It’s about bringing both types of information to workplace leaders and teams, but also HR and People teams.
Finally, you can monitor your remote or hybrid policy. Even if you have a flexible hybrid model, you still want to understand what population shows up most. Is it based on department? Based on the usual office days? Having that breakdown, understanding what percentage of your population is remote first or fully remote, or hybrid or office first — it helps you narrow down how your workforce is distributed and how it’s structured, so you can better understand how to make changes.
So, it brings value to HR functions, workplace functions, but also managers, because each manager has access to a specific amount of data based on their own teammates and departments. So, there are really three levels to make sure everyone gets the right value out of the solution.
That’s very cool. I was just thinking about the amount of detail that you can get about how people are working together and where they’re working. From my perspective, that’s most valuable right now because there’s definitely a gap in the marketplace around visibility outside of the office. If you’re in an office setting, most of the solutions are focused on activity that happens inside the traditional office workplace. So if your employees are going to a coffee shop or a co-working space, or they’re choosing to meet over lunch, firstly you don’t know who’s meeting with whom unless they’re putting it in a calendar, but calendars are usually for more formal meetings. And then what’s the gist of that activity, what work is actually occurring?
Going back to what I said at the beginning, the idea is you’re either working in office or at home. But the reality is, there’s a slew of other places that people can actually be connecting with each other, and that’s not something that companies seem to be aware of. And this was true long before the pandemic. You’ve probably heard that the metric of occupancy before the pandemic was at best 60%, because people travel for work, people worked at partner sites if they were in sales, worked at restaurants and coffee shops, are meeting with clients, what have you. You had all kinds of alternate places that people were actually working from. So that’s where that 60% comes from, because 40% of people were working outside of the office on a regular basis as part of their job. Plus obviously there’s PTO, so you’d never be at 100% with a solution like this.
This surfaces the reality of the distribution of work, which is the “aha!” moment that most organizations need. They need to look at their reality, which will help them make decisions around distribution when we’re only using the office 20, 30% of the time. It’ll lead to decisions around real estate — do we need as much real estate? Or can we take some of the cost savings to basically reinvest into programs that will allow for employees to tap into other areas?
One of the things I’ve been thinking about is the fact that you’ve got, let’s say, an average cost of $8000 per employee per desk. And that’s again, pre-pandemic times in a traditional office setting, and that’s a conservative estimate because that cost could go up based on the city center you’re in. Now all of a sudden you’re learning that people aren’t coming into the office — they’re still working, but they’re finding other places to work from. So the company has this opportunity to save this money. Could some of this money be funnelled to employees to enable them to tap into these other locations, so you’re still valuing relationships and networking, and all those kinds of things that come interaction without being hooked on the physical office?
That’s where I’m seeing the future of work going. It becomes a permission, if you will, where access is granted based on funds provided to you to allow you to go and use alternative places to work, with the people you choose to work with. Because there’s value in working with those people if that entices you to leave your home and connect with people in person. And you’re being enabled by your company to do so. That sounds like that’s where Café is right now, you’re enabling people to want to connect, because they can choose the people they want to actually work with, and there’s high value in bringing those people together. Right?
Exactly. It’s a good mix of ownership, flexibility, and transparency. This is how you create a positive employee experience where people are actually feeling empowered to do what they do best, which is work, but they’re also empowered to have social opportunities to connect and grow. Because the employee experience is not 100% about work. It’s also about engaging with the workforce and helping people feel like they belong to a group, not just their own inner circle of collaboration, their own teammates. It’s also about social ties across the organization that in the end, help collaboration. Like informal chats, that sort of communication. This is done through the lens of community interest groups and not just working groups.
In your opinion, is that information considered “nice to know” for organizations, or is it “need to know”, who’s working with whom with all these social interactions that are occurring?
The idea is not really to give that information directly to the managers or admins. The idea is more to enable these connections and bridges between people, and to have access to information like: for example, who are the folks in my San Francisco or Austin offices who are interested in yoga, and how can I connect those people? We have the same interest in organizing an event together, like a yoga session on Thursday. So, I know that if I show up on Thursday, I’ll be able to connect with like-minded people for a specific activity, maybe with some folks I’ve never met before.
And that’s how you create a better network internally. It’s not about a top-down approach, it’s about bottom-up and having these organic gatherings, meetups that are self-organized. This is how you give ownership to employees, by leading them to organize themselves too.
Is the app geared towards the end user? Are you selling to the end user directly, or are you going through the organization to offer it as a benefit?
We do both. The best case that can happen is that the end users are just using the product. We have a free plan with unlimited seats like Slack or Notion, and end users are just using it. They’re sticky with the product. And when that’s the case, we can go to the company and say hey, you have X amount of users using it, those numbers are pretty good, we should talk.
It’s not just a top-down approach where end users are feeling forced to use something. They’re in that phase where they can sort of choose how they want to shape their employee experience based on value. If they’re getting value out of the product, there’s no question about adoption or stickiness or engagement with the tool, because they see its value directly. It’s as simple as this. If you want to have a super sticky product experience, you need to bring value to end users.
That leads me to the next question I was going to ask, about the whole information gathering process and concerns that organizations present with respect to privacy. If you’ve got users sharing interests and things like that about who they are under the umbrella of work, how do the users feel about that? That’s either my personal information if it’s a B2C app, kind of like how I choose to use Facebook, because it’s my personal account and I can do whatever I want, vs something that’s under the umbrella of a company, and then the company potentially has access to information about me. Do you run into challenges like that when it comes to privacy information, and what data you can actually surface to organizations?
It’s not really happening, because the data is basically declarative data and the users choose whether they want to share anything. So, what’s happening in the end is people want to be social, so they share social information about themselves. People that don’t want to be social, they don’t share it. It’s like in the previous world of work, some folks in the workplace were social and sharing info about themselves. Some people were just here for work and that’s also okay. We can’t force and we won’t force anyone to be like extroverts when they’re not, and to create connections at all costs. It’s not the goal. And the end mission is just to let people connect if they want to, and provide a safe and transparent place where they can do so.
Fantastic. Tom, this has been a fantastic conversation. Thank you very much for your time. Any final remarks?
Well, it was a great conversation. I think we’ve talked about the problems linked to space and the employee experience. If there’s one more thing that would be interesting for another discussion, maybe with someone else on your podcast, is to talk about how the new way of working is impacting cross-collaboration. Today individuals connecting within teams is not that affected, but across organizations. When you’re looking at organizational structures and social behaviours. It’s really hard to create bridges between groups of people that most of the time are not connecting or talking to each other. I think that’s one of the biggest challenges of all companies, building those bridges before those islands move away from each other.