Since the onset of the pandemic, many workplaces were suddenly merged into home spaces. In my case, my bedroom became my office. In this new mode of working, what I missed the most is the office chatter and the water cooler conversations which often lead to some brilliant ideas for a new project or design solutions to a technical problem.
Despite being continuously swarmed by Zoom meetings, the opportunities for social interaction that once occurred in the office space has dramatically reduced. Most of us are working in isolation with interaction limited to just our team members. More often than not, my lunch is sitting in front of my laptop, eyes glued to a screen for hours without a break. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that sometimes people even lose track of time in between all the meetings and end up missing their lunches.
While we were all silently dealing with unforeseen consequences of working remotely, folks who newly joined the company during this period faced even more difficulty as the onboarding was completely remote and it was very hard for them to make connections and interact with people. One day a new hire mentioned the difficulties that he was facing was to find new people to meet and talk to. Knowing that Rubrik’s annual hackathon was just around the corner, a bunch of us decided to create Rubrik Café to recreate the experience of having lunch in the office cafeteria virtually.
Similar to how we look around and choose our lunch table, we created the cafe with tables and anyone coming to the virtual cafe can see who is currently eating at the tables. They can also join or leave the table anytime just like a real cafeteria. When they join a table, they would be redirected to a Zoom meeting where they can hang out with other folks at the same table.
Building a Virtual Cafe
We hosted a web server for the site, i.e. the Cafe itself which would show a holistic view of all the occupied tables. The updates to the tables, when people join and leave, should be real-time as folks need to “see” the table view in real-time. In order to achieve this, we integrated our app with the Zoom APIs to allow us to query the list of members in a given Zoom meeting and constantly keep the list updated.
Security has always been a high priority within Rubrik even for hackathons, we wanted to make sure only Rubrik employees would have access to the Cafe and the Zoom meetings. So, we also added an SSO based authorization to prevent anonymous or unauthenticated users from dropping into the cafe.
We got a great response from everyone for the concept and the platform as well. In fact, during the hackathon itself, we got participation from 60+ users who came to hang out at the cafe to take a break from constant hacking and share ideas about the cool projects they were working on. This was amazing as we were already getting customers within minutes of our launch.
Some of the user testimonials from within a day of the launch:
New Hire: “Got to interact with at least 5-10 different people.”
Engineer: “Snappy UI, great concept. It'll be fun to hang out with random people and recreate the office cafeteria experience.”
Engineer: “It was very nice! It could give the feeling of HQ lunch tables which everyone misses. You could just drop by and have random chat.”
Support Engineer: “The Virtual Cafe idea was brilliant! The whole concept of it.. having tables... first a single person joining, others able to see the person there, being able to join the conversation... It all feels so real like an actual cafeteria experience. Really liked the thought behind creating this platform to meet up when all are WFH”
From Hackathon Project to Production App
Even after the hackathon, Rubrik Cafe has become a common platform to hang out and socialize. We use it to host board game events, Meet and Greet, Meet the Leadership etc.
During “Meet and Greet”, two or three teams come together and discuss informally various features and things they’ve been working on. They have become a great success. A “Meet the Leadership” was hosted where Vice Presidents and other executives from different organizations of Rubrik each hosted a table and people joined in to informally discuss various topics, greatly increasing engagement with executive leadership.
Technically, implementing the full end-to-end workflow in one day was pretty fun! Some of the challenges are related to assumptions we’ve made. For example, initially while holding various events in the virtual cafe, all people ended up joining the same table, instead of sitting at different tables. This makes one single table with as many as 15 people, defeating the purpose of having more involved conversations, so we came up with the idea of setting soft limits on the number of people that can be part of any table. This greatly increased the participation of all the people who were part of the table by default whilst also giving the option of increasing the size of the table on special occasions if required.
Another big challenge, though non-technical, was that unlike going for a real lunch where people go to the cafeteria as a habit, we needed to make folks go to the virtual cafe during lunch as a habit as well. So, we did that by periodically hosting events on the virtual cafe like Meet and Greet, Happy Hours, etc. We are also working on some new cool features to notify the cafe users by integrating it with Slack. For example, users receive a Slack notification when their peers visit the cafe so they can also join them instead of visiting the cafe website every time to check who is currently present in the cafe.
Why it Matters
We wanted to cultivate a sense of community amongst peers and provide a more inclusive environment, especially for new hires. The Virtual Cafe definitely helped us move towards that goal. This collaborative space also helps in cross-pollination of ideas across organizations which often leads to innovative solutions to business problems. It also greatly helped in cross-pollination of ideas across different arrays of the organization which would otherwise be difficult working in isolation during the pandemic.
We are continuing to develop more features by adding more social events like engineering Happy Hours hosted on this platform. To increase the engagement, we are working on integrating our product with Slack. We will add Slack bot notifications and Slack endpoints which will enable users to connect to the app directly through Slack and get information like recent visitors or the option of directly joining a random table. On the backend, we also have plans to persist the database so that we can query the data to get usage metrics and use it to prioritize new features as we scale.
We have constant support from Rubrik’s executive team encouraging us and providing us useful feedback. And the best part is, this kind of support creates a more collaborative environment which helps us solve the tough challenges facing our customers and adds even more value to our platform.