Virtual Offices That Humanize Remote Work - Dr. Vishal Punwani, Co-founder and CEO of SoWork
“Our goal is to make things much more human,” says Dr. Vishal Punwani when speaking about the mission of SoWork, the company he co-founded to create virtual office environments that enhance the remote working experience. Recognizing that members of distributed teams experience a loss of self, SoWork allows people to customize their avatar and workspace in its virtual office environments. “When you have the ability to represent yourself authentically in terms of how your avatar looks and dresses and interacts with other avatars, you get to have some of your own representation back,” he tells host Shiv Gaglani. If virtual office environments improve employee satisfaction with remote work, Punwani predicts major improvements in quality of life – because people will be able to live wherever they want – and possibly a major contribution to fighting climate change due to reduced commuting, office construction, business travel and the like. “It sounds totally grand, and maybe a bit unbelievable, but there's a path to get there, and that's the one we're walking.” You won’t want to miss this warm and fascinating conversation between these longtime friends and colleagues as they explore the pandemic’s lasting changes on healthcare, education and work, and share advice about following an entrepreneurial path in healthcare.
Shiv Gaglani: Hi, I'm Shiv Gaglani. While we've all been hearing a lot about the Metaverse and the exciting opportunities that it presents for entertainment over the past year, we're really curious to know about how it will impact the workplace as well as healthcare. With us today to help add some detail to that picture is one of my closest friends and former Osmosis colleagues, Dr. Vishal Punwani who's the CEO and co-founder of SoWork which is helping companies move their offices from earth to the cloud while building world-class culture, productivity, and cohesion along the way.
Vishal has built an impressive career in medicine and business and is currently a start-up advisor at Harvard and Oxford Universities and Entrepreneur in Residence at Harvard Alumni Entrepreneurs. And as I mentioned, he also was one of the earliest Osmosis teammates as a medical editor, and also used to work at the Khan Academy where he knew our current chief medical officer, Dr. Rishi Desai. So, Vish, congrats on all your success, and great to have you on.
Dr. Vishal Punwani: I'm so glad to be here. You're also one of my best friends, so this is just exciting for me.
Shiv: Yes. We've come quite a long way since those early days pumping out questions in the Mather dining hall at Harvard University. So, I obviously know all about your background, but for our audiences' sake, you have a really interesting background having studied in Canada and Australia as a physician, getting into entrepreneurship, and now running your own company. Can you talk to us a bit about your own background and your story...any of your career highlights?
Vishal: Sure. I always get a lot of intrigue around how I jumped from medicine to tech, but it actually was almost the other way around in the beginning. I've been a nerd since I was, I don't know, four years old or something like that when my mom got me my first Nintendo System. This was in Jamaica. I grew up in the Caribbean. In Jamaica, at least where we live, there wasn't that much to do besides running away from stray animals and playing video games. And so, we were like, "Yeah, we'll stay inside and play some video games." That kind of kicked off our love affair with technology more broadly, my brother and I.
We moved to Canada when I was about ten and in the neighborhood that we lived in, there happened to be a lot of computer parts just kind of lying around all the time, in and around dumpsters. So, what we did to keep ourselves busy -- I was ten and he was about eleven -- we would go dumpster diving around the neighborhood and just grab all these computer parts and then we'd make sure that they were in working order. We'd put them together and then we'd go and just download massive amounts of pirated software. We'd re-kit the computers so that they were, essentially, brand new with all the best software and South Park episodes and all the things that you would have in '95, '96. We'd sell them around the neighborhood and we'd make money. We didn't really do anything useful with the money, we would just buy video games and candy. But the point is that we learned a lot about hardware, software, code and business and all sorts of things like that just from a young age and it kind of triggered in my mind like, "Oh my gosh, you can be, sort of, autonomous in your own way if you figure it out."
In any case, when I was about twenty years old, I moved back to the Caribbean...to the Turks and Caicos Islands. Long story short, I discovered down there that I wanted to try the medicine path. So, I went down that road. I had a really interesting medical school journey, where some of it was in Melbourne, some of it was at Harvard. Actually, during med school, I met you and I remember being like, "Hey, there's this dude and he's working on a MedEd thing and his name is almost the exact same as mine, but just scrambled up in a few different ways." And so, we ended up working together and I could honestly say that you were the one who got my entrepreneurial spark going again. It was when I was in med school, so I was very conflicted. I was like, "Am I going to go down the medicine path fully or am I going to do this thing that I really think is in my blood?" which is to be a founder. I think the way that you conducted yourself and ran the company, I feel like those are some of the best times in my whole life. You know what I mean? I learned how to be a CEO from you and I wouldn't wouldn't trade that. I think there's a lot of really key pivotal moments that happened. But certainly, when it was just me, you, Ryan, Caleb, Dawson, Sam, that was one of them.
Shiv: That's super generous of you. And obviously, everyone who knows you, Vish, knows that you're just natural at leadership and very charismatic. I think the medical community probably felt sad that you aren't practicing anymore because connecting with patients is a big part of who you are and what you're able to do. But certainly, the scale -- being able to run SoWork and build this massive team to reach a lot of people -- is just one of the things I think both attracted you and me to entrepreneurship. But I agree, lots of great memories from early days. I remember that bus trip we took from Boston to New York on the cheapest bus we could find that actually did break down in Connecticut. Then we took an Uber, and barely made it on time for our meeting with Medscape. Some of the best memories, for sure, in the early start of days.
Vishal: Do you remember when I beat you at ping-pong? Remember that?
Shiv: Oh, I don't actually remember that. I think we have to cut that out of the podcast (laughs).
Shiv: A lot people who listen to the podcast, as you know, are people like you, people like me who are in healthcare careers. Maybe they want to maintain that or they want to leave and start their own company, or join a company. There's lots of excitement in digital health. Talk to us a bit about your own medical journey. What are the things, maybe, you're most proud of? Or miss? And then, are there any things that you learned pursuing the career in medicine that it helped you now as a successful founder and CEO of a company?
Vishal: It's a really great question, I think medicine has been really foundational in terms of helping me to sit and do work for like twenty-five hours at the time without moving. So honestly, I rely on that a lot because there's just so much work to be done, especially in the early days. So I think just really developing great work ethic as well as the ability to retain a lot of information, read really fast, etc. etc. -- those are all kind of like hard skills that I think are important for successfully founding a company.
This is going to sound totally crazy, I think, but I still try to work a little bit every year in medicine. For one, it's to keep my skills up to date and ready for action. But another reason is so I can remind myself the exact type of culture that I don't want to build in my company. I know it sounds very damning, and I think medical culture is changing, but I think whenever I go back I see a very hierarchical system where people don't necessarily look out for one another. We actively go against all of the best research that we have in terms of self-care and sleep and working with colleagues and developing strong relationships at work and all of those different things, and obviously, building a trusting relationship with the public etc. I really take it to heart and it's nice to have that reminder every few months so that I can come back to SoWork and say, "Hey, how do we make sure that we don't build a culture like that?" For all its faults, obviously the medical system is working. We are helping, we're saving lives, we're doing things that we need to do. But, at the same time, I always like to think how could we do better. I try to bring that mindset back to what we're building.
Shiv: That's a really, really good point, because there's this concept of goals and anti-goals. For instance, you want to grow the company to 100 people or ten million dollars in revenue -- whatever it may be that's a goal -- but the anti-goal could be "We want to do this without setting a terrible culture, without going into this hierarchical system." And so, in many ways, knowing what you don't want to do is almost as important as knowing what you do want to do. So, that's a really interesting point you just made there.
Going into SoWork, people have been talking about the metaverse for a while, and that increased when Facebook came out and changed their name to Meta. Things are happening in Web3 at breakneck speed. There's just a lot of excitement and interest in these topics. But there's also confusion, and not understanding what exactly it is. So, can you talk to us about SoWork and what you're trying to accomplish and then maybe in that process, give us a primer of what do you think of the metaverse? Why it's so exciting for the workplace and then also, for healthcare?
Vishal: I'll try to tackle that in turn. I think how SoWork got started is a good way to convey this. We'll have to go way back to the start of the pandemic. As you said, my team was at the Innovation Lab on the Harvard Business School campus. This is 2020. We were building a totally different software...a machine learning software for education. March 2020 came around. Harvard kicked us all off campus and we were like, "All right, I guess we're just going to be remote now." And so, my team scattered all over the U.S. and really, the world more broadly. Overnight, we became just another one of those Zoom-Slack teams like millions of other teams.
It was fine for like a month, and then two months went by and then four months and then five months and it really started to wear on us. I could see the team that I had I'd worked so hard to recruit -- and we cared a lot about culture at our company, we still do obviously -- but I could feel something was different. Maybe there are bonds that were slipping or fabric was getting a bit looser in terms of our culture. I didn't really like that because in terms of the anti-goal, it was totally anti to what I wanted to build. I think anybody who's worked on the whole Zoom-Slack set-up over an extended period of time can kind of feel intuitively what I'm talking about even if we can't put our finger on it exactly.
So, I started to sort of rack my brain about the times in my life that I felt the most connected to other people despite being across long distances, and I kept coming back to when I used to play World of Warcraft (WOW) seventeen years ago. It was like, "Oh my gosh. I met some of my best friends in Azeroth, which is the world that Blizzard made. Actually, I met our founding CTO of SoWork there. We ran a guild together. I met one of our designers there. I met one of our product people there and some of my other investor friends in there. This is crazy that all of that happened. We had no video, we had no audio, not a real good text chat...we were just our avatars in the game world and somehow, all of that bonding and tightness happened. We also managed to get great "work" done together if you look at the -- this is really nerdy -- but the raiding that we did.
I said, "Okay, what happens if we build a WOW "light" where we'd all sort of have our avatars and we'd be in a game world? Could we recreate that feeling of connection again?" So, we got to work building that, and then we added-in a video layer and an audio layer, security and encryption and privacy -- all the things that a business would need so that we could function effectively. A couple of months later, in October 2020, we launched our version #1 and it was pretty janky, but after working in there for about a week or two, it completely transformed the fabric of my team. We felt like we were together even though we weren't together. We felt closer again. We felt more connected. People felt like they had more autonomy. It was just an incredible transformation.
That's how we started. We started to invite other teams at Harvard into our little virtual office. They were all like, "Oh my gosh. Can we have one of these?" And then they would tell their friends and their friends would say, "Oh my gosh. Can we have one of these?" That's how we decided to put our own software on the shelf completely and just focus on what we were building with SoWork.
Shiv: That's awesome and it echoes a lot of the stories of many successful companies including Slack itself. Slack was kind of an offshoot of this gaming company that then became the product and the thing that got the most traction. Remote work, distributed work, and now telehealth too...everything going digital and virtual has been a clear trend before the pandemic, and then the pandemic accelerated it. There's obviously been somewhat of a return in some places for some of these things, but it's not going to be pre-2020 levels, pretty clearly.
So, talk to us a bit about the metaverse, its impact on the workspace, why use SoWork versus just Slack or Zoom, and then any reflections wearing your MD hat as well...what do you think the metaverse and SoWork could even do in healthcare?
Vishal: When we look around the work world today, we see a number of travesties, in my opinion. If we bucket these into three things, we have the people/employee side, we have the company side, we have the planet side. When I think about the people side...Slack and Zoom is not a very human way to work. It's not a very human-centric social connecting experience for people. I think that that's one of the things that people miss a lot about the physical office. Even though they don't like the commute and they don't like the parking and they don't like leaving early and all the different things that come with the workplace -- people in other software systems working remotely complain that there's a lack of social connection. Otherwise, we wouldn't be seeing this huge push to return to the office by some stakeholders.
So, if Zoom had everything, then you wouldn't have people complaining about Zoom all the time, right? It's a great software. Let's not mince words here. It does a really good job at what it does, but we think that there's a better future for remote and distributed teams. And given that, like you said, we can clearly see the trend moving in that direction. We can see the trend accelerating. Our goal is focusing on how can we make things much more human.
Shiv: That's really fascinating. I agree. As you know, Osmosis has been distributed from the beginning. The in-person get togethers, like the ones you and I had in Seattle or the AAMC conferences...are just so important to build that trust and camaraderie and friendship. The party we had in D.C., going to see schools together...all those things are really critical. So it's really important that SoWork's trying to solve this problem of humanizing the workplace. Investing in employee happiness and culture and connectivity and reducing the loneliness gap through technologies like yours, I think, is really important. That's especially true at a time when people are dealing with the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, general political anxieties, and now, the great resignation, which may be the great regret...who knows.
The other thing I would say. Zoom is what ran the work world in last couple of years, but there's research that being in Zoom meetings back-to-back is not only bad for your eyes and your posture -- like any computer screen time -- but it can cause Zoom dysmorphia. We spend so much time on the Zoom calls looking at ourselves that we may be distracted about what the actual content of the meeting is, or number two, just not be happy about what we look like. That can lead to more plastic surgery, just as social media has. So, those are important points for people to note.
You're solving this by creating this virtual environment. Can you talk to us about some of the successes?
Vishal: Sure. Just to tie this back to what you're saying earlier: when you move to a Zoom-Slack world, you are reduced to a 2 by 3 cm video box, or just a line in Slack that's your name and that's who you are and maybe a profile picture. One of the things we know is really important for people is to have a sense of self at work and for people to have a sense of agency at work. For listeners who aren't aware, SoWork works basically like a Massive Multiplayer Online (MMO) workplace. It's a big virtual world. There's lots of offices that kind of live in there. You can run around the neighborhood and see all these buildings. Many of them have logos on them and those are companies who all work in there. You can go and knock on their doors if you want. Maybe don't do that, if you don't know them. (laughs)
But you can go in your office and you have your avatar and you can customize. Basically, when you run up to anyone else -- like let's say I see Shiv cross the office -- I can say, "Oh my gosh, I really need to talk to him." So, if I run up to him in the SoWork world, our videos will automatically connect over top of our heads. Michael might see us and he might run up to us and then his video will automatically join, and Michelle will run up in her video and when she's done, she'll run away and her video will go. It's all kind of fluid like that and it kind of works just like how the real office works.
And when you have the ability to represent yourself authentically in terms of how your avatar looks and dresses and behaves and interacts with other avatars -- and you also have the opportunity to customize your little section of the office -- you get to have a little bit of your own representation back. The people around you who see what you're doing -- your colleagues -- they can see how you're acting in that world, just like how you present yourself in real life.
We opened about mid-December and we've had about 3,000 companies move in in the past five months. When we talk to some of these customers, they all tell us the same thing which is, "The biggest thing for me is I have my agency back. I feel like I'm a human in this world and I'm not just reduced to a 2x3 box or a line in the chat box somewhere. I meet and I see my colleagues and I see how they're behaving and I see how they're dressing. I see how they're interacting with others and I see the conversations happening in the room, and maybe I want to be a part of them and maybe I don't."
That's what happens in real life, but we enable that to happen from anywhere in the entire world. So, if you don't want to live in L.A. anymore because you're sick of the hour-long commute and you want to go and move to backcountry Colorado so that you can be around your family or your tribe, you can do that and you don't have to compromise on workplace. You get the same exact experience no matter where in the world you are. Those are some of the things that were solving on the work side.
Now more broadly, if you think about the amount of planetary health that's dictated by business practices -- business travel, millions of employees commuting, building skyscrapers, building parking lots -- which I think is a travesty use of our limited land on planet Earth...just think about the number of behaviors associated with work that have a negative impact on the planet. Well, what happens if we can shift what our mission is? What happens if we can shift work from the Earth to the Cloud so that you can work from anywhere? Well, all of a sudden, if we change the way that Boston works and then San Francisco and then L.A. and then Europe, and then Tokyo and London -- all these big places in the world that dominate a lot of businesses -- what happens to our carbon footprint as a species? Will it massively go down?
At the same time, we're helping people to live more fulfilled lives where they can live around the people that they really love and skip the commute. We're also helping to massively lower the carbon footprint and therefore, over time, we could actually help to save the planet. Do you know what I mean? It sounds totally grand, and maybe a bit unbelievable, but there's a path to get there and that's the one that we're walking.
Shiv: I couldn't agree more. We're very sensitive to these issues. Our parent company Elsevier/RELX is one of the leaders in terms of FTSE 100 companies that are leading the charge on sustainable development goals and reducing travel expenses. I love the point you made about bringing your authentic self to work. That's part of the vernacular now in HR as well where people management and culture is about psychological safety, diversity, equity inclusion and feeling like you don't have to always put a video on, or be a 2d box, but there's other things that you're interested in.
Is there anything else you want to say about the metaverse and SoWork, because otherwise, I'd love to zoom out and talk a bit more about post-COVID and then, any advice you have for people who may want to be like the next Vishal Punwani?
Vishal: I'll probably caution against that part. I think maybe the one thing that I'll touch on is something we're really excited about. One of our goals is to help build as many healthy teams as we possibly can. One of the ways we're going about that is working with academics at HBS and Wharton and a few other schools to take the best of business research and organizational health research and bake it all into the SoWork workplace.
The goal is that any team in the world -- doesn't matter how big, doesn't matter how small -- can basically move in and all of a sudden, without having to lift a finger, the cadence of their organization will match all of the best practices that have been borne out by the research over the past several decades. It's a way of building healthy teams at scale. It's something we haven't finished yet. Obviously, there is no "finished" because research keeps coming out and we keep updating, but it's a thing that we're very excited about because we think we can have the people impact, the planetary impact, but also, we can have a real impact on companies as well by aligning what they do in an automated way to what the best practices are, at least on the organizational health side.
Shiv: That's fascinating. What will one concrete example be? I'm thinking about evidence-based ways to build trust in a team or servant leadership or setting OKRs. Do you have a specific example you can share about what you're building into SoWork so that once a team joins they will start adopting these best practices?
Vishal: Yes. I can give probably one of the simplest examples which is about boundaries between work-time and life-time. That's more of an urgent one to plug in first because the more flexible, distributed work practices that we all have right now bleed into life. So, it's about being really thoughtful around how we design, for example, automated meetings or preferences that people have...taking into mind their calendar, how busy they are, how many meetings they've had in a given day, what their time zone is, what their overlap is. Can we show teammates an energy bar? For example, I can see Shiv's energy bar and he's on like 20% right now because just from looking at his calendar, I can see probably now isn't the best time to connect with him. We can let colleagues know, if they try to book a meeting with Shiv or go up to him, that maybe tomorrow is better. There's a whole bunch of things that we can do in an automated way that's aligned with the research about how people can perform in the healthiest way for them.
Shiv: That's awesome. I know you surround yourself with some of the best advisors and mentors. I think last time we spoke, you had dinner with Adam Grant who's really well-known at Penn and internationally for his work about the workplace and being professional. You and I have jammed on all sorts of books -- Brené Brown books and other things like that -- so it's exciting to see what will happen with SoWork implementing that stuff.
Zooming out on macro-trends: what are some of the lasting impacts of COVID on the healthcare and education systems and the workplace? Where are we skating to? I know you're a big hockey player, so where's the puck headed, Vish?
Vishal: (laughs) Yes, I am. But it's unfortunate that my team was never in the playoffs, it's very sad. I think that when COVID hit, there were three things that fundamentally changed: education, in-person social events, and work. And now that we're sort of coming to the end -- none of us knows that's true -- but we can imagine that we're coming to the end and that would be fine.
School, at least non-professional school, will fundamentally go back to normal. For example, kindergarten kids, and children in grade six need to be in person with each other because we're a social species. The school will fundamentally go back to normal.
Social events will fundamentally go back to normal because we are a social species. Whenever I think about, say, you and I hanging out, I would never consider something like this to be the equivalent. I was about to reroute all my tickets to come hang out with you in San Diego the other day, right?
By the same token, work won't go back to normal because we are a social species, but the people we want to socialize the most with are the people who are in our tribe. I'm not saying that that's not your colleagues much of the time, but as we get older, that tribe starts to change. We see more and more that our family and loved ones are the people that we want to be the closest to. So, I think work will fundamentally change. We've reached the point of no return and we're not going to go back.
From a healthcare perspective, I think COVID has really revealed some gaps. There's a few comments I have. One, we better figure out a way to train more healthcare providers. I think there's a software somewhere that does that...you' have to factcheck me on that...
Shiv: (laughs) We'll put in the show notes. Hopefully, our audience will come across the software you're talking about that's supposed make med school a lot easier and help them train them, right?
Shiv: Oasis? Isn't it?
Vishal: Osmasis? Is that what it's called?
Vishal: And then the other thing is we better figure out a more humane way to ask all these people to put their life on the line in terms of good coverage for doctors and nurses, better pay, and a kinder work environment that respects their humanity and the sacrifice that people make to go down these paths. These are all reasons I stopped work on medicine, by the way. The calculus just didn't add up to me. That's one of the things that really urgently needs to be figured out because I think where there's a will, there's a way. The money is there and the training schemes are there. It's just that we need to do something about it. And then, without getting into the politics, we better figure out a way to strengthen the trust between doctors and the general public because I think that goes a long way too. Those are some ways that I think in the post-COVID world we have the opportunity to learn from and do things differently.
Shiv: Yes, great summary. It was a hard question, but you summarized a couple of key points that I think resonate really well. My final question is do you have any advice you'd like to give to people who aspire to be like you who are pursuing careers in healthcare, entrepreneurship, digitization etc.? Any advice you've learned over your own career that you'd like to impart?
Vishal: Sure. There's a couple things. If you want to stick with medicine full-time, then I think you could use a few things. One is keep trying to change the culture. We all actively go against the recommendations for sleep, and respectful workplaces and colleague relationships, kindness to yourself, managing your own emotions, and helping other people manage their own emotions. Keep trying to change that in medicine because over time, the arc of justice is long but it bends in the right direction, and now it gets in the culture.
Also, try to look ahead in tech to see what medical specialties are going to be completely overhauled in short order, relatively speaking, due to changes in artificial intelligence, machine learning, etc so that you don't commit yourself to a field for seven years that will radically change without you being prepared for it. Radiology is just the biggest one on my mind, but there's plenty of others. So, just keep abreast of the latest developments in technology as it relates to medicine.
Another thing is just to find mentors who are doing the things that you want to do because most of us actually want to help students and trainees. I only graduated like five years ago, and when you're evaluating mentors, look at who you don't want to be like and try not to make similar choices that led them to that path. It's like a subtractive approach that works as well. Those are all things I think that are really helpful.
In your spare time maybe tinker with code, tinker with crypto, tinker with things like that instead of doing the next set of forty questions. (laughs) I don't mean to say don't study, but I mean at this stage in life, we're all still very malleable and I think we always are. So just make sure that you're using your time wisely to de-risk all of your different paths of attack. It's really, really important because the opportunity cost and the switching cost really adds up over time --particularly if you settle down, have a partner, and maybe kids if that's what you want etc. etc.
So, you need to be doing all this research early. It feels like we've overcome this huge hump getting into medicine and going through med school and then applying and getting into residency and all that stuff, but that's not the end of life. There's a whole world out there, and you just want to make sure that you're doing due diligence because you will thank yourself for it.
Shiv: Yeah. That's awesome advice. Both you and I have stepped on and stepped off this escalator along the way that many people ride the entire way -- and have very fulfilling careers doing that -- but it is important to know that a lot of these decisions are reversible. For instance, you went back and finished and you're still maintaining your skills so that's all really useful and hopefully it continues to inform your work at SoWork.
Vish, super fascinating conversation. I'm really proud of everything you've done in a pretty short career already and what you're doing at SoWork, and how you're building that culture and traction and trying to make the workplace a lot more human. I appreciate you coming on and thanks for all that you do.
Vishal: My pleasure to be here. Like I said, man, literally, I could not have done it without you. I think you were my model as CEO. I learned a lot from you and you don't know how grateful I am so I'll tell it to your big audience here. I'm very grateful for this man. Thank you.
Shiv: Awesome, Vish. Thanks again. The feeling's mutual. And with that, I'm Shiv Gaglani. Thank you to our audience for checking out today's show and remember to do your part to flatten the curve and raise the line. We're all in this together. Take care.