Work-from-home distraction is inevitable. But what if you had a group of strangers holding you accountable over video?
This is the central idea behind Flow Club, a virtual coworking startup that launched last week. Co-founder Ricky Yean likes to think of it as a workout class or the “Peloton for coworking,” but instead of training your body, you’re training your mind. Yean and co-founder David Tran — who have embarked on two previous startups together — used Zoom to cowork throughout the pandemic. Very quickly, they realized how effective virtual coworking could be.
“We're building a space that you can go for yourself,” Yean said. “We think that, ultimately, it enhances your ability to work better, but also just your wellness overall and how you feel.”
Coworking outside of the traditional office environment isn’t new; it’s why concepts like WeWork were so popular. Remote coworking is prominent too, whether you’re interacting with real people via Discord server or with your favorite influencer via a “study with me” video. Using internet strangers for motivation is helpful, especially when many of us are still isolated at home. Yean and Tran aren’t the only ones capitalizing on the virtual coworking trend; British startup Flown, which also markets itself as the “Peloton for work,” launched early on in the pandemic.
Flow Club offers a two-week trial (or four-week, if you’ve been referred), after which it charges $40 per month or $400 per year for an unlimited number of sessions. There are around 200 sessions throughout the week. It’s a steep price, and might not be worth it for people who are comfortable organizing ragtag work groups themselves. Productivity expert Rahul Chowdhury said he prefers working alone, so Flow Club doesn’t entice him. But he can see why people would pay to work with a group of “laser-focused” strangers.
“If the groups help you get stuff done when you’re unable to focus on your own and earn back multiples of your investment, it can be worth the price,” Chowdhury told Protocol.
I joined my first Flow Club session last week, greeted by a row of random faces and easygoing jazz music. My host, Irene Yu, prompted me to go to the Flow Club website to write down a few tasks I wanted to complete. She explained that the tasks would then float over my video screen for all participants to see. One Flow Clubber wanted to achieve inbox zero. Another wanted to walk their dog.
We spent the first five minutes sharing our goals for the session, with as much or as little detail as we wanted. Yu presented us with a trivia question: What is the tallest breed of dog? (Great Danes, if you’re curious). Each host has their own preferred icebreaker, Yu told me. Yean started the trend by telling dad jokes to kick off his own Flow Club sessions.
Flow Club's deep focus session.Image: Flow Club
Sessions can be 60, 90 or 120 minutes long. After the five-minute share out, people mute themselves and go into work mode. You can turn your camera off if you want, but Flow Clubbers often leave them on for maximum accountability. I decided to leave mine on and, surprisingly, I forgot about it after a little while. Hosts choose background music that you can leave on or turn off. At the end of the session, a gong goes off and participants come together to share how much progress they made.
“One of the questions that some hosts like to ask is: Were you surprised by the gong at the end?” Yean said. “If it shook you, it means that you got lost. It’s a nice feeling to know that you got lost in the work.”
Sharing your video and work habits with a bunch of random people might not sound appealing — especially in the context of Zoom fatigue, a phenomenon we are all-too-familiar with at this stage of the pandemic. It’s a common pushback, so the Flow Club team has worked to make the product feel less like a Zoom meeting. The interactions during a session are minimal, and the video boxes are small. Flow Club isn’t for socializing. LIke working in a library or café, it’s meant to put you in the presence of strangers who are also doing work.
“The videos are really just there for accountability purposes,” Yean said. “If you were to use this platform to really talk, it wouldn’t be optimal, because you wouldn’t be able to see each other’s faces that clearly.”
Still, Flow Club’s early users have found social advantages as well. Flow Club is most useful for people who work independently, and sometimes those people are looking for others to bounce ideas off of. Yu started using the service in March of last year after quitting her Amazon job. She had just started her own company, Skiplevel, to help professionals become more technical without learning how to code. “I was kind of struggling, not having a team and working on my company, just me,” Yu said.
Yu found Flow Club improved her work ethic, and as she kept going back, she found herself making friends. It helped her business, as some fellow participants became clients. The networking doesn’t happen “consciously” during the session, Yu said. It happens when people read her bio and decide to follow up with her after. “I always like to say people come for the productivity and stay for the community,” Yu said.
Yean wouldn’t give me an exact number, but said Flow Club has several hundred users spanning more than 25 countries. Some companies, like Animalz, Baydin and Hustle Fund, reimburse subscriptions for their employees so co-workers can sign up for sessions together. Others, like Yu, are solopreneurs or choose to come for their own personal productivity. Tasks are big or small, and can range from “boil an egg” to “figure out acquisition strategy.”
“Some of these people could be power players, big CEOs, founders; others are just people like you and me,” Yean said. “They’re doing the same thing. They’re all like, ‘I have to respond to these emails.’”
Not all users are in tech. Julie Alexander, a business professor at Miami University in Ohio, describes Flow Club as “adult study hall.” She’ll block out two to four sessions a week for grading and lesson prepping. Alexander was diagnosed with ADHD as an adult, and found herself struggling to stay focused throughout the day. She came across Flow Club a few months ago while Googling solutions for people with ADHD. One solution is “body doubling”: completing tasks alongside other people.
“I actually haven’t taken my Adderall since I started using Flow Club,” Alexander said. “Which is kind of amazing, though I’m sure it’s not typical.”
Antonio Puente, an assistant professor of psychiatry at George Washington University’s medical school, said most ADHD patients would still require medication while participating in Flow Club. But he said he sees the merit in a program like Flow Club for people with ADHD. Behavioral programs often work in tandem with medication to help people with ADHD concentrate on tasks. “It’s not rocket science, the management of it,” Puente said. “But the hard part, especially when it comes to ADHD, is consistency. Having that structure can really help.”
Another potential benefit of services like Flow Club, Puente pointed out, is normalizing the use of outside programs to help people with ADHD in the workplace. While it’s easy for Puente to write accommodations for students, it’s difficult to do the same with employees.
“How do you get extended time on various work assignments? How can you help the employee concentrate better?” Puente said. “The classroom is a lot more set up for accommodations, but there aren’t these external structures that are easily implemented from a career standpoint.”
Work is in flux and more flexible than ever. The idea of meeting up with strangers over silent video chat to get “in flow” might have sounded ridiculous before March 2020. But in the chaos of today’s workplace, where people can work from RVs or in a video game office if they want to, maybe a serene work session with strangers is what we need.