The beginning of 2020 was one of the most difficult moments of the last decade. The rapid spread of SARS-COVID-2 and the consequent quarantine imposed by the various countries of the world has led many companies to discover and approach remote work for the first time, in order to protect their employees while still being able to work without attending the office. However, choosing the right tools to support remote collaboration is almost as difficult a challenge as adopting "smart" working methodologies that allow you to keep productivity high. The panorama of available choices is vast, from open-source tools such as Jitsi and Nextcloud to commercial services such as Slack and Google GSuite, each with its own strengths and peculiarities.
At Mikamai we have always been used to working in a "smart" way, preferring asynchronous and written collaboration wherever possible to make our business more streamlined and agile. This allows us to expand our operational area to the entire world, both in terms of customers and collaborators. In fact, many colleagues do not work from our main office in Milan, Italy, but from more comfortable places for them, such as other Italian or European cities, even other continents. We have long been GSuite users for shared documents, GitHub for hosting our projects, Trello for managing activities and Slack for internal communication.
However, we recently started to feel the limitations of Slack’s free plan. Mikamai has grown, the number of people and messages written every day has grown significantly with it, and we have found ourselves to frequently exceed the limit of 10,000 messages, thus losing potentially important conversations and messages. The lack of group video calls forces us to use Google Meet, an excellent video conferencing solution but which lacks the immediacy of starting a call directly from the text chat. However, paid plans, the price of which increases for each employee present in the workspace, are not very appealing to us. So we started scouting for a tool that would better meet our needs.
In the past few months we have tried several online communication tools, in particular Mattermost, an open source alternative to Slack, JetBrains Space, a collaboration and management service that includes a chat very similar to Slack, and Discord, a communication platform designed for gamers and online communities, but with very interesting features also for companies that work in a distributed way.
The latter has caught our attention, and here are the reasons that led us to adopt it as our corporate communication tool.
Despite working mainly in an asynchronous way through email, Trello cards and comments on the code repositories, direct conversation is a very important tool especially for creative activities that benefit from a rapid and continuous exchange of ideas between the participants. The ability of immediately entering a group voice chat, with excellent audio quality and with the support of text chat and screen sharing is perhaps Discord's main strength, and what really convinced us in attempting the transition.
Brainstorming and planning sessions can be started quickly without the overhead that changing tools entails when using services outside the chat, as was our case with Google Meet. Everything is much more natural and immediate, promoting communication and the exchange of ideas rather than discouraging them.
It is also very convenient for organizing virtual coffee breaks, allowing you to maintain human contact with colleagues that you risk losing by working remotely.
Discord was created to host online communities, mainly in the gaming world but extending over time to all those groups of users who need a safe digital space in which to meet and chat. For this reason, the platform provides a wide range of permissions, which can be grouped into roles to be assigned to users, allowing you to granularly control which actions are granted to which users, and in which channels.
In our particular case we do not manage a public space but a private server, however it is not used solely for business purposes. We have dedicated some channels to external activities, like video games or role-playing games, which involve the presence of users who are not part of the company staff, such as family members and playmates, former colleagues and partners of other companies. Thanks to Discord's powerful permission system, these users have access only to the channels for which they were authorized, while the company's internal chats are hidden and inaccessible.
This also allows us to invite our customers to join the server to facilitate the exchange of information with them. For each project, a text channel and a corresponding voice room are created, along with a role that allows access to them. When the customer enters the server and is assigned the role, he can then access these channels and actively collaborate with us, without being able to see reserved areas and spaces dedicated to other active projects.
We have also created a dedicated announcement channel, in which only Mikamai's administrative staff can write, to support the internal mailing list in quickly sharing official news and communications with colleagues.
Slack boasts a multitude of integrations with third-party systems, from ticketing and project management platforms to infrastructure alarms and monitoring systems. Discord does not have the same spread in the business and development world, but provides the possibility to configure the integrations in a Slack compatible mode, basically allowing to integrate any system that can interact with Slack.
Discord also has a robust and diverse chatbot ecosystem, small applications that act like automatic users and increase native chat features. For example, a very successful bot in Mikamai’s server is Groovy, a bot that allows you to play music to all users connected to a voice channel as a kind of virtual jukebox. Thanks to it, we can share our music with colleagues, allowing everyone to add songs to the playlist being played.
Obviously one aspect that we have not underestimated during our evaluation is the monetary cost compared to the competition. All of Discord’s core features are completely free, providing paid additions mainly aimed at the gaming world, especially streamers and youtubers, such as the ability to add custom emojis, customize the profile and improve audio and video quality. This, added to the points previously discussed, was one of the key points for Mikamai in making the decision to migrate to Discord.
Given that I’m not a very techy person, which often limits me in discovering the full potential of this type of tool, I must say that I find Discord very versatile. I really appreciate the possibility of enabling audio channels that allow an immediate switch between text communication and voice communication (especially group chats). Having an unlimited number of messages always available free of charge is, of course, another nice advantage.
Debora, Office Manager
Discord adds syntax highlighting for code snippets, unlimited message history, integrated calls, screenshare with up to 50 people (during the COVID-19 period), a really advanced role and permission system, and is very easy to integrate with external tools. I don't know what more you could ask for.
Nicola Racco, Tech Lead
I have been using Discord for more than a year mainly for gaming but also to talk or see my friends. I immediately found it intuitive and with a youthful graphic feeling.
Its strength is absolutely being free, I still remember when I had to communicate with other players simultaneously, we used TeamSpeak and it required us to spend a lot of money every month for a dedicated server, with an increasing cost based on the amount of users who could connect at once, a real nightmare.
With Slack, I suffered (and still suffer) because of the limited chat history, 10,000 messages or a month of history and then that’s it. How many lost links, how many chats that have fallen by the wayside ("I wrote it to you on Slack", "When ???") ...
Discord is, in my opinion, the tool par excellence of remote communication both for gaming, chatting and companies.
Daniela, Frontend Developer
Discord has proved to be an excellent corporate communication platform despite being mainly geared towards the world of gaming and digital communities. The speed with which it is possible to start talking with colleagues and organize virtual meetings has allowed us to facilitate the transition even for those who were not previously used to working completely remotely, and has given us back a part of the warmth that sharing the day with our coworkers transmit, reducing the alienation due to the emergency situation in which we find ourselves. We will have the opportunity to test it thoroughly in the coming months, but we are sure that it will prove itself to be a valid and central tool for our daily work.