“From Zoom fatigue, to after-hours pings on Slack, the typical work experience is fuelling burnout”: Interview with Qatalog’s founder and CEO, Tariq Rauf

Tariq Rauf is the founder and CEO of the UK startup Qatalog. Founded in 2019, Qatalog is a work hub that brings together all the SaaS bricks of modern work, including Teams, Slack, Google Drive, Zoom, Confluence, Jira, Notion, Asana and others. It organises and contextualises these tools around a company’s relevant people, teams and projects.

The London-based company has been growing with more recent funding to build out its product suite and expand the team. That’s why we thought a chat with Tariq was long overdue.

Hello Tariq, it’s great to have you here with us today. Could you please give us a short overview about how you became an entrepreneur as well as why you founded Qatalog? 

My journey into startups unusually began with a passion for programming, which started when I was 7, and my formal training in Architecture. I went on to work with and be mentored by renowned Indian architect Charles Correa, designing large research and cultural facilities in Portugal, Canada and India. This is where I acquired a strong people-first, context-conscious and sustainability-focused mindset for building things. Building places that 5,000 people could use was nice, but the prospect of building technology 50 million people could use with the same mindset was even more enticing! So I spent more of my time building software for clients around the world, and this eventually took me to the UK where I joined a few early stage startups including Wise (fka TransferWise). After helping Wise scale globally, I moved to Amazon where I drove initiatives for Prime globally.

Wherever I went, the chaos of modern work would follow. Working with hundreds of colleagues in teams scattered across countries, apps and projects — it was persistently disjointed and this was plaguing every company as far I could see. Everyone was drowning in a sea of constant notifications, shoulder taps, pings and constantly interrupting strangers trying to find needles in haystacks, re-inventing the wheel every time they kicked off new projects. The architect in me was screaming! The design was messy, the system was breaking, there were huge inconsistencies from team to team. It was happening everywhere, in every team that relied on a patchwork of work apps to get things done. This was a huge, gnarly, complex and enormously valuable problem to sink my teeth into. I came here on a work visa and as soon as I got my UK permanent residence, I left Amazon the week after and started Qatalog.

Qatalog is based in London, a city known as Europe’s top startup ecosystem, both for the number of startups and the number and size of funding rounds. What is your opinion on the environment for creating a company there? 

While London does indeed have a vibrant startup ecosystem that has come on leaps and bounds in the past decade, geography is increasingly irrelevant when building a software company. Our location is “the internet”, more than one specific city. A little over a year into Qatalog’s existence, we’ve already hired people from across Europe, North America and Asia. An asynchronous, location-agnostic working style opens access to the best talent from around the world. From a team building perspective, this is going to be the norm for global-scale startups.

That aside, the local angel and investment network for entrepreneurs in Europe today is incredibly strong. In fact, the ecosystem has noticeably closed the delta between the US and Europe. The difference between VC funding in Europe ten years ago versus what we have in 2021 is night and day. There is a mature and diverse ecosystem of angels, investors, advisors and employees who understand the nuances and challenges of building global companies and products in London. It is an incredible edge it has over most ecosystems and one that did not exist until just a few years ago. We’re at an incredibly exciting tipping point.

As for local governments, there is plenty they are doing to help specific industries thrive. The UK government set an example here with fintech in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash, helping to create inspiring success stories in the likes of Wise and Monzo. Today, as we (hopefully) start to exit the pandemic, British ministers are drawing up policies on how to make flexible working the default option for companies after the pandemic. The evolution of this kind of regulation will arguably play a role in shaping an economy that promotes progressive ways of working and the innovation in software to support it.

So, Qatalog brings together all of the SaaS building blocks of modern work. How are you helping remote teams to navigate the complexity of the modern workplace? 

For most of us, work isn’t working. From Zoom fatigue, to after-hours pings on Slack, the typical work experience is fuelling burnout. We can have ten conversations at once, but we’re not getting anything done at ten times the speed. We have new video conferencing tools, but the same old meetings. We have a sea of apps to keep on top of our work, but all too often we’re drowning in it.

In fact, 89% of us say work life is getting worse. We’re conducting deep research into why this is the case, partnering with GitLab to dissect the state of remote work and separately with Cornell University to understand how people use technology to manage, share, access and create knowledge in the workplace.

With Qatalog, we’re shaping an entirely different work experience defined by trust, focus and belonging. This comes in the form of a work hub built entirely from first principles and built around people and team-first thinking. It’s a connectivity layer that elegantly knits all your work apps together and organizes everything thoughtfully. Think of it like a homepage for work. Our users love how easily they can find information that’s usually hidden within specific tools, collaborate with other departments transparently, and join up tools to automate processes. Ultimately, it’s a radically different way of working that enables happy teams, deep focus, and clear direction.

The world has been gripped with the COVID-19 pandemic for a year now. In your opinion, what are the main challenges that have arisen from this disruptive event? 

COVID-19 accelerated a lot of trends in the making over the past decade or two. From ecommerce and telemedicine to remote work, the pandemic thrust so much forward. One of the greatest challenges with remote work in particular was that cobbling together Zoom and Slack just wasn’t enough to keep teams going. These were emergency measures. It was the equivalent of jumping into a lifeboat and calling it sailing!

We now need a sustainable solution. There’s a much bigger investment companies have to make in software and culture to properly enable asynchronous working. But they’ve learned important lessons from this disruption; as they consider an equally disruptive transition to hybrid work, they’re making those investments to be better prepared for a radically different work style.

We know how many people have been propelled into remote working in the last year and one thing that I have noticed with that trend is that mental health issues have been one of the biggest challenges of working from home. How have you been dealing with this situation within your own team? 

It’s been an extremely tough year all round. We’re particularly focussed on this at Qatalog and do our utmost to prioritize the mental health of all our colleagues. This is hard and people are complex beings – even with all this effort we don’t always get it right. There are no easy tips or tricks to protect employees from these kinds of issues, but we put a lot of emphasis on building the right culture and also give people the tools to work through personal challenges. From a cultural perspective, we go the extra mile to foster a strong sense of belonging for all team members and ensure we provide a work environment rooted in trust and flexibility. We also provide access to third-party online therapists, fully funded by Qatalog, as well as personalized support in case of emergencies.

In your opinion, what needs to be done in the next five years to make remote working a success for everyone (companies, employees, teams)? 

Two things. The first is an awakening, as people come to realise that productivity tools are killing productivity. We’ve got all these powerful work apps, but they’re all working against us. Tech is stealing time, trapping knowledge, and killing focus. But we can also thoughtfully use technology to create order out of the chaos, to help people work asynchronously in distributed teams without the distractions or isolation. That’s what we’re building at Qatalog.

Secondly, companies need to embrace a new set of cultural norms that enable asynchronous work. The 9-5 is dead, but we’ve grafted these legacy norms to the online workplace, meaning we’re still too reliant on synchronous communication — leading to the worst of both worlds when it could be so much better. The new workplace is people-first, corporation second, not the other way round. And it’s rooted in trust, flexibility, focus and belonging. This is a paradigm shift in the employer-employee relationship and we’re going to see lots of innovation along this line of thinking.

Any advice to remote working teams and companies looking to address some of these challenges? 

The world is shifting into a higher-trust work environment but without the support systems, technology, policies and mindsets to make it work well. It’s not possible to supervise and monitor employees as they could before, nor can they police their work hours—employers have to get on board with the idea of giving their employees wholesale trust. If they cling to legacy working styles defined by presenteeism and supervision, they’ll lose out on the best talent. Simple as that. The companies that embrace effective asynchronous work will race ahead because their teams will be happier, more focussed, and better aligned.