5 innovative ways to solve unimportant problems

How five technology startups solved some common office problems using fun, ingenious and just plain cool technology hacks.

office hacks
Credit: Envoy/Pacific Content
5 innovative ways to solve unimportant problems

All work and no play not only makes Jack a dull boy, it makes for a pretty disengaged workplace. In Silicon Valley, especially, the competition for talent is cutthroat, and offering fun and innovative projects is a great way to attract and retain elite talent.

Digital guest management and visitor sign-in solutions company Envoy's CEO Larry Gadea and his team wanted a way to publicly recognize the efforts of employees. Technology provided the answer: an automated 'sales gong' that would reverberate throughout the office whenever a new subscriber signs up. The solution's built using a Raspberry Pi connected to a series of relays, and the mechanism to ring the gong is written into the main codebase. Any time there's a new subscriber, the system springs into action and rings the gong.

The overall effect is more than just to recognize the efforts of salespeople, marketers and developers within the company, Gadea says. It's to remind Envoy's teams of the "bigger picture" and to build on the culture of innovation and teamwork at the company. "We wanted to remind everyone that all the hard work we're doing is making an impact. That outside of the office, in the real world, we're making something that people are actually using. It adds to our culture and to the engagement of our teams, and it's just really fun," Gadea says.

The idea sparked a contest to determine the coolest office hacks, and now Envoy creates a podcast to highlight cool office hacks from other innovative companies. You can check out all 21 episodes here, but in the meantime, here's a list of our five favorites.

Slack's restroom hack
Credit: Envoy/Pacific Content
Slack's restroom hack

The last thing you want to hear while you're at work is a colleague using the restroom. When collaboration and productivity app developer Slack's workforce doubled in less than a year, the company realized that they couldn't realistically construct enough new restrooms to address the social awkwardness that ensued. Instead, they came up with a cool technology-driven solution: piping music into the restrooms.

[ Related story: Why engineers make great IT leaders ]

Lunchtime hack
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Lunchtime hack

It's lunchtime at the office: everyone's hungry, but no one can make a decision about where to go for grub. Austin, Texas-based chatbot startup Howdy solved the lunchtime limbo problem by creating the Lunch Bot, which integrates with Slack. The bot's all but invisible until someone types the word "lunch," at which point the Lunch Bot awakens and suggests a place to eat based on a database of restaurants the employees frequent. Who's hungry?

Pubnub's web-enabled coffee pot
Credit: Envoy/Pacific Content
Pubnub's web-enabled coffee pot

Is there anything worse than heading to the break room for a cup of coffee, only to find the pot empty? Global data stream network startup PubNub hacked its way around this universal annoyance using a standard-issue office coffee pot, a digital kitchen scale and their IoT and coding knowledge to create a real-time data visualization of the coffee pot's volume. Get it while it's hot!

The cleanest office kitchen in Texas
Credit: Envoy/Pacific Content
The cleanest office kitchen in Texas

As data backup company Spanning grew, so did the gross factor in their office kitchen. No one likes cleaning up after their coworkers, but after months of dirty dishes, empty paper towel rolls and a dishwasher that no one remembered to run, the problem was out of control. So, to address the issue, Spanning developers created a gamification system to track who actually pitched in to clean and restock the kitchen. Employees earn points toward prizes, and the app has become so popular, Spanning's offering it free!

[ Related story: How to build a strong employee referral culture ]

A virtual office family
Credit: Envoy/Pacific Content
A virtual office family

Zapier is a digital task automation company whose workforce is entirely distributed -- everyone works remotely from their home office, and only gets together twice a year. They communicate almost entirely through Slack the remainder of the time. So, to encourage workplace bonding and communication, Zapier created a Mom Bot and a Dad Bot to help employees and make sure they're taking care of themselves. One slight problem, though: Mom Bot got a little too overzealous and began nagging herself because of a software glitch triggered by the word "dentist." There's also a Dad Bot programmed to deliver Dad jokes.