Mohak Shroff is the technical director at LinkedIn. He leads the engineering teams responsible for building, scaling, and protecting LinkedIn.
In 1998, Sun Microsystems tested the Open Work program, which allowed about half of the workforce to work flexibly wherever they wanted. The project required new hardware, software and telecommunication solutions and took about 24 months.
Results were very positivewith a reduction in costs and the company’s carbon footprint. Despite this finding, long-term remote working never really caught on. In fact, the 2010s focused on going the other way as open offices, on-site perks, and collaborative spaces emerged on the idea that personal community is an integral part of innovation.
In 2020, with the onset of COVID-19, companies of all sizes in all parts of the world had to move to remote working. While some companies were better positioned than others – whether due to a previously dispersed workforce, reliance on cloud apps and services, or pre-established flexible work policies – adapting to a completely remote workforce was a challenge for everyone. The truth is, even the largest companies had to rely on employee exploits to make sacrifices and overcome numerous challenges to get through this period.
Technologies like high quality video conferencing and the cloud have been an integral part of enabling remote working. However, we do not yet have a full replacement for personal work as we continue to lack tools in a critical area: passive collaboration. While active collaboration (which makes up the lion’s share) can be done through virtual meetings and email, we haven’t fully resolved to enable the types of random conversations and connections that often drive our greatest innovations and serve as the cornerstone of passive collaboration .
Active versus passive collaboration
Those outside of the tech industry may think that software developers only need a computer and a secure internet connection to get their job done. But the stereotype of the lonely engineer coding around in solitude has long been broken. The best technical work is not done in isolation, but in collaboration while teams discuss problems, argue, and brainstorm. Video conferencing platforms and chat applications help us actively collaborate, and tools like Microsoft Visual Studio Code and Google Docs also enable dedicated asynchronous collaboration.
What we are currently missing, however, are the moments of spontaneous engagement that stimulate us and invite new ideas that otherwise would not have been part of the conversation. The long-term effects of not having access to it have not yet been measured, but I believe it will have a negative impact on innovation because passive collaboration is such an important role in fostering creativity.
The best way to think about the differences between passive and active collaboration is with a whiteboard. Someone recently asked me, “What about tech guys and whiteboards? Why are they such a big deal? “Whiteboards are simple and ‘low-tech’ but have become epitome in our industry. That’s because they are a source of multimodal collaboration for engineers. Think back to before COVID. How often have you been to a scrum meeting from Engineers walked by (or were part of) huddled around a whiteboard?
Have you ever stopped by because you overheard part of a conversation and wanted to learn more or share your perspective? Or maybe you noticed something on a whiteboard and started a conversation with another coworker, which resulted in a breakthrough. These are all moments of passive collaboration that make whiteboards so great (in addition to being a tool for active, real-time collaboration). They are smooth ways to invite new ideas and perspectives into the conversation that otherwise would not have been considered.
While whiteboards are one way to facilitate passive collaboration, they’re not the only option. Random meetings in the break room, listening to a conversation from the next booth or recognizing people in the room who are free for a quick bowel check are also examples of passive cooperation. These interactions are a critical part of how we work together and are most difficult to recreate in a remote working world. Just as silos in the development process affect software quality, a lack of passive collaboration is also detrimental.
We need tools that allow us to take a look at what other people are working on without printing a specific meeting time or updating emails. The free and open exchange of ideas is a birthplace for innovation, but we have not yet figured out how to create a good virtual space for it.
I’m looking forward to
The future of work is one where teams are more dispersed than ever, which means we need new tools for passive collaboration not only for this year but also for the future. Our own internal survey results show that some employees prefer the option of being completely away once the pandemic is behind us, but the majority would like a more flexible solution in the future.
It is crucial that meetings or e-mail threads are no longer created, but that virtual rooms are redefined, which can function like the classic whiteboard and other random modes of collaboration. Since we’re all still looking for ways to solve this challenge, we at LinkedIn thought about how we could initially encourage cross-team conversations and open questions and answers to share resources.
For decades, the tech industry has paved the way for innovation in employee experience, creating spaces and benefits that reduce the friction of collaboration and productivity. When we look at a hybrid world of work now, we need to find new ways to further promote employee productivity and creativity. Only when we are able to fully implement passive collaboration virtually have we tapped the full potential of remote and hybrid work situations.