Passive collaboration is essential to remote work’s long-term success

In 1998, Sun Microsystems piloted its “Open Work” program, letting roughly half of their workforce work flexibly from wherever they wanted. The project required new hardware, software and telecommunications solutions, and took about 24 months to implement.

Results were very positive, with a reduction in costs and the company’s carbon footprint. Despite this outcome, long-term remote work never really caught on more broadly. In fact, the 2010s were focused on going the other direction, as open offices, on-site perks and co-working spaces sprung up around the idea that in-person community is an essential component of innovation.

In 2020, companies of all sizes, in all corners of the world, were forced to shift to remote work with the onset of COVID-19. While some companies were better positioned than others — whether it be due to a previously distributed workforce, a reliance on cloud apps and services, or already-established flexible work policies — the adjustment to a fully remote workforce has been challenging for everyone. The truth is that even the largest companies have had to rely on the heroics of employees making sacrifices and persevering through numerous challenges to get through this time.

Technology like high-quality video conferencing and the cloud have been integral in making remote work possible. But we don’t yet have a complete substitute for in-person work because we continue to lack tooling in one critical area: passive collaboration. While active collaboration (which is the lion’s share) can happen over virtual meetings and emails, we haven’t fully solved for enabling the types of serendipitous conversations and chance connections that often power our biggest innovations and serve as the cornerstone of passive collaboration.

Active versus passive collaboration

Those outside of the tech industry may think that software engineers only need a computer and a secure internet connection to do their work. But the stereotype of the lone engineer coding away in solitude has long been shattered. The best engineering work isn’t done in isolation, but in collaboration, as teams discuss, wrangle and brainstorm through problems. Video conference platforms and chat applications help us collaborate actively, and tools like Microsoft Visual Studio Code and Google Docs allow for dedicated asynchronous collaboration, too.

But what we currently lack are the moments of spontaneous engagement that energize us and invite new ideas that otherwise wouldn’t have been part of the conversation. The long-term impact of not having access to this has not yet been measured, but it’s my belief that it will have a negative effect on innovation because passive collaboration plays such a critical role in fostering creativity.

The whiteboard

The best way to think about the differences between passive and active collaboration is to look at a whiteboard. Someone recently asked me, “What is it with people in tech and whiteboards? Why are they such a big deal?” Whiteboards are simple and “low-tech,” yet have become quintessential in our industry. That’s because they represent a source of multi-modal collaboration for engineers. Let’s think back to before COVID. How many times have you walked by (or been a part of) a scrum meeting of engineers huddled around a whiteboard?

Have you ever stopped by because you overheard a snippet of a conversation and wanted to learn more or share your perspective? Or maybe something on a whiteboard caught your eye and caused you to start a conversation with another colleague, leading to a breakthrough. These are all moments of passive collaboration, which whiteboards so excellently enable (in addition to being a tool for real-time, active collaboration). They’re low-friction ways to invite new ideas and perspectives to the conversation that otherwise wouldn’t have been considered.

While whiteboards are one mode of facilitating passive collaboration, they aren’t the only option. Serendipitous meetings in the break room, overhearing a conversation from the next cubicle over, or spotting someone across the room who’s free for a quick gut-check are also examples of passive collaboration. These interactions are a critical piece of how we work together and the hardest to recreate in a world of remote work. Just as silos in the development process are detrimental to software quality, so too is a lack of passive collaboration.

We need tools that will help us peek over at what other people are working on without the pressure of a dedicated meeting time or update email. The free and open exchange of ideas is a birthplace for innovation, but we haven’t yet figured out how to create a good virtual space for this.

Looking forward

The future of work is one in which teams are more distributed than ever before, meaning we need new tools for passive collaboration not just for this year, but for the future, too. Our own internal survey results tell us that while some employees prefer the option to be fully remote once the pandemic is behind us, the majority want a more flexible solution in the future.

Crucially, the answer is not to create more meetings or email threads, but instead to reimagine virtual spaces that can function like the classic whiteboard and other serendipitous modes of collaboration. As we all still look for ways to solve this challenge, we at LinkedIn have been thinking about how to encourage cross-team conversations and open Q&As to share resources, as a start.

For decades, the tech industry has paved the way for innovations in employee experience, creating spaces and benefits that reduced friction in collaboration and productivity. Now, as we look ahead to a hybrid work world, we must find new ways to continue supporting employee productivity and creativity. It’s only when we’re able to fully realize passive collaboration virtually that we’ll have unlocked the full potential of remote and hybrid work situations.

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