How LinkedIn is Transforming Remote Collaboration with Robots

May 26, 2015

While you'll never hear me complain about the seventeen-second commute or the ability to see my kids immediately after my workday, being a permanent work from home employee is not all rainbows and lollipops. There are definite challenges and they all stem from a central topic: collaboration.

I am part of the Edge Performance Site Reliability Engineering team. We’re responsible for CDN, DNS, Synthetic Monitoring, and various other “edge” technologies. We work with our Performance and Traffic teams to crunch data to improve the experience for our members. Additionally, we build tools that facilitate LinkedIn’s day-to-day operations and allow us to manage multiple third-party platforms with a seamless, converged user interface. As such, we spend a lot of time whiteboarding. For a remote employee, that often means having to ask for the camera to be brought closer or tilted or zoomed out. If it proves to be ineffective, major design work is postponed until I fly into town which can delay a project.

When traveling is not a viable option, we video conference. In Season 1, Episode 5 of HBO’s Silicon Valley, Gavin Belson, the CEO of fictional company Hooli, attempts to have a conference call with a character called Bighead and fails. It’s a hilarious scene that I connect with deeply. Most video and teleconferencing solutions work well enough, but glitches happen and when it’s the primary way of connecting with my team, it’s incredibly frustrating.

However, not all communication is scheduled. Casual exchanges can be powerful for advancing knowledge, sharing “shower-thoughts,” and boosting morale. One of the hardest challenges to overcome is the loss of these "productive interruptions," or more importantly, the ability to be the interrupter. Often times, my team mates will return from meetings or lunch and forget to log back into their chat clients. Without that ability to directly connect in the moment, great ideas can be lost.

And that is how I ended up with a robot. More accurately, a remote presence device from a company called Double Robotics. This robot gives me the ability to control my presence with my team. Instead of waiting for someone to reply to my IM or turn on a video-conferencing unit, I can roll over to their desk and start a conversation. It’s hard to ignore a robot.

Interactive collaboration and whiteboarding are easier too. On one occasion, my team spent a couple of sprints working on a tool without a clear direction and realized the need for a design meeting. Our shared vision for the final tool was concrete, but the roadmap to get there needed to be broken into bite-sized pieces. To effectively roadmap, we needed to be in a room drawing boxes, connecting lines, deciding data structures, communication protocols, technologies, and libraries fit our needs. We needed to whiteboard.

The Double proved to be much more effective than any other tool at our disposal. While I couldn’t draw (my robot doesn’t have arms), I could provide commentary, make suggestions, and generally maintained control over my view. Additionally, in a single keystroke, I could snap high resolution photos for review later which avoided the cumbersome “wait, let me snap a photo” followed by fumbling around with a phone. This interaction alone upgraded our Double from a gimmicky toy to a highly productive, long-term collaborative tool.

Not only has this helped with whiteboarding, this helped with on-site meetings; “nothing beats being in a room,” and the robot makes that possible. My Double attends many of my meetings in “person.” Regaining physical presence is incredibly powerful, and my colleagues subconsciously respond differently. This allows me to be in the room without being talked over. In fact, when I speak, heads turn and people listen. When spoken to, it's not to thin air; the words are directed at something physical. My ability to analyze reactions as I speak and anticipate who may speak next means that I have a better indication of where the conversation is headed and can pick up on much of that unspoken communication.

In addition to the issues solved by the robot, we've found creative uses. My Double has traveled with me internationally to participate in tech conferences. When I'm not able to participate in on-site interviews, my Double steps, rather rolls, in. I've even participated in Q&A sessions at company meetings and the company Halloween Party where my boss dressed up as me.

The Double has also helped me maintain the office culture and sense of the team while away from Mountain View. I often say 'sarcasm does not translate into text.' With face-to-face dialogue, there's so much that is communicated without spoken word and you lose that over the phone. If I leave the Double on for a few hours, I can join on the jokes and other “productive interruptions” that are an integral part of the office environment. I can be part of pretty much anything, except a NERF fight. That waits for me to fly out.