Crafting the Future of Work: Kevin Ahlborn, LinkedIn

What is your title and what do you do?

I'm a Senior Director of Workplace Research and Strategy at LinkedIn. I am focused on the future of work at LinkedIn, that would include our workplace strategy, data and change management implementation.

Can you tell me a little about your new perspective on measuring space? And how does it differ from before Covid-19?

Pre-pandemic, we had 1-to-1 seating, every single employee had their own desk. It was a very linear style of growth: hire a person, give them a desk, and when you run out of space, get more. It's very easy to understand when you're going to run out of space, because you'd see how many people you’re going to hire and how much space you have available.

Since the pandemic - even pre pandemic - we started what we call a “dynamic work environment,” which is team-based neighborhood seating. Each team is assigned to a neighborhood and can manage the space within it as needed. Not every single employee has a desk assigned to them. This makes future planning a bit more challenging. Because you'll hire a person and may or may not need more space.

In terms of measuring space, two of the things we've been really focused on are:

  1. Our building utilization: the number of people that are coming into the office, and on a team-specific level.
  2. Level of support: measuring how their neighborhood supports both the number of folks coming in as well as how they’re working.

Can you expand a little bit on what you mean by neighborhoods?

In 2018, we recognized that employees were only spending about 30% of their time at their workstation. However, people were spending time in conference rooms, cafés and other places - work wasn't really happening at workstations. We asked, “How can we think about things differently?”

One of the things we tested was a completely unassigned space, where we had employees assigned to a 20,000 square foot building. A couple of problems immediately came to light:

  1. People couldn't sit with their teams because employees could decide to sit anywhere and were not necessarily sitting with their peers.  It led to a mix and match of people sitting together throughout the building.
  2. People couldn’t find each other. A 20,000 square feet may not sound like a lot, but if you have to start walking around that building to find somebody, it takes three to five minutes to walk around to find where that person is sitting.

To solve both of those problems, we decided to do team-based neighborhoods. If you know where a team neighborhood is located, then you know where to go find that person and it allows employees to sit with their teams. The  neighborhoods had a collection of work points: traditional desks, areas for open collaboration, whiteboards, post-it walls, with conference rooms and phone booths nearby.  We wanted to ensure that within the neighborhood, your team has all the parts and pieces it needs to facilitate their work.

How are you building culture into and beyond the office walls? And how are you scaling that across multiple cultures?

LinkedIn has over 30 locations globally. We have roughly 10 in EMEA, 10 in APAC, our EMEA headquarters in Dublin, Ireland - where we have almost 2,000 employees - and then our APAC headquarters in Singapore.

When we design our space, we have a design team that imparts the LinkedIn culture, but also the local culture.

Our design team partners with an external architect and design firm, and we work with them to ensure that they really understand LinkedIn, its culture, and our values.

Things like organization-wide programs (i.e. InDay, LinkedIn for good), what our employee resource groups are and what they do. And when we design space, we want to make sure that anywhere, in any of our offices you walk into, without even seeing the LinkedIn branding, you would instantly know, “I'm in a LinkedIn office.” That we get the look, feel, the vibe you get from a LinkedIn office.

For example, we just opened a new building in Dublin that’s entirely dynamic work environment and we tried to ensure the look and feel are tied to both LinkedIn and the local culture.  

  • From the outset, we didn’t want a Silicon Valley view of offices. When you walk into our Dublin office, you'll know immediately you're in Ireland. In addition to the Dublin views, there are design elements related to Irish culture.
  • For example, the conference room naming convention  speaks to the local culture.  
  • There's a theme for each floor for all six floors in the building, each one themed in accordance with something different and unique to the local culture there.

What metrics or other indicators are you using to measure the success of your real estate portfolio with this new model, especially with this new model that you're using for LinkedIn employees?

We use utilization to understand how our buildings are being used: how many employees are coming in, against our capacity for that location. It's an area that we're constantly honing in on and measuring, whether we have the right amount of space, too much or not enough.

The other thing we're looking at is the Workplace Experience Index, which is essentially an attempt to figure out what the workplace experience is like in all these 30 locations.

Some questions we’re asking have been:

  • How do we score the workplace experience?
  • How do we understand where we have the right design or are providing the right experience for our employees?
  • Are there locations that perhaps we need to be doing more?
  • Are there locations we need to be thinking about differently?

How might internal teams like HR, People Ops, IT, and Real Estate work together to ensure the success of newer strategies? Do you think that this will continue to change over time?

One initiative we’re working on is to better understand the correlation between the workplace experience and the utilization of location.

I want to get to a point where we're looking at the employee experience beyond Workplace, that includes HR and IT.

To me, those are the three big players that impact employee experience. Employees don’t view each of these organizations separately so it’s important that they work together to provide a seamless experience for employees.  Whether that is the built space, the technology or the policies created around hybrid work, they all have to be in sync.

In a conference this past fall, there was a survey question about where Workplace sits in most companies, and it was split between HR and Finance.  The interesting part was of all the companies that had it under HR, almost half made that change in the past two years It will be interesting to see if this trend continues.  

I think the other piece here that I don't think is being talked about enough is the IT piece. There's so much technology that needs to be intertwined into hybrid work to make it successful and it doesn't exist right now for the most part, and it's a major gap in the industry.

In a perfect world, what tech would you really have?

1. Tech to help us understand when to be in the office, and the reasons why, what work is going to take place, and what work potentially is done better remotely. I think a lot of companies are struggling to give managers the tools to be able to do this so you’re seeing companies fall back on mandates to be in the office so many days a week.

As an example. I was in the office all of last week. And it was one of those weeks where I asked, “Why did I really come into the office?” I came in to be available to see people, but it was a week after the holiday shutdown and a bunch of storms in the Bay Area, so people stayed home. And I spent it in the office. I didn’t have as many meaningful conversations with people as I would’ve liked. I could have been more efficient and more effective in my work had I just worked remotely. I think there's a ton of value in the ‘inefficiency’ of working in the office.

Remote work is efficient in the sense that you're getting a lot done in terms of meetings, but you're missing out on the interpersonal connection, especially with people that you don't normally see and I think there's huge value in the office. But when you go into the office and you still don't make those connections and have those meaningful interactions then it's like okay, well then why did I come in? I think there's gaps there that technology can help support.

2. Another gap is booking a room or booking a meeting, knowing who's in the office, who is remote and how large of a room you need.

I can't tell you how many times I've been in the office, joined a fairly large meeting with two other conference rooms joining from the same building, with two or three people in each of the rooms. Because the six people in the building that were on the call didn't know the other four were there. If we could get to a place using AI that knows how many people plan to be in the office the day of the meeting and either gives you recommendations or better yet, books the room for the correct number of people that are onsite.  

3. And that leads to another problem: our conference room utilization (whether a room is occupied or not) is extremely high with very small meetings are taking place in them.  In one study we found that 90% of meetings taking place in conference rooms were two people or less. And that's a symptom, not the problem.

What does the purpose and vision for “the office” look like from your perspective in the next five years?

There's work that's better done in any office. I think collaborating for the most part, being together with your team, going through goal setting, prioritization of work, being able to sit down to have face-to-face conversations, break out, pick stuff up after lunch…I see a lot of value in the office.

I think the pendulum is swinging in terms of hybrid work. A year ago, many companies were almost a remote-first hybrid when you looked at their attendance numbers. Now, it's starting to feel like everyone's pushing to get folks back in the office. It's going to be an office-first hybrid. I think it's going to eventually balance itself out. And I think the most successful companies will be able to arm their managers with the ability to effectively manage their teams for those use cases: What work is done best at home? What work is done best in the office? And then how do we coordinate around all that?

There's been a lot of studies done showing that middle managers are the most stressed out right now. We’re asking more and more of them, that they didn't historically have to do. And I don't believe all of them are equipped with the tools and training to be able to successfully navigate.

What's on your mind? What is not being talked about enough right now?

One of the things we're seeing is conference room usage. We need to solve this, how we're coming together and why I think showing up when you want isn’t going to work. There needs to be intent. There needs to be coordination around that. How do we do that in a more thoughtful way? I think over time, some of this starts to shake itself out as people develop their own routines and their norms. But to me, that is kind of the biggest thing on my mind, trying to solve for and trying to think through.

To learn more about Kevin's work, or to connect with him, find him on LinkedIn!

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Danielle Farage

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