Staying connected remotely has always been important for millions of global corporations working across time zones. In the era of COVID-19 and social distancing measures, the tools that keep employees connected have become a necessity. Facebook is no exception: Thanks to Workplace, our collaboration tool, we have stayed connected and collaborated effectively throughout these challenging months. We’ve also continued to enhance the platform, which tens of thousands of companies and nonprofits and millions of people are using to work smoothly across multiple time zones during the pandemic and beyond.
Workplace may have come into its own in the past six months, but its story began a decade ago, in London. In 2011, Facebook employees worked and collaborated like any other company with a large global workforce — relying on phones, webchat, email, and distribution lists. People also used their personal Facebook accounts to relay messages to the rest of their team. These piecemeal solutions were especially frustrating for Facebook’s ambitious engineers, who were aching for a way to work faster and more easily communicate with each other.
To address this, a London-based engineer, Chaitanya Mishra, led the creation of a version of Facebook Groups that was accessible only to company employees. These new groups may have been closed to the outside world, but they opened up Facebook on the inside. That’s because one of their main features was the ability to search for colleagues according to their skills and expertise, regardless of their geographical location, and quickly pull them into projects.
Lila Papadoperaki, a London-based Engineering Manager, explains that engineers suddenly discovered a gold mine of talent and collective knowledge that had been invisible to them. “You may not have even known these colleagues existed,” she says. It was a revelation for the engineers. Almost immediately, they abandoned cumbersome email threads and one-to-one chats and dove into the new Groups. Walls tumbled overnight, and projects sprung to life. The foundation for Workplace was born.
“It doesn’t just allow you to find the people you can work with; you can also find all the relevant content so that you don't have to reinvent the wheel for every new project that starts,” explains Papadoperaki. “As soon as you join a new team or project, you’re added to the relevant group, giving you access to all the information you need to get started. Past conversations appear in a structured and easy-to-navigate way, in contrast to chat or emails where you either have to navigate an ocean of irrelevant data to find the things you’re looking for, or you don’t have access to past information at all.”
These tools provided an injection of sheer horsepower. In addition to having conversations in Groups, many teams created chats, similar to Messenger. Engineers discovered that they could obtain real-time responses using these chats while maintaining mission-critical conversations in the Groups. That interplay accelerated work and decision-making without compromising quality, says Papadoperaki. Several outside clients noticed that Facebook engineers had picked up the pace on product building. “We started getting questions from them: ‘Hey, how did you do it?’” she remembers.
Facebook’s London engineers knew they had something special on their hands, and they wanted to share it with the world. So, in late 2013, when a California-based product manager relocated to the U.K. capital, the engineers looped him in and put together a team to start the tool that is now called Workplace. Facebook London was excited about the platform’s potential to boost workplace productivity, but they knew they would need to roll it out methodically. To start, this meant setting up professional accounts for engineers so that their information was completely separate from their personal Facebook profiles, allowing their new tool to be a standalone product.
We launched the platform in beta as Facebook at Work in early 2015, and then officially as Workplace in October 2016. As of March, more than 5 million paid users from companies and nonprofits are using the platform to chat and collaborate, in up to 70 languages. Workplace is now used by companies all over the world, but its roots are distinctively British. “It all started here,” says Papadoperaki. She notes that the expansion of Workplace came at an opportune time, when Facebook was looking to invest more in its London-based teams and to run projects completely from the city.
Both Papadoperaki and her colleague Regina Croda, a Product Marketing Manager, agree that London was the ideal environment for developing Workplace. The city is an open, dynamic metropolis that works hard and moves fast. And Papadoperaki and Croda, who both studied and worked for major firms in a variety of countries before joining Facebook, say that cross-cultural, global collaboration is key to London’s success. “It’s a multicultural city that attracts talent from all over the world,” says Papadoperaki. “That diversity allows us to better serve our customers.”
London’s status as a major financial, industrial, and technological center also means that the Workplace team has a broad range of consumer feedback right at their doorstep. Thanks to this close connection, Workplace has evolved in response to the feedback we hear from our customers and the features they tell us will be most useful.
“We’re in constant communication with all these businesses,” says Croda. “We have Multi Company Groups (MCGs) where Workplace users and managers talk about how they’re using the product and what they’d like to see. When we develop new features, we talk to people who are already using the product and those who aren’t, and ask them for feedback on the usability and the value that our new developments can bring them.”
The impact of openness
Workplace was born in London, but Facebook’s culture and values are also very much a part of its DNA. For example, Facebook has held weekly live all-hands meetings for over a decade, Croda says, where anyone can ask a question. That same level of openness is hardwired into Workplace. Several customers tell us they have used the platform to communicate transparently with their organization during shelter-in-place requirements.
There are a wealth of tools available in this regard. Employees can use Workplace’s Org Chart feature to quickly look up individual profiles and team information, or run polls in Workplace Groups to take the pulse on company issues.
For example, burger-chain Honest Burgers, which has restaurants in London and across the UK, used Live Video on the platform to update employees during restaurant closures, and even deployed bots on Work Chat to help staff understand what they'd receive in furlough pay. It Gets Better uses Workplace to host regular Live Video training sessions, which they stream into a training group for all Affiliates to watch and comment on, and to broadcast monthly Live Video calls for each Global Affiliate.
In 2018, the London team launched Workplace for Good, which provides Workplace for free to registered nonprofits. As the mother of a 6-year-old, Papadoperaki is particularly proud of the platform’s role in educating Save the Children volunteers about the importance of hygiene. “Their handwashing campaign on Workplace had a huge impact — that kind of reach would be otherwise impossible,” she says.
A new Workplace for the new workplace
Papadoperaki and Croda are excited about the future of Workplace. Recent efforts to keep coworkers connected while working from home have focused heavily on two areas: mobile and video. “We know the vast majority of the working population doesn’t sit behind a desk,” says Papadoperaki. “We also know the power of video in allowing people to absorb information,” adds Croda. “Instead of writing, you can quickly shoot a video and get across the same message.”
To this end, Facebook recently unveiled three new features around Workplace. Workplace Rooms lets users host video meetings, even with those outside of their organization. Live Producer streams high-quality video and adds new interactive features to live videos, such as Q&As, polls, and screen sharing. Workplace has also come to Portal devices. Portal users can now turn their Portal into a dedicated work device through Workplace Login for Portal or watch Workplace Live on their smart display and use their computer as a second screen for note taking and other tasks.
“But our journey is just one percent finished,” says Croda. These improvements are a big step toward the future of work, but there’s much more yet to come. The team is already looking at ways to incorporate artificial intelligence and virtual reality technologies into the platform — and someday, people could even check Workplace on their augmented reality glasses. “These are big bets,” says Papadoperaki. But after the impressive results achieved this year, the team is confident about meeting the challenge.
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