When office work goes remote, what will we learn?

 |   Kevin Sherman, Shailendra Hegde

Work At Home

COVID-19 has impacted people around the world, challenging us to adapt to travel restrictions, school closures, and the removal of barriers between work and life—all at once. So, what does a cross-functional team of engineers, data scientists, analysts, and marketers that lives in the space between workplace culture and data do when presented with the world’s largest work-from-home shift? It, well, does its homework. In this blog series, we’ll share real-time learnings as we measure the impact of this unprecedented shift on how one group of employees works, connects, and balances our lives. We hope these insights will teach us something about how work is changing and help us all get through this, together.

Welcome to our new blog series focused on Microsoft’s own, lived experience. A month after our colleagues in China were asked to work from home, more than 50,000 employees at Microsoft’s Seattle-area headquarters and Bay Area offices were asked to do the same. Soon after, tens of thousands more employees were added to the list. We’re now measuring the impact to try to answer one big question:

What happens when a large workforce is suddenly forced into remote work?

Will we feel less connected and more fragmented, or more efficient and focused?

What does balance look like when your office might now be your living room and distractions are all around (conference-call laundry, anyone)?

What is the actual connection between water coolers and workplace relationships?

We’ve got countless questions, a few hypotheses, and powerful insights drawn from everyday work. Our goal is to better understand the impact of remote working and help people adapt during these challenging times. We’ll leverage a set of data that quantifies how work gets done and allows us to see which relationships and activities enable it. We’ll pull in researchers, subject matter experts, and on-the-ground experiences from employees. And we’ll share all our learnings in this blog.

The kinds of questions we’ll try to address include:

Where does work stop and life start?

Much has recently been made about “work-life integration.” But what happens when barriers between work and life are removed entirely? How do we ensure collaboration doesn’t slide into cooking dinner?

Where did my work buddies go?

We have no doubt that the loss of in-person interaction changes relationships, but what can we learn about the extent of that change, who is and who isn’t impacted, and ways people can adapt?

Will my customers still think of me?

In some ways, those who rely on in-person relationships with third parties (salespeople, consultants, etc.) are impacted twice—it’s physically harder to maintain those in-person relationships, and the third parties are dealing with their own challenges if they’re remote working, too. What changes for people in these roles?

As a manager, how do I keep my team connected and engaged?

So much of people management is tied to unscheduled, ad hoc conversations with our teams. How does the role of the manager change when everyone is remote, especially when many of us are navigating complex, challenging circumstances?

It’s easy for us, but what about them?

There is little doubt that a big shift in work such as going remote will impact different roles differently. What differences do we see across function, across level, and across geographies, and how can we respond?

Many factors are likely impacting our approach to 100 percent remote work, from widespread school and daycare closures to health concerns and feelings of uncertainty. While we can’t always isolate what is causing what, we’ll do our best as we study this unprecedented change.

What can we learn from the past?

Before looking at today, we dusted off some work from our past. In 2018 our Netherlands subsidiary undertook a bold experiment, radically redesigning office space to increase time with customers and energize employees. The renovation included a 10-week-long office closure during which 800 employees suddenly became remote workers. Together with our Dutch colleagues, we used data from everyday work in collaboration tools like email, calendar, and chat along with employee surveys to measure the impact.

We’ve also worked with customers seeking to quantify the impact from employees and teams working remotely, such as a financial services company that wanted to understand the effect of a group of employees working from home.

These projects in different parts of the world have taught us a lot about how work gets done, and how we can make life better for employees by measuring and responding to what we learn. While these work shifts did not occur in the context of a global pandemic or public health crisis, what we discovered then might help us navigate the current environment. These learnings include:

The watercooler (or coffee machine) effect. Unsurprisingly, staying in touch with people on other teams was the biggest pain point felt by people in The Netherlands when their office closed, an employee survey showed. People reported feeling more disconnected, yet the data showed only marginal drops in network size (about 3 percent). This taught us that people can feel less connected even when they are still collaborating at similar levels, and this can stem from the type of collaboration we cannot easily measure—in-person, ad hoc conversations (i.e. the watercooler). This also tells us that people likely want different ways to meet their need for connection.

Flexibility requires inclusivity. During their period of remote work, 42 percent of Dutch employees reported making more conscious choices on where, when, and how to work—which felt like a good thing. But that also required people to be more thoughtful about inclusiveness, particularly around virtual meeting habits. To accommodate people’s more flexible schedules, teams began rotating meeting times, recording meetings, and immediately distributing presentation content, thereby creating new norms.

Monitor meeting spikes. During the 10-week Netherlands office closure, we noticed a 10 percent increase in collaboration, stemming from additional recurring team meetings and 1:1s with managers. Without face-to-face catchups, people found new ways to stay connected and aligned. But with the shift from quick conversations to more formal structures also came an increased danger of meeting fatigue. From experience with other customers, we know that when meetings overwhelm people, more multi-tasking and lower engagement lurk just around the corner.

Watch out for common myths. As work changes globally and people adjust in creative and functional ways to flexible work, many companies will have to confront and be able to set aside preconceived notions about how and when employees can collaborate, focus, and engage. Last year a financial services institution wanted to measure the impact of remote work on a portion of its workforce. Employees appreciated the flexibility of working some days from home, but leadership was concerned about potential impact on working patterns. Would remote workers be available when needed, they wondered? Would they be able to focus and accomplish all their tasks? When the customer took a look at data quantifying work from home and work from the office, a surprise emerged: there were minimal differences in collaboration patterns between the two groups, assuaging leadership’s concerns and building support from the very top for a culture shift.

Embrace flexibility but beware of always-on culture. We saw a 21 percent increase in after-hours activity during The Netherlands office closure, even as people’s total workweek spans remained constant. This indicated that people embraced the new flexibility—for example parents could participate more flexibly in family life, pushing more work to evenings.

But our experience working with customers has also shown us that the shrinking distance between work and home can make it easier to be always on for both. This has a cascading effect when that simple email a manager sends after family dinner engages her direct reports, who then engage other people. To combat this, the most successful teams set clear expectations around response time and used “delayed delivery” emailing.

Radical transparency for the win. In The Netherlands, everyone knew the office closure and shift to remote work would impact not only Microsoft, but its partners and customers. Employees were radically transparent about their experiment, reaching out to over 160 customers and partners proactively to share their planned approach to remote work. Some employees even made public vlogs where they showcased the new ways they were flexibly approaching work and life. And in order to keep relationships and collaboration strong, they sometimes worked from partner and customer spaces—in effect inviting their networks to come along on the journey with them. This built interest and trust among the team’s external networks, and many customers and partners asked how they, too, could implement more flexible work.

The lessons above reflect the consequences of shifts to employees’ work environments, and the ways in which measuring how work happens during such shifts can help companies and employees better adapt and succeed. We’ll explore whether these lessons hold true as we dig into the data and share the experience of our own team’s new workplace reality.

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