• A study of tech usage of more than 61,000 Microsoft US employees has looked at the impact of company-wide shift to remote work on communication and collaboration.
  • It found people are less interconnected, which could negatively impact innovation.
  • It also found the working week had extended but staff were not necessarily working more hours within that longer week.
  • The study has potential lessons for a collaborative approach to hybrid working.

Before COVID-19, only 18% of US Microsoft employees worked remotely - and by April 1, 2020, all non-essential workers were working from home full-time.

Now a study of tech usage of more than 61,000 Microsoft US employees, looking at the impact of this shift to company-wide remote work, suggests the working week has extended by around 10%. The study also suggested staff are collaborating less - which could have a negative impact on innovation.

Researchers analyzed anonymized data from emails, calendars, instant messages, video and audio calls and workweek hours of US employees in the first six months of 2020 to assess the impact working from home had on collaboration and communication.

Less interconnected

The results, published in Nature Human Behaviour, showed business groups within Microsoft became “less interconnected” as collaboration networks became more siloed, which meant fewer opportunities for new ideas and information to be shared between colleagues.

Ultimately, this could affect how well a business performs, say the researchers: “There is a competitive advantage to successfully engaging in the practice of ‘knowledge transfer,’ in which experiences from one set of people within an organization are transferred to and used by another set of people within that same organization.”

Forms of communication shifted dramatically from the first few months of 2020 to after the work-from-home mandate at Microsoft.

Tome trends for communication media.
Tome trends for communication media.
Image: Microsoft/Nature Human Behaviour

Surprisingly, instead of replacing in-person communication with phone or video calls, remote work caused employees to send more emails and “many more” instant messages (IMs).

The researchers said previous research suggests these communication choices “may make it more difficult for workers to convey and/or converge on the meaning of complex information”.

Longer working days

The study also found that the average time between an employees’ first and last work task of the day grew by 10%.

The researchers said this could indicate employees were less productive at home or that they replaced some of their commuting time with work time.

Or “it could also be that the same amount of working time is spread across a greater share of the calendar day due to breaks or interruptions for non-work activities”.

COVID, workers, well, health

What is the Forum doing about keeping workers well?

Keeping workers well. It is the united aim of a global community influencing how companies will keep employees safe. What is the role of COVID-19 testing? What is the value of contact tracing? How do organizations ensure health at work for all employees?

Members from a diverse range of industries – from healthcare to food, utilities, software and more – and from over 25 countries and 250 companies representing more than 1 million employees are involved in the COVID-19 Workplace Commons: Keeping Workers Well initiative. Launched in July 2020, the project is a partnership between the World Economic Forum and Arizona State University with support from The Rockefeller Foundation.

The COVID-19 Workplace Commons: Keeping Workers Well initiative leverages the Forum’s platforms, networks and global convening ability to collect, refine and share strategies and approaches for returning to the workplace safely as part of broader COVID-19 recovery strategies.

Companies can apply to share their learnings and participate in the initiative as a partner, by joining the Forum’s Platform for Shaping the Future of Health and Healthcare.

Learn more about the impact.

Lessons for the hybrid working model

Although the researchers admit the study has limitations and that any such experiments must be designed carefully to eliminate bias, they believe it has useful implications for businesses’ long-term policy and decision-making around remote working.

“We expect that the effects we observe on workers’ collaboration and communication patterns will impact productivity and, in the long-term, innovation.”

In the US, job postings are now twice as likely to mention ‘remote work’, but the researchers say having a permanent remote work policy may put companies at a disadvantage, “by making it more difficult for workers to collaborate and exchange information”.

Instead they suggest that companies consider implementing a form of hybrid work in which certain teams come into the office on certain days, or in which most or all workers come into the office on some days and work remotely otherwise.

“Firms might also consider arrangements in which only certain types of workers (for example, individual contributors) are able to work remotely.”