Future of Work

Are you suffering from digital exhaustion? Microsoft survey finds tensions over remote work

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Productivity paranoia ... bosses and their employees disagree on how productive it is to work from home. Image: Unsplash/Headway

Simon Read
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  • There continue to be shifts in what employees want from their jobs since the pandemic began, says a survey from Microsoft.
  • Managers and their employees do not agree about how remote working affects productivity, it finds.
  • There needs to be an end to ‘productivity paranoia’ around home working, Microsoft’s chief executive says.
  • There is also evidence of longer days and more weekend work since the pandemic started – and a danger that flexible working could lead to digital exhaustion.

Bosses and their employees disagree sharply about how productive it is to work from home, according to a new survey of workplace trends from Microsoft.

More than half the managers questioned told researchers that productivity has dropped since the shift to remote working. But 8 out of 10 employees say they work at least as efficiently when logging on at home.

It’s one of the main findings of the Work Trend Index Pulse Report, which questioned 20,000 people in 11 countries.

“We have to get past … ‘productivity paranoia’, because all of the data we have shows that 80% plus of the individual people feel they’re very productive – except their management thinks that they’re not productive,” Nadella said.

Tensions over homeworking are only one of the issues explored in the survey – here are its five top findings:

1. Employees have a new ‘worth it’ equation

In the past two years, there has been a big shift in what people want to get out of their jobs and what they are prepared to offer in return, the report says.

A chart showing how different generations are more likely to prioritize your health and wellbeing over work.
Health and well-being are much bigger priorities for workers now than before COVID-19. Image: Microsoft

Around 53% of people now say they are more likely than before the pandemic to prioritize health and well-being over work.

“I have come to be more protective of my family since the pandemic,” one public sector manager from Canada says. “I can always find another job. I can’t find another family.”

For leaders, that presents the challenge of creating a flexible working culture that prioritizes well-being.

2. Managers feel wedged between leadership and employee expectations

There’s a stark difference in opinion between bosses and their employees over how much useful work is going on at home.

Half of the business leaders surveyed say their organization already requires, or plans to require, full-time in-person working in the next 12 months.

That’s despite 52% of employees saying they are likely to consider a shift to hybrid or remote working.

A graphic showing over half of employees are considering going hybrid rather than going back to full-time in person work.
Employers and employees are at odds over remote work. Image: Microsoft

The report says that: “Leaders have a new and urgent challenge in an uncertain economy and labour market: setting the standard for flexible work in a way that balances business outcomes with new employee expectations.”

3. Leaders need to make the office worth the commute

In the age of remote working, are bosses being clear enough about when and why people should come into the workplace?

A graphic showing how hybrid work needs new norms.
Many companies are failing to rethink the way they work to meet the needs of a hybrid workforce. Image: Microsoft

The survey shows only 28% of leaders have put in place agreements that spell out what office days are for.

It’s no surprise then that 38% of hybrid workers say their biggest challenge is knowing when and why to go into the office.

Leaders need to define “the purpose of in-person collaboration”, the report says, adding that those who fail to do so “risk missing out on the true benefits of hybrid work”.

4. Flexible work doesn’t have to mean ‘always on’

There’s a danger of flexible working leading to digital exhaustion, the report suggests.

A graph showing that work is more flexible, but digital overload is still a risk.
Many remote workers are putting in longer hours. Image: Microsoft

As well as big increases in weekly meeting time since the pandemic began, the working day has increased by 46 minutes since the start of the pandemic, according to anonymous data collected from Microsoft 365 users.

Working after hours is up by 28% since March 2020, and weekend working has grown by 14%.

Companies need to make more efforts to ensure they have “sustainable hybrid work practices”, the report says. This includes “new norms around flexible work to reduce time spent in meetings and empower people to hit the off switch”.

5. Rebuilding social capital looks different in a hybrid world

The study suggests we have fewer work friends since remote working became so commonplace.

Only half of remote workers told researchers they have a strong relationship with their team.

A chart showing respondents with thriving and struggling relationships.
Office relationships are suffering as more people work from home. Image: Microsoft

Those work relationships and the benefits they produce – known as “social capital” – are important for business success, says the report.

“When people trust one another and have [social] capital, you get a willingness to take risks, you get more innovation and creativity and less groupthink,” says Nancy Baym, Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research.

As such, managers need to give staff time to build better relationships with their colleagues, the report notes.

Making work better for all

“It’s a messy, muddled time right now, but if we do this right, it will create a future that’s better for employees and employers,” Microsoft’s Corporate Vice-President of Modern Work, Jared Spataro, told UK newspaper The Times.

The future of work after the pandemic was also scrutinized at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos this year. While flexible working might allow more women to participate in the workforce, the sessions also highlighted increased inequality due to underinvestment in education, healthcare and care.

More spending in those three areas would improve social mobility and drive growth, according to the Forum’s Jobs of Tomorrow whitepaper.

Every dollar of investment would deliver a multiplier effect of 2.3 times the initial spending, modelling based on the United States’ economy showed. This means that $1 million of investment would boost GDP by $2.3 million, partly by creating more jobs.

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