Study of Microsoft employees shows how remote work puts productivity and innovation at risk

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and LinkedIn CEO Ryan Roslansky discuss workplace trends in a webcast released Thursday morning, highlighting new research and product features from the company for remote and hybrid work.

A new study finds that Microsoft’s companywide shift to remote work has hurt communication and collaboration among different business groups inside the company, threatening employee productivity and long-term innovation.

That’s one of the key findings in a peer-reviewed study of more than 61,000 Microsoft employees, published Thursday morning by Microsoft researchers in the journal Nature Human Behaviour. It coincides with Microsoft’s announcement that employees won’t be returning to the office Oct. 4 as previously expected.

But the researchers call it a warning sign for other companies, as well.

“Without intervention, the effects we discovered have the potential to impact workers’ ability to acquire and share new information across groups, and as a result, affect productivity and innovation,” they write in an accompanying blog post. “In light of these findings, companies should be thoughtful about if and how they choose to adopt long-term work-from-home policies.”

Companies including Coinbase, Box, Shopify, Dropbox and others have announced plans to make their workforces “remote first.”

The Microsoft study says remote work has also changed the way employees communicate, causing them to rely more frequently than before on asynchronous communication, such as email and instant messages, and less frequently than before on synchronous communication, such as audio and video calls.

“Based on previous research, we believe that the shift to less ‘rich’ communication media may have made it more difficult for workers to convey and process complex information,” the Microsoft researchers write.

The study is based on an analysis of anonymized data about emails, calls, meetings, and other work activities by Microsoft employees.

It’s part of a wave of new research released Thursday morning by Microsoft and LinkedIn about the state of work in the pandemic. It comes as the COVID-19 Delta variant causes many companies to delay plans to return to the office.

A separate study assessed Microsoft employee sentiment based on internal surveys:

  • Microsoft employees report that their feelings of inclusion and support from managers are at all-time highs, according to the company. On average, the surveys also indicate that Microsoft employees feel just as productive as before, the company says.
  • Many employees have common goals of finding work-life balance, time to focus, and time to collaborate. However, depending on their individual circumstances, some see working from home as the best means of achieving these objectives, while others see going into the office as the ideal solution.

Microsoft says the findings show the importance of flexibility and communication between managers and employees in remote and hybrid work settings.

The desire of employees to have both flexibility and connection with others is what Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella calls the “Great Paradox.”

The company is also announcing new features in Teams, LinkedIn and other products meant to address some of the challenges revealed by the data. Examples include new AI-enabled cameras to track speakers in conference rooms, a PowerPoint feature that integrates a Teams camera feed, and a new hotdesking feature in Teams that helps workers find open workspaces in the office.

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