Remote work is on the rise. In only a few weeks, the pandemic forced one-third of U.S. employees to work from home and almost everyone who could did so. There is no indication that it’s slowing down any time soon since many companies have chosen to go remote or hybrid full-time. However, companies should be aware of how remote work could impact their productivity and innovation.
Decision-makers must understand how distant work impacts the work environment to make educated long-term policy choices on remote, hybrid, and mixed-mode work. This article will look at previous research on remote work and recent research on the remote work experience of U.S.-based Microsoft employees. This research provides insight into how remote work affects interconnectivity and what this might mean for companies in terms of productivity.
Before Covid-19, research on remote work concentrated on workers who opt to work remotely in environments like call centers where activities are simpler to carry out and need little cooperation or collaboration between employees. However, as more jobs become remote, more complicated tasks requiring team conversations and brainstorming sessions will require processes to facilitate collaboration.
Past research shows that the connections between people in an organization are a factor in the organization’s success. When two employees are well-connected and able to have discussions, they learn new information about other parts of the organization. Discussions between staff members break down silos between different sections of the company. For example, sales and software development teams should be well-connected since knowledge of the product and project timeline can determine how conversations go between salespeople and prospective clients.
The Impact of Employee Connections
Well-connected team members are more likely to exchange information, trust each other, collaborate, and put effort into sharing new company information. On the other hand, weaker connections spend less time and energy maintaining the relationship but usually offer greater access to new information. For example, a software developer and an account executive may not communicate often. But, they could potentially learn a great deal about other parts of the company if they were to have a conversation.
Research and survey data analyses show that the pandemic has affected both who and how collaboration happens in a company. While working remotely during the pandemic, workers are spending less time in meetings, communicating more via email, and collaborating with their strong ties rather than their weak ties.
The takeaway from the past research is that employees communicating across different workplace sections is better for the company and creates opportunities to share, learn, and come up with innovative ideas. However, remote work doesn’t easily enable conversations between employees who aren’t in a direct network. Employees can leverage pre-pandemic relationships formed in offices in a remote-work environment, but as companies move to permanent remote work, many employees will never have the chance to develop in-person relationships. Remote work environments don’t allow employees to get to know each other.
Changes in Who Employees Work With and How They Work Together at Microsoft
Now that we’ve discussed the foundation of how interconnectedness is impacted by remote work, let’s look at the results from the research at Microsoft. This study examined how 61,182 Microsoft employees were affected by switching to a remote work environment for over six months in 2020.
The results of the study align with past research. The communities and workgroups within the company became less connected to each other. There was about a 25% reduction in employees' time spent collaborating outside of their designated communities. Instead of maintaining and forming new connections, employees just turned to people they already knew. There was also a decrease in the number of new workers. Instead of adding new talent to the team, Microsoft held on to older employees for longer than usual.
Overall, the remote environment reduced employees' networks, made them more fractured, and clustered each fragment. These changes may have made it harder for employees to reap the advantages of new connections.
Changes in How Employees Work Together at Microsoft
Remote work not only changed who employees worked and formed connections with, but it also had a significant impact on how employees worked together. Remote work reduces overall synchronous cooperation, both in-person and through Microsoft Teams.
Remote work at Microsoft resulted in less synchronous collaboration; it also resulted in more asynchronous communication. There was an increase in unplanned call hours but a reduction in overall meetings and call hours by 5%. On the other hand, there was an increase in email and instant messaging.
Previous studies suggest that the transition to less ‘rich' communication methods may have made it harder for Microsoft employees to communicate and comprehend complex data. It was also likely harder to discuss innovative ideas or complicated topics.
Looking Towards the Future: Tools for a Well-Connected Company
Research continues to show that the impact on worker cooperation and communication habits will influence productivity and, in the long run, the company's innovation. Because remote and hybrid work are expected to continue beyond the pandemic, understanding how these environments influence how people interact is critical. Employers need to assist employees in learning and sharing new knowledge so that productivity and creativity are not hampered. The best way that employers can do this is to provide tools that promote real-time communication.
Meetings and video conferences are great tools for promoting conversations between employees. Audio communication is also a fantastic method to build relationships among coworkers since research has shown that hearing another person's voice creates a sense of closeness. An assistive tool such as Freeflow can help with that.
Visit freeflow.chat to start promoting live conversations and more robust connections within your company.