What did one very large employer find out about remote work during COVID-19?

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Americans appear to have adapted to remote work exceptionally well during the COVID-19 pandemic. A recent national survey from Chubb found not only that productivity was up among those working from home, but nearly three-quarters of workers say they want to continue working remotely more frequently than they did before the shutdowns began.

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These statistics don’t mean there weren’t speed bumps along the way, and study after study has looked at how to mitigate issues that have arisen as a result of the move to remote work. 

One company—Microsoft—decided to take a deep dive into how its employees were handling the myriad of changes related to working from home, the results of which they shared with the Harvard Business Review in its seven-part series, “The New Reality of WFH.”

Natalie Singer-Velush, Kevin Sherman, and Erik Anderson write about launching “an experiment to measure how the work patterns across our group were changing, using Workplace Analytics, which measures everyday work in Microsoft 365, and anonymous sentiment surveys. We didn’t know what we’d find, but we felt certain that it would help us, our partners, our customers, and other organizations navigate the phases of this shift.”

So what did they find? First and foremost: The 30-minute meeting.

The authors write that the transition to shorter meetings happened organically, without a mandate from above, and the change was welcomed. Suddenly they found themselves asking questions about the previously accepted concept of the hour-long meeting: “Does it really need to be that long? Is this a wise use of everyone’s time?”

Speaking of meetings, another discovery was the increased frequency of one-on-ones between managers and employees. The research found that employees averaging the most weekly one-on-one time with their managers experienced the smallest increase in working hours. “In short, managers were buffering employees against the negative aspects of the change by helping them prioritize and protect their time,” the researchers wrote.

Manager One-on-Ones Can Help Contain Longer WFH Hours

Employees at Microsoft whose manager regularly checked in with them during the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis saw less of an increase in both collaboration hours and general working hours than employees whose managers didn’t.

Manager workloads also increased significantly during the shift to working from home. The authors learned that senior managers were collaborating more than eight hours a week, and in working to support employees and manage dispersed teams, they sent 115% more instant messages in March.

Another key finding concerned flexibility. Teams shifted meetings from an 8 AM to 11 AM window toward a 3 PM to 6 PM window. Research also revealed a new “night shift” forming, when employees would catch up on both individual and teamwork. Collaboration increased on weekends, as well. This reveals, the authors write, “a shift in our work culture that was neither intended nor wanted. We will continue to closely monitor these trends.”

More welcome, perhaps, was the growing trend of virtual social meetings in order to stay connected during this time of separation. From group lunches to “meet my pet” happy hours, social meetings increased by 10% in a month. Scheduled one-on-one meetings between employees also went up by 18%. Another surprise: Employees not only maintained their existing networks but extended them to include other teams, increasing their connections.

As crucial as this research has been for Microsoft, the “trickier and equally critical” next step will be to decide which changes to address. The researchers believe that “now is a perfect time to carefully and deliberately reshape our work culture.”

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