Microsoft study claims working from home threatens productivity and innovation

midian182

Posts: 7,085   +62
Staff member
In brief: With remote work now the norm for so many people, and a full-time return to the office looking further away than ever, does working from home make people better employees? According to a recently published study by Microsoft, no, it doesn’t. It actually results in less communication and collaboration between teams, which could impact productivity and innovation.

Microsoft’s peer-reviewed study, published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, covers 61,000 employees. It looked at anonymized data of their working patterns starting December 2019—before the lockdowns—up to June 2020.

The researchers concluded that the shift to company-wide remote work caused the collaboration network to become more siloed, with workers less likely to communicate with those in other departments. Microsoft said collaboration time employees spent with other groups dropped by about 25% compared to pre-pandemic levels.

“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,” Microsoft wrote in an accompanying post.

Additionally, there was an increase in asynchronous communication, including email, SMS or corporate chat, calendars, and instant messages. Synchronous communication—the likes of phone and video calls and face-to-face meetings—declined.

“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 wrote.

While some say people do less work at home, the study showed that the average number of hours an employee worked in a week increased. Not surprisingly, the volume of emails and instant messages they sent and received also increased, but the number of hours spent in meetings declined. A different study from last year found that while people were spending fewer hours in meetings, the frequency of shorter meetings had gone up.

Microsoft believes adopting a hybrid work system would only mitigate the problem of reduced productivity and innovation rather than address it.

Summarizing, the researchers wrote, “In light of these findings, companies should be thoughtful about if and how they choose to adopt long-term work-from-home policies.”

Conversely, Microsoft employees told a separate study that their feelings of inclusion and support from managers are at all-time highs, and they feel no less productive than before. But not everyone found remote work enabled the best work-life balance, time to focus, and time to collaborate.

The results came on the same day that Microsoft gave up on trying to predict when it would fully reopen its US offices. The company had originally given October 4 as a date, but, as with so many things, the Covid-19 Delta variant as thrown a spanner in the works.

Apple has also been forced to reassess its plans for a worker return. It originally wanted the majority of its workforce to come back in for three days per week this month, but that was changed to October at the earliest. The date was recently pushed again until January 2022, though it could be even later as many staff have expressed concerns over returning to the office too early.

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Dimitriid

Posts: 959   +1,774
Why is the default to assume "collaboration" is automatically equal to "productivity" though? It's not: some coordination is desirable but "collaboration" is a nice way of not saying "Authoritative, top down hierarchy enforcement" and "inter-department meddling"

There's a lot of tasks that just cannot be made to be more efficient by having multiple people intervene: at one point once your division of labor reaches the point at which a single individual is the most efficient at doing that particular chunk of work then that's the most efficient the task is going to get.

What this nonsense about "collaboration" really means is just inter-department politics: people being able to more efficiently breath down their co-worker and subordinate necks to get the task *they* need or are waiting for, done quicker. Doing things remotely and having to write an email puts things down on paper so they can't pretend they're not pressuring you to get what *you* need done when they do so more subtly by dropping by to say hi and "coordinate"

The fact that so many companies kept chugging along without skipping a beat is all the proof you need that most managers just get in the way of people doing their jobs.
 
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envirovore

Posts: 268   +552
TechSpot Elite
My anecdotal experience after working from home for the last year and half (which will be a permanent thing going forward) is that my performance and quality has improved (we have the metric data to prove it) and I've been asked several times not only by my direct supervisor, but by management as well for solutions to improve process flow (several of which had been adopted). Communication not only with supervisors, but with others from the office has improved as we're constantly having to assist each other via Teams. It's even caused us to get to know and communicate with others in departments that we never communicated with before the W.F.H shift.

It's far easier for me to focus on work without the constant drone of the office in the background, and in clothes I feel comfortable in.

This certainly wasn't the case for everyone, a lot of people got let go due to not being able to maintain productivity or quality standards.
 

CrisisDog

Posts: 250   +139
I agree and disagree. Yeah, I've seen collaboration take a hit, but the company I work for has actually become more productive this last year, beating all previous records. Guess it just depends on your field of work...
 

theruck

Posts: 368   +194
Well they should know because their support is not reachable so obviously missing of comm. is killing the productivity for their support teams. they invented many productivity killers too - never ending loop of web pages when trying to resolve a problem, outlook where you cannot find anything useful, sharepoint which you can use only as a trash for your documents, teams where you have a wiki without search capability and many many more
 

nonamepew

Posts: 19   +61
I agree and disagree. Yeah, I've seen collaboration take a hit, but the company I work for has actually become more productive this last year, beating all previous records. Guess it just depends on your field of work...
It is exactly the thing which happened to my company. And from what I have heard from my friends in Microsoft, Google and Amazon, it is the same there too.

Although, these kinds of "studies" is basically there for "corporate insecurity".
 

Uncle Al

Posts: 8,167   +6,925
Sounds like Microsoft is looking for excuses to get people back in the office. I think they need to release the data behind their study, it appears to have a number of flaws .... including who conducted it! ROFL
 

George Keech

Posts: 55   +68
I have been working from home for 18 months now and will going forward due to me being unable to drive for medical reasons it does massively help my job prospects more people opening up to it.

But I 100% agree that in some companies and job roles etc this is far from ideal, I used to get disturbed a lot at my previous job because I was always training someone else being pretty much the only one in the office with experience. when that was no longer as easy as people dont want to ring or keep pestering for little things. Problems can come through.

This is made even worse for Managers who are bad at communicating anyway I left because of that reason - not being in the office he had no idea what was going on at all and did not want to help staff because he didn't really know anything.
 
I’ve worked at home for 4+ years now; HA transactional platform specialist for a global financial services company.

Years ago the company costed a hot desk in London, just having the a desk available that *might* be used was ~£11K per annum.

Since it’s a global company, there’s no real benefit to my being in an office, so they just shipped a laptop + Aruba + mobile, then said “off you go”.

>6% organic growth last year despite 40K staff (globally) all WFH; scratching $10Bn in revenue.

I’m sure Microsoft knows best though…

*edit* - typos
 

elementalSG

Posts: 175   +210
What I noticed going back to the office vs at home is that a surprising amount of the thinking and collaborating between my coworkers occur AFTER or between the meeting(s). Also quickly turning to a coworker for some help and vice versa made some projects move a lot faster since we didn’t have to wait for the next Zoom meeting or schedule a time.

So work from home has many great things about it, but there are some critical things missing that I’m noticing much more by being in the office
 
"Microsoft study finds folks interrupted less by nonsense, yet organizational structures aren't designed to include cross functional communication and must rely on ad-hoc coms".

Orgs has existing structures for vertical communication and need to design horizontal communication paths. I can't believe this is really news to anyone. My org understood this early last year and created dedicated folks, channels, meetings to fix this. It's not rocket science. /sigh
 
This is hillarious! the company I work for has been using microsoft as an example because theyve been so against WFH, since were a full on microsoft shop this hits close, and yet ive had 7 tickets open in azure for over six months with no response and our TAM has dissapeared. Maybe they should be focusing on their own business instead of giving advice to others. just another excuse now the company I work for is going to make to take away the last day we have WFH. Working in the office is a massive distraction and our team cant handle the level of distraction the office space creates we collaborate better when were at home in peace and quiet working our 12 hour days better than working the same 12 hour days with a 2hour commute.
 
Absolutely agree with the findings of the paper. And, yes, basically, comments show the same thing I observe first-handed - working from home is OK if you continue an existing mature project or your task''s scale is manageable by one engineer. When you try to start a big new project with potentially multi-year long runway and partner teams - things fall apart immediately and work from home stinks.
 

TheBigFatClown

Posts: 967   +389
Sounds like Microsoft is looking for excuses to get people back in the office. I think they need to release the data behind their study, it appears to have a number of flaws .... including who conducted it! ROFL

Agreed. That excuse is forced vaccinations.
 

TheRealSCDC

Posts: 11   +21
My productivity and innovation has increased substantially by working from home. I get my job done in about half the time and then find more time to research and innovate. When we worked at the office, there was more screwing around and conversations unrelated to my work, thus distracting. (though I like cutting up with my work buddies).

We now work hybrid and it's great. 2 days at the office to discuss any issues, but otherwise we go our own way.
 

zulu53

Posts: 54   +20
Why is the default to assume "collaboration" is automatically equal to "productivity" though? It's not: some coordination is desirable but "collaboration" is a nice way of not saying "Authoritative, top down hierarchy enforcement" and "inter-department meddling"

There's a lot of tasks that just cannot be made to be more efficient by having multiple people intervene: at one point once your division of labor reaches the point at which a single individual is the most efficient at doing that particular chunk of work then that's the most efficient the task is going to get.

What this nonsense about "collaboration" really means is just inter-department politics: people being able to more efficiently breath down their co-worker and subordinate necks to get the task *they* need or are waiting for, done quicker. Doing things remotely and having to write an email puts things down on paper so they can't pretend they're not pressuring you to get what *you* need done when they do so more subtly by dropping by to say hi and "coordinate"

The fact that so many companies kept chugging along without skipping a beat is all the proof you need that most managers just get in the way of people doing their jobs.
I think you are missing the point. We are talking about team productivity, collaboration only being a small part of that. If you had experience being a manager responsible for team production you might understand.
 

zulu53

Posts: 54   +20
When the industrial engineering company I was with introduced PC computers to the workflow in the 1980's (rather than the RISC computers used before that) and then again with the introduction of email as a means of communications in the 1990's we studied remote work vs central office work and its impact on team production. We always found that the overall hit on production (design drawings for construction) suffered, by about 20%. There is something about humans that face-to-face communications are so much more effective (neither wasting too much time talking about irrelevant information - that body language feedback, and that reminder of timely communication - I see my team member and "remember" to tell them that I have changed something that will effect their work). Another aspect of human team (rather that individual behavior) is a trait called "synergy". Synergistic teams beat non-synergistic teams even with the sum of the individual skills is less in the synergistic team. Its like soccer: productivity (net goals - goals for minus goals against) require the collection and passing of the ball (information packet) at the correct time and place. Very, very difficult to achieve where everyone is out of sight and out of mind - like passing a ball to open space (sending an email) "anticipating" that the receiver will be there to receive the ball and do something with it (score a goal). These latest studies are just being carried out by people who did not bother looking at history. History has always shown that teams in physical visual/verbal contact outperform teams in virtual contact. Its just hubris to ignore history.
 

zulu53

Posts: 54   +20
My productivity and innovation has increased substantially by working from home. I get my job done in about half the time and then find more time to research and innovate. When we worked at the office, there was more screwing around and conversations unrelated to my work, thus distracting. (though I like cutting up with my work buddies).

We now work hybrid and it's great. 2 days at the office to discuss any issues, but otherwise we go our own way.
No doubt your individual productivity has improved - the majority of competent people find it to be true. But at the cost of overall team productivity; which is now lower since you disconnected from them to pursue your "selfish" goals. Unfortunately most of the productive work achieved in today's society is based on team output. Comes back to that old question - if a tree falls in the forest does it make a sound? Do you in your productivity bubble of one make any sound that the rest of us can hear?
 

Guybrush3epwood

Posts: 6   +2
Really depends on the industry.

For me, working in Cloud Engineering, I've been hybrid working for 5 years now (4 day home, 1 day office) apart from 2 lockdowns and I would never go back to full time in the office. The 1 day a week I am in the office is my least productive as its just forced to sit in meeting rooms listing to people yap on for hours, or hours standing around while people talk fluff.

But I can understand its not for everyone. Several colleagues have left for roles that allow full time in office as they cannot cope/or don't like WFH, even part time at home. And I feel really bad for friends who work in roles that cannot be done from home :(
 

zulu53

Posts: 54   +20
One has to understand that Microsoft, Apple and Google operate with such large profit margins that team productivity is not really critical to their survival as organizations. They can absorb the 20% productivity hit of remote working without dipping into negative earning territory. They can also keep the investors happy by blaming their reduced earnings on covid related supply chain on their hardware vendors - regardless of the fact that they have employees sitting at home achieving nothing. They are not "productivity driven organizations" and never have been.
 

Lionvibez

Posts: 2,404   +2,002
Like most I've been at home for about a year and a half and its been great. We are now back in the office 1 day a week which I don't mind. And yes I get more work done at home than in the office, better computers at home and better internet at home I have fiber.