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Three Insights from Microsoft’s Transition to Remote Work

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Microsoft had an extremely successful transition to remote work in response to COVID-19. Managers were able to dramatically reduce the impact of this transition on employees lives, helping them prioritize the work that really matters and find work-life balance. Erik Anderson, Director of Workplace Intelligence at Microsoft and co-author of the recent Harvard Business Review article “Microsoft Analyzed Data On Its Newly Remote Workforce,” joined our recent webinar to share three big takeaways and some advice with the credit union industry.

Erik is part of the team analyzing data from Microsoft’s recent transition to remote working, and he shared with us three major observations in the way people adapted to this disruption and change. He found that meeting norms changed quickly, that managers prioritizing wellbeing played a key role in team success, and that employees were very effective in maintaining human connections. He also shared a few recommendations that leaders can make to help facilitate successful remote working in their own organizations. 

Much of the data gathered is what Erik called “digital exhaust.” This is passively collected data around collaboration platforms that can give organizations insights into how employees are working together.  

Meeting Norms Changed Quickly 

In just 3-4 weeks after workers were sent home, new norms around meetings and the workday quickly formed. 

“We saw this phenomenon we called the rise of the 30 minute meeting,” said Erik. “Short meetings increased over 20%, and they tended to be smaller meetings. Longer meetings decreased, with meetings over an hour decreasing about 10%.” 

Microsoft issued surveys to better understand this trend, and found that people didn’t have the stamina to stay engaged with lengthy digital meetings that were previously held in conference rooms. The reason for scheduling meetings also shifted, with more employees meeting just to stay connected. Those informal meetings in breakout rooms or at coffee shops that could no longer take place during the lockdown effectively shifted to digital meetings.  

The time distribution of these meetings changed as well. As employees adjusted to working from home with schools closed, they found themselves needing to integrate more into their days. Parents, for example, often needed to help their kids with remote learning in the mornings. As a result, collaborations that usually took place in the mornings shifted to the afternoons, the usual lunch slowdown disappeared, and more meetings shifted into late afternoon. 

With these changes also came major changes to the workday. 

Managers Prioritized Wellbeing 

Through helping employees focus on prioritizing their work and finding work-life balance, managers were able to dramatically reduce the impact of the remote work transition on their lives.”

“The concept of traditional workday got thrown out the window,” said Erik. “And people started making their own workdays.” 

Nontraditional workdays and a shift to working later raised concerns about wellbeing and burnout. But the data showed an interesting trend – managers were stepping up and doing the heavy lifting to adapt to these massive changes. Manager collaboration time increased by eight hours a week, much of it spent in one-on-one meetings with their teams. And the results were incredible. 

“Employees that spent weekly time with their managers in a one on one setting, their overall working time throughout the pandemic increased 60% less than their peers,” said Erik.  “Through helping employees focus on prioritizing their work and finding work-life balance, managers were able to dramatically reduce the impact of the remote work transition on their lives.” 

It turned out that managers’ response to change, and these one-to-one meetings in particular, were the biggest factor in team success.  

Employees Maintained Human Connections 

There’s collaboration that has to happen across the whole credit union and people form networks when they do.”

The networks that people build both inside and outside of their organization play a key role in enabling workers to be successful, leading Erik and his team to study how their employees maintained these networks outside of the office and how the networks evolved. 

“We’re interested in how networks help people do their work. So, if you think of a credit union, not every group is working only within their own silo,” said Erik. “There’s collaboration that has to happen across the whole credit union and people form networks when they do. We find that these networks of people are really strong enablers of them to be successful.”

Erik’s team originally thought that these networks would shrink down to just the people they were closest with when everyone began working from home, and they were surprised by what they found in the data. 

“For the most part, everyone was able to maintain the network and the connections they had with other employees,” said Erik. 

Across the board, looking at all 90,000 Microsoft employees, the size of their networks remained constant. And those additional short meetings played a large part. Social meetings increased by 10% and one-to-one meetings increased by 20%. 

“The use of those meetings to stay connected was clearly being shown in the data,” said Erik. 

Embracing Change 

Erik shared some insights into how to achieve a successful transition to remote work. A big part of this is making sure to continue to do things differently, to try new things and stick to the strategies that work, as well as reimaging what the workplace needs to look like in the future. 

“A lot of it is just starting with things that are really small,” said Erik. “The emphasis on wellbeing and making sure everyone understands the resources they have at their disposal. The data about manager one-on-ones led to a campaign to say to managers ‘hey, make sure you do spend time with your employees.’” 

Microsoft also found success with a recharge Friday, where every other Friday there are no meetings and no Teams collaboration. People can use that for what they need to. It can be to do really deep focused work, it could be to tend to their families, and it could be used to catch up on other things. 

“We as an organization are saying it’s okay to take this time to manage what you need to do with your work-life integration,” said Erik. 

Empowering your employees and giving them the autonomy to choose how they work best, as well as giving them the leadership and support they need to work effectively, can have dramatic positive impacts on their successful transition to remote work. 

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