Is remote working good or bad? Big tech companies just can't seem to decide

Mixed messaging around remote work has left me questioning whether tech companies are really invested in its future.
Written by Owen Hughes, Senior Editor

Microsoft concluded in a recent study that remote working could harm collaboration and make innovation more difficult.

Image: Maskot / Getty

I'm getting a bit confused by tech companies' thinking around the future of remote working, and I imagine I'm not the only one.

Months of working from home have made many businesses and their employees question whether the typical 9-5 working model is necessary in an age where work is increasingly done in front of a computer that provides instantaneous connection to anyone, anywhere in the world.

Tech companies have had a particularly vested interest in the notion that effective working can transcend geographies and time zones – not least owing to the fact that, in exchange for a monthly subscription fee, they can provide you with the software that allows you to do just that.

SEE: Study shows workers split on benefits of remote work vs. on-site

So perhaps you can understand my confusion when Microsoft, a company whose software has long dominated the lives of office workers and has seen fresh success with the explosion of Microsoft Teams over the past 18 months, came out with some fairly stark warnings about the pitfalls of working from home. 

Microsoft conducted a study on its US workforce to find out what happened when the firm sent everyone to work from home at the start of 2020. The conclusion? Communication became less meaningful, and workers spent less time talking to, and working with, colleagues working across different parts of the business.

Microsoft's researchers essentially concluded that remote working could be harmful to productivity and innovation going forward, and that emails, instant messaging and other forms of communication used in place of face-to-face interaction made it more difficult for workers to share their ideas and acquire new information. This, they said, could stifle productivity and innovation for companies who choose to implement long-term remote-working policies.

Google is also another example of a tech company that doesn't seem quite sure of where it stands on the remote-working debate. Google Workspace has been a primary focus for the company throughout the pandemic, going toe-to-toe with Microsoft's Office as well as trying to make a dent in the success of Zoom and Teams in the video-meeting arena. 

But at the same time as it has been promoting cloud collaboration as the future of work and telling its own staff they can work remotely forever if they so choose, it has also proposed disincentives for those that do – namely, that they could potentially face pay cuts.

Having a significant commercial interest in remote-working software and then seeing communication break down on an organizational scale after making working from home compulsory can't be an easy situation to be in. To Microsoft's credit, it does go some way to acknowledging this, pointing out that technology alone won't make remote working stick in the long term, nor can it be the antidote to the innumerable and persisting complaints of remote workers.

It also addresses what it calls the "Hybrid Work Paradox" – in other words, the fact that working from home has brought benefits to some aspects of workers' lives, but negatively impacted others.

For instance, many remote workers report that working from home during the pandemic has improved their work/life balance and made it easy to get on with focused work, largely because they no longer need to commute or worry about getting distracted by colleagues and other office antics.

On the other hand, networking and social interaction have both taken a massive hit. Amongst the countless studies and surveys that have been conducted on workers' attitudes to pandemic working, being able to see colleagues face-to-face repeatedly comes out as the top reason employees cite for wanting to return to a physical workplace, for at least some days of the week.

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Microsoft's study also underscores the struggle faced by young people who entered the workforce during the pandemic, as well as workers who started a new job remotely. These workers rely heavily on more experienced peers for information about their job and the wider company, much of which is communicated through informal encounters and face-to-face interactions. With this interactivity no longer available, new starters have found it more difficult to acclimatize to their new role and be integrated into the wider organization.

It will be interesting to see what happens next, and if Microsoft's study creates a ripple effect for other companies deliberating a new remote-first or hybrid working model. Technology companies have a stake in the success of remote working, and for many, the success of their products and services relies heavily on whether they can make them a viable substitute for in-office work.

And yet, with Microsoft appearing to grow somewhat cool on the notion that remote working is sustainable in the long term (at least, in its current form), it leaves me questioning the message tech companies are trying to send about what work could – or should – look like as we move towards the future. 

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