Microsoft just revealed the future of work. There's one big problem

Redmond declares its learnings about hybrid work. But how do you stop it from becoming a torrid mess? A Stanford professor has a suggestion.
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer

Where is everyone?

Screenshot by ZDNet

There's a simple word to describe the relationship between companies and the future of work.

It's complicated.

This is one theme that instantly emerges from Microsoft's new treatise on what it's learned during the pandemic.

Released last week, Hybrid Work: A Guide For Business Leaders is a veritable shrink appointment of soul-baring and hope-inciting. As well as a veritably clear attempt at Microsoft product-selling.

Simply Very Complicated.

You'd think, perhaps, that allowing employees to choose whether to work at home or not would be a simple, freeing affair. Yet, in this new hybrid model of work-life, Redmond sees little that's simple.

Instead, in the words of CEO Satya Nadella: "Everything becomes more complex, not less complex."

I pored over the details and found some thoughtful gems.

This, for example: "Develop company-wide norms to create inclusive meetings –-- from configuring meeting rooms to optimize for remote participants, to encouraging onsite participants to join Microsoft Teams as soon as they enter the room, so remote participants don't miss out on the informal banter crucial to rebuilding social capital and connection."

Banter is such an underrated element in the holding together of corporate existence. Without being able to make jokes about the company and your colleagues, without being able to gossip about, well, the company and your colleagues, employees become machine parts, there to fulfill processes.

I do worry that such banter will be recorded, thanks to the glory that is Microsoft Teams. Employees can only hope access to such recordings is severely restricted.

Still, Microsoft believes that the new hybrid work model can function very well with employees having the option of working from home up to 50% of the time. Oddly, Microsoft also says its research in China shows that the optimal time for working from home is three days a week. Wait, does everyone at Microsoft only get one day off a week?

The thoughtfulness of optimal hybridity seems remarkably civilized, especially as Microsoft concedes that 73% of its employees want flexible work options to stay once the pandemic has passed.

Think First Of Those Not With Us.

Redmond again concedes that bosses have largely had a comfortable time of its during the pandemic while employees have most certainly not. That's one reason why it wants meetings to be optimized for those not physically in the room. (And, hey, look at all these big Teams screens we can sell you.)

Microsoft emphasizes two vital areas for business leaders: Listening to employees and looking at the data. Sadly, Jared Spataro, Corporate Vice President for Microsoft 365, puts the latter before the former.

This might be easier but it may not be wiser.

Ultimately, I left this document believing that Microsoft was entirely following Nadella's new stance of not trying to be cool (wait, when was Microsoft cool?) and trying to make it cool to help its customers.

Moreover, this was an anthem to releasing employees from the excess strains of commuting and smiling at people in the office.

A Blooming Problem.

But just as I reached for a glass of relieving Cabernet -- this isn't a short document -- I was assaulted by Nicholas Bloom, William Eberle Professor of economics at Stanford University and a co-director of the Productivity, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship program at the National Bureau of Economic Research. (No one at Stanford has a short title. They'd find it demeaning.)

Technically, I was assaulted by an article he wrote in, of all odd places, the Harvard Business Review.

Bloom, too, insists that "the future of working from home is hybrid." Yet he has one enormous caveat to Microsoft's somewhat idealistic, employee-driven picture of that future.

His research has led him to change the advice he now gives companies. And some of its centers around the very banter Microsoft seeks to support.

Says Bloom: "I hear endless anxiety about this generating an office in-group and a home out-group."

He offers this example: "Employees at home can see glances or whispering in the office conference room but can't tell exactly what is going on. Even when firms try to avoid this by requiring office employees to take video calls from their desks, home employees have told me that they can still feel excluded."

They worry, you see, that those physically in the office go off for a coffee together, chat some more and, who knows, plot their world takeover or gossip about the person who's working from home.

Bloom has another concern: Diversity. He says that "among college graduates with young children, women want to work from home full-time almost 50% more than men."

In his research long before the pandemic, Bloom found that those working from home were far less likely to get promoted than their commuting counterparts.

He explains: "Single young men could all choose to come into the office five days a week and rocket up the firm, while employees with young children, particularly women, who choose to WFH for several days each week are held back. This would be both a diversity loss and a legal time bomb for companies."

Bloom's solution is simple if, for some, painful. Managers must dictate which of the hybrid days are designated working-from-home days. Moreover, some coordination will be required. Otherwise, perhaps, every team will choose Monday and Friday to work from home and the office will only be populated three days a week.

I suspect there will be an enormous amount of experimentation going on between now, as offices reopen, and the end of the year.

I wonder what Microsoft's next learning exposé will say. And I wonder what it'll recommend.

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