Remote work is making productivity and innovation harder, says Microsoft study

Microsoft says its US employees spent less time communicating with colleagues outside of their immediate business teams after making working from home mandatory in 2020.

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The research found that the exchange of information was stymied by changes in communication methods.

Image: Shutterstock / Eakrin Rasadonyindee

A study of Microsoft employees in the US has concluded that the organization-wide switch to remote working in 2020 damaged communication and collaboration between different teams – while driving up working hours.

A peer-reviewed study of Microsoft's 61,100-plus US workforce found that teams became more siloed and spent less time communicating with those outside of their immediate teams in the months after the software company instructed employees to work from home in March 2020.

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The research, which was published in the journal Nature Human Behavior, also found that the exchange of information was stymied by changes in communication methods, with more employees spending less time in face-to-face meetings and more time speaking to each other via instant messaging and email. This meant less information was being shared between colleagues in real time, and more conveyed through less rich, "asynchronous" means.

SEE: Remote, hybrid or office-based? Employers are making big decisions about the future of work. This is what it might look like

Taken together, the study concluded that workers were less likely to create and maintain ties with colleagues working in different Microsoft business units, meaning they were also less likely to discover and share new information across the organization.

In an accompanying blog post, Microsoft researchers said that, while bonds were more likely to have been strengthened within teams, remote working in 2020 caused the amount of time workers spent collaborating with other groups to drop 25%.

"In light of these findings, companies will need to take proactive measures to try to help workers acquire and share new information across groups, so that productivity and innovation are not impacted," the researchers said.

Microsoft's research comes as organizations mull return-to-office plans, many of which have been temporarily scuppered by the spread of new COVID-19 variants. 

Since sending their workforces home in 2020, many companies have announced plans to continue indefinitely with allowances for remote working, including Twitter, Facebook, Slack, Salesforce, and Quora.

Proponents of remote work argue that teams don't need to be face-to-face with each other for eight hours a day, five days a week to get work done, as well as the fact that working from home effectively kills commute times, eliminates office distractions, and helps restore some work/life balance.

Microsoft's principal takeaway is that, regardless of how you mix remote and in-office work, the resulting change in how workers communicate could impact how effectively a company can innovate, by making organizational teams more siloed.

"Because remote and hybrid work are likely to persist even after the pandemic has ended, it is incredibly important to understand how these policies affect the ways that people collaborate with one another," it said.

Microsoft's study was met with a mixed response, with critics pointing out that the period during which the data was gathered (December 2019 to June 2020) was not reflective of remote working under normal circumstances.

SEE: When the return to the office happens, don't leave remote workers out in the cold

It was also representative of a company whose workforce has traditionally been office-based: the study's authors note that only 18% of its workers were working remotely prior to the pandemic, with the remaining 82% only switching to working from home in March 2020. This happened practically overnight, meaning the subsequent impact on communication and collaboration patterns is indicative of a workforce in extreme and sudden flux.

Since the forced switch to remote working, software giants have been rapidly expanding their collaborative tech offerings. Teams has been a huge revenue generator for Microsoft since companies flocked to video meetings in 2020, and Microsoft has been steadily pushing new updates to its communication and collaboration application aimed at bridging the gaps between remote and in-person communication. With this in mind, Microsoft's latest findings suggest that despite the new technology, working remotely is still a work in progress.