Home & Office

WFH has kept us productive. But it may have made us less creative, too

New research from Microsoft shows that productive employees won't be enough for businesses to remain innovative.
Written by Daphne Leprince-Ringuet, Contributor

Employees are saving on overpriced city-center lunch breaks, and employers are cutting costs on office supplies. So far so good, but according to a new Microsoft study, telecommuting might be hindering workers' creativity, getting in the way of innovative new ideas that businesses desperately need to succeed.

The research surveyed 9,000 managers and employees across 15 European markets, and it starts with some good news. While at the start of the pandemic, many companies worried that remote working would be detrimental to productivity, the opposite trend has emerged: an overwhelming 82% of senior executives reported seeing productivity levels either hold steadily or increase as a result of telecommuting.

In parallel, business leaders see the economic value of extending work-from-home policies. More than half of the decision makers surveyed expect to save costs as they reduce their office footprint and business travel expenditures.

SEE: COVID-19: A guide and checklist for restarting your business (TechRepublic Premium)

Businesses are also aware that establishing remote working as a part of company culture will hugely increase the appeal of their organization to prospective top talents, while at the same time acting as a major factor to retain their current employees.

Managers' enthusiasm for telecommuting is generally matched by employees, who see particular appeal in kissing strict office etiquettes goodbye. The majority (69%) of respondents in Microsoft's study cited dressing more casually as one of the top reasons that they enjoy working remotely, along with being able to personalize their workspace, or to work with their pet by their side.

Employees are also productive at home, as their days go undisturbed by casual interruptions, or overhearing colleagues on the phone in shared working spaces. Similar research carried out by Microsoft last year found that workers felt that 52% of their working day was wasted due to unnecessary disturbances; the number has fallen to 41% since the start of the pandemic.

The conclusion that business leaders should draw seems pretty clear: the key to success lies in continuing flexible-working practices even after the COVID-19 crisis has subsided. But although remote working has enabled sustained – and sometimes better – productivity, Microsoft's report warns that this is only one part of the picture.

Michael Parke, assistant professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania, who collaborated in the research, said: "It seems that employees are able to hunker down and get less distracted while working remotely, and they can even enjoy less or no commute times, dressing casually, and take better care of home chores."

"However, the cost seems to be a loss of sense of purpose, which at work, is largely driven through strong and cohesive relationships and seeing how your tasks have impact on others."

Working from home means that it is much harder to bond with colleagues, whether that is in a formal meeting or around lunch. Employees are feeling increasingly disconnected from their company, therefore; and according to Microsoft, this has a direct impact on businesses' ability to innovate.

Last year, says the report, up to 56% of leaders thought that their companies were innovative with their products and services; this was only the case for 40% of respondents in 2020. Without employees sharing a space, brainstorming has become much harder, meaning that new ideas struggle to come about – let alone be acted upon. 

What's more: as employees struggle to stay attached to their teams, they are less likely to remain loyal to their company. A separate study recently published by HP showed that the phenomenon is especially prevalent among younger generations, with almost half of Gen Z employees currently reporting that they feel disconnected from company culture. Holding on to top talent, in that context, is likely to become a critical business challenge.

SEE: Top 100+ tips for telecommuters and managers (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

There are various ways in which leaders can address the management issues that the global WFH experiment has brought about. To make sure that fresh ideas continue to be generated, Microsoft recommends that employers empower their employees, by letting them work on tasks with consequences or tp make decisions without a manager. 

Microsoft also suggests that senior leaders provide more support to managers, who have often found themselves suddenly having to lead teams virtually for the first time. Over 60% of the managers surveyed said that they felt they had not effectively learned how to delegate and empower virtual teams.

Sarah Fisher, general manager of human resources at Microsoft EMEA, said: "It's hard for many workers to quickly adapt to a new way of remote working. This includes managers and leaders who face the challenge of not only making sure core business objectives are met in times of increased uncertainty, but also ensuring their teams stay cohesive and engaged during a stressful time."

The overnight switch to remote working caused by the global pandemic has certainly come with a set of challenges for employees, who found themselves engaging with day-to-day work in settings ranging from unconventional to uncomfortable. Looking towards the future, however, it would seem that a greater challenge still is mounting up, this time facing business leaders. Fostering an innovative company company culture in 2020 and beyond will be no easy task – no matter how short the morning commute has become.

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