What science is telling us about remote work

Remote, in-office, or hybrid? Over six months in 2020, researchers have analyzed the impact of the Covid-related remote work policy on the collaboration and communication of over 61,000 US-based Microsoft employees. Here is what they have found.

Remote work and collaboration

Change in collaboration

During the study, researchers measured the number of hours Microsoft employees spent collaborating with each other. They identified six statistically significant changes related to remote work:

  1. Employees spend equal time collaborating with colleagues
  2. Employees spend less time collaborating with colleagues from other departments
  3. Employees established fewer connections with colleagues from other departments
  4. Employees spend less time collaborating with newly established connections
  5. Employees spend less time with weak connections in their network
  6. Employees spend more time with strong connections in their network

Implications of the changes in collaboration

The above observations made were generally applicable, regardless of the employees managerial status, tenure or role. This means the following for remote companies:

  • Less information and knowledge is flowing between employees who only recently got to know each other or do not know each other very well
  • More fragmented and static networks across the organization
  • More siloed behaviour across the organization can be expected

Remote work and communication

Change in communication

The patterns of communications were also examined by the researchers. Similar to collaboration, statistically significant changes were found. The seven insights were:

  1. Employees use less scheduled meeting hours
  2. Employees use more unscheduled calls
  3. Employees use less synchronous video/audio communication
  4. Employees use more asynchronous communication
  5. Employees use more email and instant messaging to communicate
  6. Employees spend more time working
  7. Managers use more instant messaging, emails, and unscheduled video/audio
  8. Engineers use more instant messages and unscheduled call hours

Implications of the changes in communication

Previous research has shown that complex information is transferred most effectively through synchronous and rich communication. Given the increase in asynchronous channels and less rich communication (email and instant messaging), remote companies will struggle with the transfer of complex information. This might aggravate or even cause the negative impact on collaboration, in particular siloed behavior, as mentioned previously.

Conclusion

Science’s take on the implications of remote work is clear: unmanaged, a company-wide remote-work policy will lead to more siloed behavior and worse flow of complex information, jeopardizing productivity in the long term.

For companies that choose remote as their default option, it will be important to create the right formal company structure and leverage existing technology that can counteract these effects. An example of the latter is the Donut app that we have previously written about here. It randomly assigns employees to connect online via video, essentially replacing the informal connections that one would make in the office, during lunch, etc. with virtual ones.

For companies pursuing hybrid solutions, the findings invalidate the commonly suggested “team days” solution. As most new information that employees receive stems from new or weak ties, assigning teams to dedicated office days does not increase the interaction between weak/new ties. Employers need to balance the time spent by team members and non-team members at the office. One potential solution that comes to mind is to rotate the teams that are simultaneously at the office, for example on a weekly basis.

Lastly, for companies that decide that their operating model is in-office, the transition must be managed carefully. As the “Great Resignation” has shown, employees are willing to leave their current employers for jobs that are either fully remote or provide more flexibility. Improving the workplace experience is one, or potentially the key factor, that can be used to entice employees to come back to the office.


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