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Peter_Baker
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Editor’s Note: COVID-19 continues to have a tremendous impact on people and communities around the world, challenging us to adapt to worksite and school closures, travel and gathering restrictions, and erosions of the boundaries between work and life—all at once. So, what does a cross-functional team of engineers, data scientists, analysts, and marketers that lives in the space between workplace culture and data do when presented with the world’s largest work-from-home shift? It, well, does its homework. In this blog series, we’ll share real-time learnings as we measure the impact of this unprecedented shift away from the office, and back again, on how Microsoft employees work, connect, and balances our lives. We hope these insights will teach us something about how work is changing and help us all get through this, together.

 

Like other organizations, Microsoft Denmark was not expecting to suddenly send its employees to work from home offices, kitchens, and living rooms earlier this year. But from that first, unexpected day of remote work, leaders knew that in order to support not only employees but also customers, they would have to learn what people and teams needed most to feel connected and collaborate effectively.

Months after that pivot, the 700-person organization has re-imagined how it functions. On a recent call, Microsoft Denmark General Manager Nana Bule, Communications Director Ditte Namer, and Human Resources Lead Camilla Hillerup appeared in discrete Teams boxes to talk with us about the experience of working remotely and the subsequent soft re-opening of offices. With distinct backgrounds in their own video squares—a green-and-sand-colored block wall, floor-to-ceiling glass, and a squiggly abstract painting— it looked like everyone had joined the meeting from a private location.

But looks can be deceiving. Toward the end of the call, Bule swung her computer camera around to reveal Namer sitting nearby, just at the other end of a shared conference table. The Denmark offices are equipped with high-tech, responsive conferencing tools that can capture a roomful of meeting attendees with ease. So why did we, on the other end of the call, only see the co-workers appear separately? Inclusion.

 

“We’re in the same room, but we chose to each have our own camera on, so that it feels like we are all working under the same circumstances,” Bule said. “We have more complexity now, with some employees being at home, some being in the office, some in the same office but different rooms.” In a physical office, she explained, meeting attendees in a single room can easily engage with each other, get up to use a whiteboard, and read social cues to intuit who wants to speak. The new and fast-evolving hybrid model requires an added layer of conscientiousness to achieve the same experience. “To really practice this hybrid model of work, here and with all our customers, is another change curve.”

 

To find balance, we wanted to stay close to everyone.

The focus on inclusion has been one of three central beacons for Microsoft Denmark’s leadership as it navigated through disruption. Unwavering customer focus and supportive leadership are the others. To follow this three-pronged North Star, the team relied on two key inputs: listening closely to employees about their experiences and needs; and data, to quantify how work was shifting and get beyond a one-size-fits-all mentality.

 

 

Stability through leadership

As companies move to new ways of working, leaders are trying to find effective ways to maintain productivity while prioritizing employee wellbeing and nurturing engagement. For leaders in the Denmark subsidiary, which includes a wide variety of workers, a development center, a quantum lab, and a team of sellers, this meant first quickly establishing regular communication to support employees once the office closed. Daily emails from HR helped translate and contextualize critical government and health news to a 50 percent non-Dane workforce, and weekly All Hands meetings, an employee survey, and extra manager support aimed to keep people connected and help them feel seen.

“To find that balance, we wanted to stay close to everyone,” Hillerup said.

 

Once these leadership foundations were in place, Microsoft Denmark leaders sought to assess how work behaviors were shifting so they could tap more deeply into what individuals and teams truly needed not only to survive, but to thrive through waves of transition. A massive shift had taken place, and another one—a staggered return to the office as Covid risks reduced—was around the corner. How were people impacted? Were they working more? Unable to focus? Able to support customers? Were people maintaining their connections?

Early themes were already emerging from observations, conversations, and an employee survey: Managers’ workloads were a concern, and some teams seemed less connected than others in the new remote environment.

These anecdotes led to hypotheses and more questions. To find answers, leaders turned to Workplace Analytics, which uses aggregated, de-identified calendar, email, and instant message metadata to measure changing patterns in everyday work.

 

Starting at the surface

First, the team sought to uncover the broad trends. They learned that while the time people spent in email stayed about the same, meeting time had increased about 9 percent across their group once people went remote—an average of one hour more per week per person. This increase appeared to have happened more or less equally for individual contributors and managers, though managers had less room to maneuver their time because they already experienced higher meeting loads. A 35 percent increase in the use of instant messages for both 1:1 and group communications was also revealed. Leaders hypothesized that the collaboration increase was driven by people replacing what used to be unscheduled, face-to-face office conversations with digital ones.

 

Finding: Meeting time increased an average of 1 hour a week per person, and instant messages were up 35 percent.

The data seemed positive: While collaboration had increased some, the average lengths of people’s workweeks didn’t spike the way they had in some other locations, nor was the workforce as a whole working more evening hours, a sign that work-life integration is suffering.

 

Bar chart comparing meeting, email and IM hours pre-work from home and during the work-from-home period

 

With customer service as a central beacon, leaders also wanted to understand what was happening with external connections—were employees able to maintain their external networks, critical to customer service and satisfaction?

 

Data allowed us to ask the right questions.

 

Finding: External collaboration increased, and networks grew.

Measuring the changes since remote work began, the team found that collaboration hours with customers and partners had increased 7 percent. The insights also surfaced another positive piece of news: After the shift to remote work, external network size (the average number of people with whom employees have meaningful interactions) grew 8 percent, and network breadth (the average number of organizations an employee connected with) grew 7 percent. Despite the disruption, employees were prioritizing connections to meet the needs of customers and partners.

“We learned a lot about which types of meetings and workshops work really well virtually,” said Jakob Falkesgaard, a senior customer service manager, who was experiencing in real time how to optimize remote work while simultaneously advising customers on the same. “For instance, you can really lose the energy of a team if you do not facilitate meetings right. If you do it well, you can be so inclusive that everyone feels like they are around the table. We focused on bringing that storyline and capability to customers.”

 

Looking more deeply

It was clear that remote work hadn’t suddenly sent all Microsoft Denmark’s employees into overdrive, and that critical connections to customers and partners were being protected. But leaders knew that people were facing a variety of challenges, and that some were likely struggling. To truly understand how this rapid shift in ways of working was impacting people, they would have to go beyond a one-size-fits-all mentality.

Using the data, the Denmark leadership and Workplace Analytics teams grouped employees into seven groups based on changes in their collaboration activity and their length of weeks. To ensure employee privacy and look at broad trends only, the analysis was done with anonymized data, aggregated in groups of a minimum of 10 people or more.

It was then that a powerful story emerged. While the overall impact on the workforce as a whole was fairly mild, the abrupt break in routine and sudden isolation from their teams had actually affected employees from Microsoft Denmark in measurably different ways.

 

 

Finding: On aggregate and within each team, the response to remote work varied widely. While about a third of employees maintained steady collaboration and work levels, others saw reduced activity, and another third experienced a significant increase in collaboration.

 

The results of the classification and analysis showed that, once work went remote, only 35 percent of employees (the Business As Usual, or BAU, group) had been able to continue with the level of collaboration and the workweek length that was within their usual historical patterns.

Some employees, meanwhile, were experiencing a reduction in activity and lower workweek spans. The classification showed that 30 percent of the workforce experienced less-than-usual collaboration activity. Of that group, about 15 percent had shifted their collaboration to the early mornings and evenings, indicating a struggle to simultaneously meet their work and personal responsibilities.

Yet another 35 percent had experienced a significant increase in collaboration, and of those, about half also experienced longer weeks. A subset of this group was classified as being at high risk of overload: They saw their workweeks lengthen by 7 hours on average and were collaborating 8 hours a week more than before they had begun working from home.

“Data allowed us to identify these groups and ask the right questions. For those working more than usual: How long can you continue to work at twice the speed?” Bule said. “And for parts of the organization that were less connected: How do we support them? Are we close enough to all of our people? With this knowledge, we could take action.”

 

 
 

Read more on Microsoft Workplace Insights.

 

This article is written by Natalie Singer-Velush, Carlos Morales Torrado and Ainize Cidoncha and originally appeared on October 6 2020 in Microsoft Workplace Insights.