In today’s fast-moving, competitive, and highly connected world, we know there’s a direct relationship between good work and successful outcomes. Good work helps organizations achieve their goals, and good work makes employees feel effective and engaged.
But how do we know what good—or better yet, great—looks like? In this article, we look at some of the leading science that Microsoft is partnering with researchers on to answer some of the big questions about how people work and to help improve their effectiveness and empowerment.
For instance, take collaboration. We know meetings are necessary for effective collaboration: to advance projects, to support processes, to get things done. But done badly, meetings can also be the Achilles’ heel of a company and workforce. Every one of us has been in ineffective meetings that make us want to run away screaming in frustration. Email presents a similar problem: we need it to communicate and to do our work. At the same time, many of us are drowning in it, taking time away from other critical tasks to deal with our Frankensteining inboxes.
Is there a ‘right’ level of meetings and email, at which employees are most productive and organizations perform well—something we should aim for?
Jeff Polzer, Harvard Business School researcher and UPS Foundation professor of Human Resource Management
We all want good collaboration. But what does that mean, and what measurable impact can better meetings and email behavior have on outcomes such as how companies perform?
Jeff Polzer wants to answer just that question. The Harvard Business School researcher and UPS Foundation Professor of Human Resource Management is interested in the challenge employees face trying to strike the right balance of collaborative activities. Is there a “right” level of meetings and email, at which employees are most productive and organizations perform well—something we should aim for? And what’s the tipping point—can we pinpoint when levels of collaboration become problematic? What happens when over-collaboration pushes people to multitask more? Polzer, whose research in this area is ongoing, wants to know.
It isn’t just random curiosity. Questions such as this have a huge impact on organizations and on the economy. Once we identify the leading drivers of business outcomes, we can better predict and control those outcomes. Companies can map a clear line from behaviors, processes, and previously ephemeral concepts such as “meeting culture” to their bottom line. On a macro level, this understanding can be applied to enrich whole systems of work, reshaping how we approach productivity and drive revenue.
Once we identify the leading drivers of business outcomes, we can better predict and control those outcomes.
Uncovering overload—and why it matters
This type of collaboration research also helps organizations and employees make positive change. To be effective, any company’s measurement and change programs must be tied to science, because this is not only what helps us understand how to change, but what gets people on board to reshape their behavior. People don’t want to feel like they are just a quota; they want to feel intrinsically valued. If employees feel that their company is only interested in measuring their performance, they will find ways to game any change system or intervention.
And the need to study the impacts of human behavior on work is ongoing, because as behavior changes, people, cultures, and perceptions shift, and our need for new knowledge continues.
At Microsoft, we’re invested in cutting-edge collaboration research and understanding the factors that influence everyday work so that we can apply new, deep understanding of behaviors and their economic impact to the products we create that help organizations and employees. Collaborating with leading academics including Polzer, we are tackling some of the biggest and most fascinating questions about productivity, networks, leadership, organizational agility, culture, workspace planning, and more. Our customers are part of this journey, too, partnering in academic efforts to understand more about their own organizations and make a mark helping to evolve our collective approach to work.
Take the collaboration question: Polzer and his research team found evidence across a large sample of deidentified firms that more meeting hours per week were associated with greater company revenue up to a point, supporting the purported merits of collaboration. However, the pattern of revenue in firms with high levels of meeting hours plateaued and then declined, consistent with anecdotal stories of collaboration overload. They found similar effects for the volume of emails sent by employees. The combination of high meeting hours and emails was especially troublesome, as was the tendency for some firms to have high levels of emails sent during meetings—a form of multitasking that, when overdone, was a signal of decreased performance. For any given level of meetings and emails, firms were better off if this collaborative burden was shared more equally across employees rather than disproportionately shouldered by a subset of people.
At Microsoft, we’re invested in cutting-edge research about how work happens and the factors that influence everyday work, so that we can apply new, deep understanding of behaviors and their economic impact to the products we create that help organizations and employees.
These large sample aggregate results highlight the potential downsides of too much collaboration.
The exact point at which declines in performance set in depended on industry, company size, and even the legacy of the period in which the company was founded. Many factors combine to determine the optimal level of collaboration, and therefore the level at which it becomes counterproductive, highlighting the need for more granular research to understand how this phenomenon operates in specific companies.