The Remote Work Experiment: How Are Employees Faring?

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Remote work has been a blessing and a curse this year for the vast numbers of employees who made a very sudden adjustment.

Like companies across the country, Microsoft suddenly sent its workforce home four months ago with fingers crossed and plenty of questions about how employees would handle remote work. Today, they have some answers, thanks to data they collected through Workplace Analytics and anonymous surveys. And it’s not all what they expected.

No More 9 to 5

Microsoft studied things like work-life balance and collaboration by comparing email, calendar and IM metadata with pre-pandemic metadata and asking employees to share their thoughts and feelings. One thing was immediately clear: Employees were “on” more than four additional hours per week.

A part of that increase, according to employee surveys, resulted from the windows of time during the day that employees tended to personal matters like exercise and childcare. So they were logging on earlier and punching out later, often spending their evenings catching up on what they missed while they were teaching their kids math or taking Killer for a walk.

But some of those additional four hours could be accounted for in the 22% increase in meetings. Thankfully, those meetings were shorter than the typical in-office kind: The 30-minute meeting took over employee calendars with the onset of remote work.

Talk to the Manager

Managers absorbed a great deal of the increased burden of keeping everyone connected, handling twice as many Teams calls—14 hours per week! While employees sent 50% more instant messages (IMs) in March, managers sent 115% more.

Those manager meetings appear to be time well-spent helping employees doing remote work to protect their time and manage priorities. Employees who spent the most weekly one-on-one time with their managers saw the lowest spikes in their work hours.

All these meetings and IMs have shattered previously ingrained routines. The new workday is fragmented “like Swiss cheese,” according to one employee, as teams get more flexible to accommodate personal responsibilities (and all those meetings!). Here are three emerging trends:

  • IM volume in the office typically dipped 25% during lunch hour; it dips only 10% now.
  • Typically quiet evening hours have given way to a “night shift” as employees catching up on work between 6 p.m. and midnight increased 52%.
  • Among employees who previously did the least amount of collaboration on the weekends, weekend work has tripled from less than 10 minutes to about 30.

Remote Work Drives a Zoom Boom

While Microsoft expected networks to suffer, it appears they actually thrived in the remote work paradigm. Employees connected more, both within their own work groups and with others.

Virtual social meetings increased by 10% the first month of working remotely. (I’d like to see a month-by-month chart to see how those numbers likely declined when Zoom Fatigue set in.) One-on-one meetings among colleagues increased by 18%, and teams caught up over lunch, happy hours and fun new additions like “pajama day” and “meet my pet.”

Planning for the Next New Normal

For its part, Microsoft is watching these trends and looking for ways to implement remote work processes to support social connection, productivity and work-life balance, including:

  • Normalize manager one-on-one meetings to help employees gain clarity and connection.
  • Increase small-group meetings to combat the isolation of remote work.
  • Reduce late-night IM communication to address burnout.
  • Consider meeting-free “Recharge Fridays” so employees can focus.
  • Encourage employees to take vacation to relax and unplug.

Our company cultures may be vastly different, but these trends mirror much of what we’re seeing at Content4Demand. That may seem surprising when you consider that we’ve always worked remotely. But we’re adapting to some of the same childcare challenges, the same household disruptions and the same general trauma as the rest of the country.

Are you struggling to adapt to remote work? Check out “Working Remotely: Virtual Employees Share Key Productivity Tips.

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