After a year of Zoom meetings, people are yearning for in-person connection at work. Interactions once considered foreign (like muting yourself after you finished speaking or turning off your camera to subtly suggest that you have left the room) now seem normal.
Microsoft did research early into the pandemic to explore how their employees have adjusted to the virtual office. Their analytics team observed employee activity on Microsoft 365 (which probably includes emails, calendar, instant message, video conferences, documents) and collected additional information through sentiment surveys. The team used their own product, Microsoft Workplace Analytics, to analyze the data (and the article felt a little like an advertisement for this product). Though some employees may find it concerning how much of their data Microsoft can collect and analyze, the activities described in the article are an excellent use of workforce data.
First, the company had a good reason for observing workforce patterns. It is important to understand how employees are faring with a completely new way of working and using that information to create change. In other words, Microsoft did not analyze data for the sake of analyzing data. Second, this research led to meaningful insights. The team learned that workdays had lengthened and people were increasingly on their computers during lunch and dinner time. From this, Microsoft inferred that the work-life balance lines had become blurred during the pandemic, and they would need to figure out how to manage this to ensure their employees’ lives were sustainable. They also learned that managers’ work time had increased above average. Finally, Microsoft observed an increase in 1:1s across the company and virtual social meetings, suggesting that their employees craved social connection.
Of course, employees may still be uncomfortable with knowing that their behaviors are being observed. Even though Microsoft disaggregated and de-identified the data, it still feels as if the company has the ability to check on the data of any individual employee. But the purpose of using this workforce data is to help employees cope with this new way of working, which makes this research worth sacrificing a little less privacy. Setting privacy concerns aside, employees should not be doing anything at work that they would not want their employer to see.
So what should Microsoft’s next steps be, given their observations? The company’s first priority is to make sure the managers’ work life is sustainable. The data suggested that managers were key to the successful transition to virtual, and yet they seemed to be the ones who were affected most. The answer is unclear what they should do. One small solution is to have a workshop led by successful managers who share with their peers their tips on managing during a pandemic.
Secondly, Microsoft should set a guideline for managers to increase their 1:1s with their direct reports. This seems to go against the previous recommendation; it seems silly to ask managers to cut back on work, but still increase the time spent with each employee. But Microsoft found a negative correlation between the number of hours worked and the time spent in manager 1:1s (i.e. the more time you spend in 1:1s with your manager, the less hours you work). The theory is that the 1:1s help align managers and employees, saving the employees from spinning their wheels or prioritizing the wrong projects. If this is true, managers might actually be able to save time for themselves in the long run by spending time upfront to make sure their employees are on the same page as them.
Finally, Microsoft should set guidelines that encourage certain times be treated as sacred (e.g., lunchtime, dinnertime, weekends). A more radical approach would be to give managers a heads up if their direct reports are working during lunchtime or weekends. This could prompt the manager to talk to the employee and find out whether the employee has too much work on their plate or if this is just how the employee personally likes to work. The drawback here is that people might be uncomfortable with this level of monitoring.