Microsoft finds collaboration suffers while working remotely
Microsoft’s research has found that employee communication networks have become static and less interconnected during the pandemic’s shift to remote working. Industry watchers have said collaboration tools like email, chat, and video conferencing haven’t replicated the benefits of face-to-face communication.
Company researchers published the study this month in the scientific journal Nature Human Behavior, examining how 61,182 U.S. Microsoft employees communicated in the first six months of 2020. Meanwhile, working from home has become mandatory due to COVID-19, making in-person communication impossible.
According to the study, employees were less likely to have connections with colleagues in other business units after the arrival of remote working. Instead, workers spent more time communicating with members of pre-existing groups. This has caused a worrying decline in communication between the groups – a necessary means of conveying new information.
âTwo people linked by a strong bond can often transfer information more easily (because they are more likely to share a common perspective),â the study says. “However, [outside the group] linksâ¦ are more likely to provide access to new, non-redundant information. “
The study found that working remotely also made Microsoft’s collaboration network less dynamic. Workers met fewer new colleagues after the transition and spent less time with those they did meet. The study authors said this was problematic because workers perform better when meeting new people or reconnecting with acquaintances.
Niel Nickolaisen, CIO at Sorenson Communications in Salt Lake City, said his experience reflected the findings of the study. He found that collaboration tools, including video conferencing, did not help remote workers build and maintain the relationships necessary for colleagues to work well together.
“With products like Zoom and [Microsoft] Teams, it’s too easy not to build these relationships and too easy not to pay attention, “he said.” I can turn off my camera and work on something else. I can mute myself and work on something else. “
In addition, collaboration tools do not have the spontaneity of interactions in the office. Nickolaisen said he needs to check an employee’s calendar remotely and set up a meeting instead of just looking at employee desks and seeing if they’re available for impromptu discussions.
This lack of spontaneity makes it difficult to meet new colleagues and communicate within the company, said Mike Fasciani, analyst at Gartner. He said it’s easier to build relationships through impromptu interactions, like sharing a cup of coffee in the break room or talking in the office hallway, as opposed to having a scheduled online chat.
“As [that] the relationship is established, the scope and depth of the collaboration has a chance to become more creative and meaningful outcomes, âhe said.
Microsoft researchers attributed some of the communication gaps they discovered to the media through which employees chose to collaborate. The study indicated that synchronous communication, including phone and video calls, declined as workers chose to interact more through email and instant messaging. By using only text, employees made it more difficult to communicate complex information between them.
Distractions from online communications are also a problem, Nickolaisen said. Communicating through a computer screen means that notifications and other work tasks will always appear while employees are collaborating.
âEven though I’m interested in the topic, there are a lot of things on my screen that require my attention: a message from the CEO, an email from a member of my team asking for advice on an urgent problem, a contract to review before the deadline, âhe said.
Cultural changes are also needed
New technology features are unlikely to solve the problem on their own. Tom Arbuthnot, IT architect at systems integrator Modality Systems, said Microsoft created an “Icebreaker” bot for Teams that pairs two random people in a company for a conversation – an effort to disrupt organizational silos. However, it’s easy for employees to ignore the bot and focus on more urgent work, especially if a company isn’t actively promoting its use.
“I don’t think tools alone can fix [this],” he said.
Businesses need to tackle the problem with cultural shifts, Arbuthnot said. He suggested that organizations engaged in continuous remote work hire a full-time internal communications manager. Its role would be to promote inter-company exchanges and encourage the development of new social ties.
The study’s results come when companies try to determine how many days per week employees might be allowed to work from home once offices reopen. Businesses also need to consider the extent to which collaboration tools can replace face-to-face communications.
The answers to these questions are essential because employees prefer not to be in the office five days a week. A recent PwC survey found that 55% of 1,200 office workers wanted to do their work from home at least three days a week.
The Microsoft study authors said companies could minimize the inconvenience of working remotely by having teams in the office on set days or requiring everyone to be in the office on certain days. Another option is to allow only certain types of employees to work remotely.
Mike Gleason is a journalist specializing in unified communications and collaboration tools. He previously covered communities in the MetroWest region of Massachusetts for the Milford Daily News, Walpole time, Lawyer Sharon and Medfield Press. He also worked for newspapers in central Massachusetts and southwest Vermont and served as a local editor for Room. He can be found on Twitter at @MGleason_TT.