Study: remote work is slowing productivity and innovation

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The Microsoft study found employees spent less time communicating and collaborating with colleagues outside of their immediate business teams. Employees do work longer hours.

A study of Microsoft employees in the US concluded that the organization-wide switch to remote working in 2020 damaged communication and collaboration between different teams. It also found that remote working drove up working hours.

These are the results of a peer-reviewed study in the journal Nature Human Behavior. The study looked at Microsoft’s US workforce in the months after the software company instructed employees to work from home in March 2020. They found that that teams became more siloed and spent less time communicating with those outside of their immediate teams

Losing the benefits of “non-redundant information”

“Previous research has shown that network topology, including the strength of ties, has an important role in the success of both individuals and organizations,” the study says.

“For individuals, it is beneficial to have access to new, non-redundant information through connections to different parts of an organization’s formal organizational chart,” it continues. It is also important for employees to have connections to different parts of an organization’s informal communication network.

“Furthermore, being a conduit through which such information flows by bridging ‘structural holes’ in the organization can have additional benefits for individuals,” they claim.

The study observed that the exchange of information was stymied by changes in communication methods. This meant more employees spending less time in face-to-face meetings. Instead, they spent more time speaking to each other via instant messaging and email. This in turn led to less information sharing amongst colleagues in real-time. Instead, information was conveyed through less rich, “asynchronous” means.

Proponents of remote work have a counter argument. They say teams don’t need to be face-to-face for eight hours a day to get work done. They also point out that working from home effectively eliminates commute times. Office distractions are also removed. And of course home working helps restore some work-life balance.

It seems that for Microsoft, there is one major take-away. They believe that mixing remote and in-office work changes how workers communicate. This change could impact how effectively a company can innovate, by making organizational teams more isolated from each other.