The hybrid dilemma – navigating Delta and the great work reshuffle

Peter Griffin

Peter Griffin

When you are the biggest software company in the world, employing 180,000 employees and touting a product line-up of hybrid working tools, the pandemic is a perfect opportunity to eat your own dog food.

So it has been for Microsoft, which announced last week it was scrapping a plan for its staff to return to the office on October 4. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella blamed the new set of circumstances that have arisen with the arrival of the Delta coronavirus variant and said employees would be given 30 days notice when the company was ready for them to return to the office.

Microsoft product lines such as the Azure Cloud, Microsoft 365 and its collaboration platform Teams have experienced strong demand through the pandemic. But a peer-reviewed study based on Microsoft’s own experience of the pandemic raises warning flags for any CEO of a large organisation facing the prospect of hybrid working being the indefinite new normal.

Lockdown behaviour

Microsoft researchers writing in the journal Nature Human Behaviour outlined the results of a study that looked at anonymised emails, calendars, instant messages, video/audio calls and workweek hours of 61,182 US Microsoft employees over the first six months of 2020.

They found that the transition to working from home driven by lockdowns in the US as coronavirus infections began to skyrocket, had a detrimental impact on the level of collaboration at Microsoft.

“Firm-wide remote work caused the collaboration network of workers to become more static and siloed, with fewer bridges between disparate parts,” the researchers noted. 

“Furthermore, there was a decrease in synchronous communication and an increase in asynchronous communication. Together, these effects may make it harder for employees to acquire and share new information across the network.”

The research represents one of the largest studies of its kind and has no doubt inspired the furious development of new features for Teams and other products to overcome barriers to collaboration in the hybrid work environment. If we don’t get hybrid work right, the economy could take a major productivity hit.

As the researchers point out: “We expect that the effects we observe on workers’ collaboration and communication patterns will impact productivity and, in the long-term, innovation. Yet, across many sectors, firms are making decisions to adopt permanent remote work policies based only on short-term data.”

An internal survey of Microsoft’s 180,000 employees in 100 countries released on the same day the Nature paper was published painted a more positive picture. 

Microsoft’s Work Trends Index 2021 – Home or the office?

Looking for focus

Microsoft’s Work Trend Index revealed that “inclusion” at the sprawling software giant was at an all-time high, with 90% of staff reporting they felt included, despite the lack of traditional ways of working together.

Around 58% of employees who plan to spend the most and least time in the office, plan to do so for the same reason – focused work.

Managers plan to spend a higher share of their time in-office than non-managerial employees (45% vs. 39%).

Satya Nadella has outlined what he calls the Great Paradox – the fact that people want flexibility in their working arrangements, but also to maintain meaningful connections with their employees.

Microsoft has been wrestling with the issue itself.

“Here at Microsoft, I can choose to work from another location, not my office for up to 50% of the time that’s flexible,” Andrew Wilson, Microsoft’s Chief Digital Officer said this week during a WorkLab Live discussion about hybrid work.

“Everybody else is doing that, but on their own timeline because they want flexibility as well. We are thinking a lot about meeting rooms, boring old meeting rooms with tables in the middle of the room and a screen at the end. That’s not really going to fly anymore. How do we create a great experience for everyone on a virtual-first basis?”

Microsoft’s MyHub app

Nathalie D’Hers, Microsoft’s Corporate Vice President of Employee Experience, said on the same webcast that as lockdowns kept workers at home Microsoft had to come up with a more streamlined way for employees

“To address that we created an internal application called MyHub, which connects all of the different aspects of the employee experience to a single mobile application,” she said.

“We were able to work with the Viva Connections team, to inspire a lot of the functionality that is now available in Viva connections to our customers,” she added. 

Wellbeing a priority

MyHub had been extremely well-received, says D’Hers. Microsoft’s Viva platform, which is currently in public preview release, had also been thoroughly tested out on Microsoft’s own workforce.

Viva Insights is an amazing module that provides really rich data for both managers and employees,” says D’Hers. 

“It gives managers insights into how their teams are feeling in terms of their connection with their manager or with their team and with the company mission. And then on the employee side, it allows people to have insight into how they’re doing in terms of balancing the work and life.”

Wilson says a priority for Microsoft as it eyes up allowing its workers to return to the office for their new hybrid working regime involves making sure delta doesn’t spread through its campuses.

On a trust basis, individuals have been able to confirm that they’re not unwell, confirmed that they have no symptoms,” he said. 

“That actually grants them access to the building, not just with a system, but actually the door system that allows them to enter… the campus. Beyond that, I think organisations are now looking very hard at how we prove that everyone is vaccinated. “

Flexibility is the theme CEOs are resigned to accommodating when it comes to work, according to another survey that Microsoft-owned LinkedIn undertook of 500 leaders of large companies in the US and UK.

It found:

– 81% of leaders have already or are planning to offer employees greater flexibility, reflecting what employees want: 87% prefer to stay remote at least half of the time. 

– 58% of leaders feel greater flexibility is good for people and the business. 

– 72% of executives believe that training is essential for people to build the skills needed to work effectively in the new hybrid and flexible work environments.  

You can edit a slide using Cameo, seamlessly add your camera feed to the presentation, customize it and then deliver the presentation directly in Microsoft Teams with PowerPoint Live.

Microsoft says the research and experience of its own use of its products has driven the latest product updates, which were announced last week and include:

  • Updates to Microsoft Teams solve for common hybrid pain points and help make hybrid meetings more inclusive and engaging.  
  • New meeting RSVP and Working Hours features in Outlook make it easier to schedule hybrid meetings and coordinate flexible work hours. 
  • The Viva Connections app in Teams, now in public preview, creates a central place for employees to connect and complete tasks without breaking the flow of work in Teams. 
  • New search filters on LinkedIn make it easier to search for remote, hybrid and onsite roles.  
  • Nearly 40 unlocked LinkedIn Learning courses make skilling for remote and hybrid jobs easier. LinkedIn is also launching its new skill-building platform, LinkedIn Learning Hub, to help employers identify and promote personalized content for their employees. Learn more. 
Peter Griffin

Peter Griffin

Peter Griffin has been a journalist for over 20 years, covering the latest trends in technology and science for leading NZ media. He has also founded Science Media Centre and established Australasia's largest science blogging platform, Sciblogs.co.nz.

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