Microsoft remote work study: Average length of workweek has increased 10% during pandemic

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A Microsoft study examining technology usage by its employees has revealed a decrease in cross-company communication, and sparked a lively discussion about the long-term impact of remote work on collaboration, productivity, and innovation.

But the peer-reviewed study, published last week in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, includes another notable finding that could also resonate beyond Microsoft’s virtual walls: The length of the average workweek inside the company increased by about 10% after the shift to remote work.

However, the researchers say that doesn’t necessarily mean employees are working more hours within the span of that longer workweek.

They explain, “The increase in workweek hours could be an indication that employees were less productive and required more time to complete their work, or that they replaced some of their commuting time with work time; however, as we are able to measure only the time between the first and last work activity in a day, it could also be that the same amount of working time is spread across a greater share of the calendar day due to breaks or interruptions for non-work activities.”

Changes in Microsoft employee technology usage and workweek hours, from “The effects of remote work on collaboration among information workers,” published Sept. 9, 2021, in the journal Nature Human Behaviour. Shorter holiday weeks caused some of the temporary dips. See detailed notes.

Here’s how they calculated workweek hours, according to the study: “The sum across every day in the workweek of the time between a person’s first sent email or IM, scheduled meeting or Microsoft Teams video/audio call, and the last sent email or IM, scheduled meeting or Microsoft Teams video/audio call. A day is part of the workweek if it is a ‘working day’ for a given employee based on their work calendar.”

Microsoft’s study, analyzing the tech usage of more than 61,000 employees, was released as part of a broader look at the future of work by Microsoft and LinkedIn.

The findings have drawn widespread attention and analysis as companies and workers grapple with the implications of remote work — extended by the COVID-19 Delta variant — and make future plans to return to the office or establish hybrid workplaces.

A giant study at Microsoft adds to the growing picture of the sudden shift to remote work: the problem is not with existing work & teams; it is the future of organizations. People stop creating new bonds & become more siloed. Bad for innovation & careers.

— Ethan Mollick (@emollick) September 10, 2021

Here are the key findings as summarized in a Microsoft Research blog post.

  • [T]he shift to remote work caused the formal business groups and informal communities within Microsoft to become less interconnected and more siloed.
  • Remote work caused the share of collaboration time employees spent with cross-group connections to drop by about 25% of the pre-pandemic level.
  • Furthermore, firm-wide remote work caused separate groups to become more intraconnected by adding more connections within themselves.
  • The shift to remote work also caused the organizational structure at Microsoft to become less dynamic; Microsoft employees added fewer new collaborators and shed fewer existing ones.

But this sentiment from the Nature Human Behaviour article is getting much of the scrutiny: “We expect that the effects we observe on workers’ collaboration and communication patterns will impact productivity and, in the long-term, innovation.”

In a detailed Twitter thread, Steven Sinofsky, a technology investor and advisor, and former Microsoft Windows president, cautioned against equating communication with collaboration, or drawing conclusions about the potential impact of the change in communication on productivity and innovation.

3/ I have no doubt that this research accurately captures the flow of information using digital tools around the company for over 60K people. That's a huge amount of work and analysis. Kudos. The challenge from the outset is that it conflates that flow with "collaboration".

— Steven Sinofsky (@stevesi) September 14, 2021

Overall, the Microsoft researchers contend that it’s too early to fully assess the long-term impact of remote work, and companies attempting to set long-term policies now could face unintended consequences down the road.

In many cases, they write in the journal article, “firms are making decisions to adopt permanent remote work policies based only on short-term data.”

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