In a matter of weeks, the pandemic caused about one-third of US workers to shift to remove work, and nearly every American that could work from home did so. This raised massive challenges for most organizations and workers, who saw their routines drastically changed and had to quickly adapt to frequent calls and online hangouts.
But in a recent study released by Microsoft, the shift may lead us to work more hours than before.
For Microsoft, the shift came with significant consequences, according to a new study. Researchers found that the length of the workweek increased by 10% after the shift to remote work -- and that's just the start of it. Communication and collaboration were severely affected, with time spent with cross-group connections declining by 25% of the pre-pandemic level.
“Not only did information workers have to adapt to this new way of working, they had to do so in the face of a global pandemic,” a blog post by Microsoft reads. “Although it was clear that work patterns had changed during the pandemic, our research team wanted to understand what effects working remotely would have on work patterns.”
A deep look into Microsoft
For the study, the researchers looked at individual-level data describing the communication practices of 61,182 US Microsoft employees from December 2019 to June 2020. This allowed to compare the before and after Microsoft’s shift to remote work. The sample covered all employees except those who hold senior leadership roles.
The researchers looked at the remote status of each employee before the pandemic and the share of their colleagues who were already remote workers. They also considered their managerial status and their role at Microsoft, a weekly summary of the amount of time spent in meetings, and a monthly summary of their collaboration network.
There were employees at Microsoft who already worked from home before the pandemic, as well as many others who started doing so for the first time. For the study, the researchers assumed that any change in their behavior wasn’t just because of working remotely but also due to other factors mainly related to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The increase in the length of the average workweek was one of the main findings. Still, this wasn't necessarily due to employees working more hours but instead of them being less productive and requiring more time to complete their work, Microsoft claims. Even so, employees may be enjoying a time benefit, as they don't have to spend any time commuting (and the commute is often more than 10% of the work time).
The workweek was calculated by adding up the time between a person’s first sent email or message or call and the last one. This methodology could mean, the researchers added, that the longer workweek was due to the same amount of time being divided “across a greater share of the calendar day due to breaks or interruptions for non-work activities.”
The study also found that formal business groups and informal communities became “less interconnected and more siloed”. The company’s organizational structure became less dynamic, with employees adding fewer new collaborators and shedding fewer existing ones. While unscheduled calls increased, total meetings decreased by 5% of their pre-pandemic level.
“This suggests that the increase in meetings many experienced during the pandemic was not due to remote work, but due to the pandemic and related factors. Remote work also increased asynchronous communication, like email,” Microsoft’s blog post reads. “The shift to less ‘rich’ communication media may have made it more difficult for workers to convey and process complex information.”
Looking ahead, the researchers said companies will have to take proactive measures to avoid productivity and innovation being further impacted. This should include implementing a hybrid work in which certain employees come to the office on some days. Companies shouldn’t decide to implement permanent remote work based on short-term data, they added.
The picture of how remote work is affecting society is only now starting to become a bit clearer -- but there's still much to be learned. With or without the pandemic, it seems unlikely that everyone will just return to the office like before. Whatever happens, some people will be working remotely, and we need to understand what this means for them and for society as a whole.
The study was published in the journal Nature.