There is only one undisputed fact that that can be said about the current debate around the state of remote work. That is that we have arrived at a seminal point in the evolution of the workplace. It is still not clear when many enterprises will return to the physical workplace or if they will at all, but what is clear is that we will not be returning to the situation we were in before COVID.
The Disruptive Shift to Remote Working
It is arguable that before the pandemic there was a move towards some remote working, but it was slow and limited. However, what happened globally was unprecedented. Take the example of the US. According to research built around a survey of over 61,000 employees carried out by Microsoft and LinkedIn, the change has been so great that they have even come up with a name for it, notably The Great Reshuffle.
It’s good that someone has come up with such a simple name because it describes something that is complex and even quite brutal. According to the study, which was published in the journal, Nature Human Behavior, before the COVID-19 pandemic, at most 5% of Americans worked from home for more than three days per week whereas it is estimated that, by April 2020, as many as 37% of Americans were working from home (WFH) full-time.
This means that in a matter of weeks, the pandemic caused about one-third of US workers to shift to remote work and nearly every American that was able to work from home did so. Many technology companies, such as Twitter, Facebook, Square, Box, Slack and Quora, have taken this shift one step further by announcing longer term and, in some cases permanent, remote work policies that will enable at least some employees to work remotely, even after the pandemic.
There are numerous differing findings from the report, which was released just after Microsoft announced that workers would not be returning to the physical workplace on October 4 as originally predicted. But one of the key findings is that the shift to remote work has had a significant impact on workplace communication and collaboration between workers.
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Communication and Collaboration Disruptions
In sum, Microsoft’s companywide shift to remote work has hurt communication and collaboration among different business groups inside the company, threatening employee productivity and long-term innovation. The report reads:
“Our results show that the shift to firm-wide remote work caused business groups within Microsoft to become less interconnected. It also reduced the number of ties bridging structural holes in the company’s informal collaboration network and caused individuals to spend less time collaborating with the bridging ties that remained.”
It continues: Furthermore, the shift to firm-wide remote work caused employees to spend a greater share of their collaboration time with their stronger ties, which are better suited to information transfer, and a smaller share of their time with weak ties, which are more likely to provide access to new information."
Silos Get Deeper
The shift, in fact, has aggravated one of the digital workplace problems that organizations have been struggling with for more than 20 years, notably siloed work. Siloed work means siloed content and siloed content makes enterprises less productivity. So, has remote work truly made organizations less competitive?
The Role of Technology
As remote work has become a normal part of life, employees are starting to recognize that they need to communicate with other parts of the business in order to be successful in their role. Technology advancements have allowed this to happen easier and faster than ever before, according to Vadim Tabakman, VP of global presales at process automation and workflow management software at Bellevue, WA-based Nintex.
“In the early days of the pandemic and remote work, video conferencing tended to be more like telephone conference calls — as everyone kept their cameras off,” he said. “Fast forward 18 months, and we are seeing most cameras are turned on by default, as people want to have some more human interaction, even if it's just through a screen.”
When everyone was in the office it was easier to have group meetings, where meeting leaders could pull people into a room rather quickly. Now, however, employees are really considering who needs to be in meetings and who doesn’t need to be in meetings, to improve overall productivity and usefulness of that meeting. That means thinking about collaboration cross-functionally.
Collaboration between different business units has increased and has also been streamlined to make the best use of time and drive success. He also points out that it is possible to find areas of any business where Microsoft’s claims are correct or incorrect, and it all depends on the technology and resources that employees have at their disposal
"Communication is key in a remote working environment. Making sure team members communicate with each other and cross-functionally, will be paramount to making sure projects are completed on time, accurately, and meeting or exceeding the requirements,” he added.
“Video conferencing technology is crucial to driving good collaboration between team members and teams. But it's not the only tech that is important,” he said. “A centralized collaboration framework, where teams can work together with common productivity tools, is the ideal way to foster collaboration.
More or Less Communication?
Scott Hirsch is CTO and co-founder of Canada-based TalentMarketplace, which runs a recruitment platform for the tech industry. He believes that the shift to remote work caused the formal business groups and informal communities within Microsoft to become less interconnected and more siloed.
The research also found that remote work caused the share of collaboration time employees spent with cross-group connections to drop by about 25% of the pre-pandemic level. Companywide remote work caused separate groups to become more interconnected by adding more connections within themselves.
However, remote working is not the problem, he said. “Remote work certainly changed the workplace dynamic, but it does not cause isolation — that happens because of poor management. In the virtual world, companies must adapt so their work culture is well converted to the online sphere,” he said. He added that a company culture is evidenced by the way employees and employers of a company interact with each other, and most of all, how people feel about working in the company.
Remote Work Is Not the Problem
Amie Devero, an executive coach and strategy consultant to tech companies, agrees that in her experience the pandemic and remote work hasn't really impeded work-related communication per se. There has continued to be team meetings and one-on-ones. But the lateral and diagonal communication between members of different teams, between managers with team-members of other teams, between tenured and new employees in different functions — those have largely stopped. “Individual teams communicate within themselves. They craft their own strategies and tactics, not to mention cultivating their own cultures,” she said.
“That erodes the grand vision of one strategy and one mission. So disparate teams have little experience or knowledge about other teams except through scorecards or dashboards. Relationships don't form or get fostered. Innovation exists in a smaller setting with fewer interconnections. Since innovation depends on connections made between unlike or even unlikely things, it is, by definition, limited.
Microsoft's Responds to Internal Trends
Microsoft is already building on this research and in the past, has attempted to bridge any communication gaps with Teams. A fundamental component of effective meetings is the feeling of togetherness. Microsoft’s commitment to improving that feeling and to build a better hybrid work environment can be seen with their Teams Together Mode and Team Rooms innovations,” Curtis Johnstone, distinguished engineer of Microsoft platform management at Newport Beach, Calif.-based Quest Software, told us.
He points out that Microsoft continues to invest in making remote meeting experiences more immersive, and more engaging for meeting participants. In addition to investing in Together Mode, Microsoft has also invested heavily in meeting extensibility. This allows custom apps to integrate into the before, during, and after meeting experiences, to make them more productive and customized for the purpose they serve.