Close to six months into different levels of sheltering in place, most organizations have been shifting their focus from temporary measures to supporting working from home long term, whether fully remote or hybrid work. A lot must come into play when working or learning remotely: connectivity, security, device deployment, and management, but nothing has been talked about more than collaboration tools. Maybe this is because collaboration involves both work and productivity and a natural need for human interactions. Technology providers that are active in the modern-work space have been adding features and intelligence that make collaboration easier and effective as well as more natural and less mentally and emotionally tasking.
As Microsoft kicked off their Microsoft Ignite conference this week, CEO Satya Nadella spoke of the foundations that technology must build on. There are four: inclusivity, trust, equity, and sustainability. Nadella also highlighted that when it comes to modern work, collaboration does not start and end in a meeting, and organizations should focus on continued learning and the wellbeing of their employees.
Corporate VP of Microsoft 365, Jared Spataro, built on that idea by highlighting the importance of not focusing on short-term productivity from treating employees like machines.
Microsoft already announced back in July some features focused on making collaboration easier like Together Mode in Microsoft Teams, but at Ignite, Spataro talked about the responsibility Microsoft feels to study the challenges and opportunities that remote work and hybrid work are presenting organizations across the world. To do so, Microsoft is relying on its own telemetry and first-party research as well as commissioning research from partners, including the likes of Harvard, Stanford universities. Finally, Microsoft will depend on their daily conversations with customers.
So far, Microsoft has learned from its Work Trend Index that people experience more flexibility and greater empathy for team members. 62% of people surveyed said they feel more empathetic toward colleagues, mostly because they connect with them in their homes. That said, there are concerns about a loss of connection and feelings of isolation. The lack of clear boundaries results in people working longer hours with growing fears of burnout, especially among information workers and first-line workers. Microsoft Teams usage gives a sense of the new work practices with hours extended from the typical nine to five, including weekends. Workday length increased 17% in Japan, 25% in the US, and 45% in Australia.
According to Spataro, business leaders went from worrying about employees’ ability to be productive while working remotely to worrying about whether people are working sustainably and healthily.
All this information has pushed Microsoft to double down on using technology to empower every person and every organization to achieve more, but doing so sustainably in all the ways possible.
In the new year, Microsoft Teams will add the option to schedule a virtual commute to allow for that time many used in the morning to get mentally ready for their day and decompress on the way home at the end of the day. Microsoft’s global study also showed that 70% of people think meditating could decrease their work-related stress. To help with that, Microsoft announced the integration of the meditation app Headspace right into Microsoft Teams. This is an interesting idea and not that different from some applications that wearables brands like Apple and Samsung have already added to their devices. The interesting part for me will be to see how organizations will communicate these features to employees as part of a broader effort to improve working conditions or a tool they see as ticking the box and getting them out of delivering any other support.
Data is helping Microsoft, but it is also helping organizations through the Microsoft Graph. From October, Microsoft will help managers through the integration of Workplace Analytics into Microsoft Teams. Managers will have the ability to analyze teamwork, after-hour collaboration, meeting effectiveness, and focus time. The integration with Microsoft Teams will allow to schedule unplug reminders, monitor the number of meetings to avoid burnout, and even check in with the employees on how they feel on a particular day. Balancing trying to help achieve a more balanced work practice with the feeling of being continuously monitored will rest mostly on how these tools are used, managers’ transparency, and the trust they built with their employees. Suggesting time to unplug when setting unreasonable deadlines will only add to the frustration and ultimately achieve the opposite result, with employees not feeling valued and cared for.
Employees are not the only ones coming to terms with this new way of working. Organizations are facing a similar learning curve. To build a more resilient business, Microsoft created a Productivity Score that will help organizations understand how they work and how they function. The Score covers five categories content collaboration, meetings, communication, teamwork, and mobility through tools such as the creation of workspaces and industry best practices on meetings effectiveness. The data across the organization can get down to the individual level or be entirely anonymized.
Microsoft is very clear that the Productivity Score is not designed as a tool to monitor employees and their output. To limit the risk that organizations could use the data in such a way, Microsoft only provides data as an aggregate over a 28-day period. The Productivity Score is about measuring the efficacy of productivity tools, and technology employees are using. It is the technology that is getting assessed, not humans.
Despite all these warnings, once again, there is a concern that organizations might just inappropriately use these tools because, sadly, it would not be the first time. Today, we have apps like Sneek, that takes photos of employees to see if they are at their desks. Meanwhile, project management programs such as Jira and Basecamp can allow managers to spot when workers are not maintaining a high level of output. The reality is that, while we have all proven we can be productive working from home, trust, often, is yet to be proven.