A year into the pandemic, much has been transformed about the way we conduct our working lives. One of the fundamental aspects of this is, of course, communication. Whether we are interacting via Microsoft Teams, Slack, Hangouts, Zoom, GoogleMeet or any of the many other channels out there, there’s little doubt that the events of the last twelve months - and the wide scale pivot to remote or hybrid work - has profoundly accelerated the digitalisation aspect of how we keep up with our colleagues.
According to Microsoft Corp’s first annual work-trend index - released this week - over 40 billion more emails were delivered in February of this year compared with last year. After gathering data from more than 30,000 people in 31 countries and drawing on analysis of trillions of productivity and labor signals, the Microsoft Work Trend Index also revealed that between February 2020 and February 2021:
- Weekly meetings times have surged by 148%
- Time spent in Microsoft Teams meetings has more than doubled (2.5X) worldwide. Now, aside from a dip around December, this number continues to climb.
- People are working longer, with the average meeting 10 minutes longer, rising from 35 to 45 minutes.
- People are talking more and frequently out of office hours, with the average Teams user sending a massive 45% more chats per week and 42% more chats per person after hours. These figures also continue to rise.
- The number of people working on Office documents is up 66% year over year.
Impacts on Employee Wellbeing
These large increases are less surprising in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, during which 88% of global organizations mandated or encouraged the majority of their employees to work-from-home. Even now, according to Owl Labs, over half (56%) of companies worldwide offer some kind of remote work option. However, that doesn’t mean this longterm switch to largely virtual interactions is not having a lasting effect on morale and wellbeing. The Work Trend Index found that many workers were struggling with digital overload in the face of vastly increasing hours spent in front of a screen.
One particular note of concern was that the majority (62%) of these increased calls and meetings were unscheduled or conducted without an agenda, leading to less structure and workers having less say over their own time. Despite the fact that meetings, emails and pings over chats have increased exponentially in the last year, 50% of workers admit they still respond to Teams chat in under 5 minutes. This is one figure that has not changed in the last year, indicating that many people are doing their best to maintain the same communication levels and productivity even though the volume of communications they’re receiving has surged significantly.
The cost of sustaining productivity is the ever-present risk of burnout. The results found that one in five respondents say their employer doesn’t care about their work-life balance and over half (54%) currently feel they overworked. Furthermore, 39% report feeling exhausted.
More Communication, Less Connection
While the global workforce may be communicating more than ever, that doesn’t mean they are feeling more connected to one another than ever. In the last year, employees will have interviewed remotely, been onboarded remotely, switched teams remotely, left jobs remotely, done training remotely, had performance reviews remotely and everything else in between. This can lead to a feeling of isolation and hinder an ability to feel part of a team.
As Hannah McConnaughey, Product Marketing Manager at Microsoft says about the results, “Networking as someone early in their career has gotten so much more daunting since the move to fully remote work - especially since switching to a totally different team during the pandemic. Without hallway conversations, chance encounters, and small talk over coffee, it's hard to feel connected even to my immediate team, much less build meaningful connections across the company.”
In addition to feeling less connected to their immediate teams, the pandemic and changing communication styles have also led to our wider networks shrinking in the last year. By analyzing an aggregated 122 billion email interactions and 2.3 billion meeting interactions in Microsoft Teams and Outlook across industries and countries around the world, researchers were able to conclude that distant network interactions have also gone down during this time.
The loss of these distant network interactions has real impacts on the generation of new ideas and creativity in the workplace. As Dr. Nancy Baym, Senior Principal Researcher at Microsoft points out, “[w]hen you lose connections, you stop innovating. It’s harder for new ideas to get in and groupthink becomes a serious possibility.”
Hybrid is still the way forward
With all that said, Microsoft’s research paints a positive picture about hybrid work and the future. According to the results, over 70% of workers want flexible remote work options to continue, while over 65% are eager for more in-person interactions with their teams. Hybrid options will be the solution to finding this balance and the majority of organisations surveyed globally (66%) are 66 considering redesigning physical workspaces to accommodate a hybrid set-up.
Another key positive of hybrid or remote work is the increased access to talent from anywhere. As Microsoft researchers point out in their analysis, “people no longer have to leave their desk, house or community to expand their career, and it will have profound impacts on the talent landscape.”
This has profound impacts on hiring more diverse talent. Recent LinkedIn data shows women, Gen-Z, and those without a graduate degree are more likely to apply for remote jobs. Specifically in the United States, it was found that Black and U.S. Latino workers were more likely than white workers and men to say they prefer remote work.
We are at an historical inflection point when it comes to the world of work and, as Microsoft’s Index shows, the sheer volume and rate of change over the last year has inevitably had lasting impacts - both good and bad. What matters most now is how leaders choose to proceed over the coming months in terms of communication, support, wellbeing and employee experience. As Jared Spataro, corporate vice president for Microsoft 365 writes: “the choices you make today will impact your organization for years to come. It’s a moment that requires clear vision and a growth mindset. These decisions will impact everything from how you shape culture, to how you attract and retain talent, to how you can better foster collaboration and innovation.”