Microsoft’s work-from-home study learned what you already knew: Meetings are too long and people are working more during the pandemic

by tsonnemaker@businessinsider.com (Tyler Sonnemaker) | Business Insider

(This article first appeared on July 21, 2020)

Microsoft’s study of remote employees found they’re working longer, more fluid hours.

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  • Microsoft analyzed the remote work habits of more than 350 of its employees during the pandemic, and published the results of its study last week in the Harvard Business Review.
  • Microsoft’s researchers found that employees’ overall time in meetings each week went up by 10% but that they took more short meetings and fewer long ones.
  • Employees are also working through lunch breaks and later in the evening than they were before.
  • Microsoft’s findings reaffirm that remote employees’ schedules are becoming increasingly fluid as the line between work and life gets more blurry.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Microsoft just completed a study of more than 350 of its remote employees’ work habits during the pandemic. Its key findings: employees are working longer and increasingly fluid hours, and they’re scheduling more, but shorter meetings.

In the Harvard Business Review last week, Microsoft discussed the results of the study, which looked at aggregated, anonymized email, calendar, and instant messaging metadata as well as employee-submitted comments, mostly from its workplace transformation team, to learn how “collaboration patterns” had changed in recent months compared with pre-pandemic times.

Microsoft’s researchers found that, perhaps unsurprisingly, remote work has forced employees to collaborate more: they’re spending 10% more time in meetings each week.

But their schedules and meeting habits don’t necessarily look like what they did when most people were in physical offices together. Specifically, employees are gravitating away from longer meetings.

“Individual meetings actually shrank in duration. We had 22% more meetings of 30 minutes or less and 11% fewer meetings of more than one hour,” they wrote in HBR.

They also attributed that change to employees themselves, saying: “Our flip to shorter meetings had come about organically, not from any management mandate.”

At the same time, the shift to remote work has forced managers to take a more active role in communicating within and across teams, reflected in the 115% jump in instant messages they’re sending compared with 50% for others, the researchers said.

Another significant change for Microsoft employees working from home, according to the study, is that they’re working longer and more fluid hours during the pandemic.

“A new ‘night shift’ has taken root, which employees are using to catch up on work — and not only focused individual work. The share of IMs sent between 6 PM and midnight has increased by 52%,” the researchers wrote.

With fewer people commuting to work, they also found that morning meetings had been abandoned in favor of afternoon ones. And with fewer people leaving the “office” for lunch, they saw just a 10% drop in instant messaging during the lunch hour, compared with 25% typically.

Work-from-home also appeared to be spilling into weekends. The 10% of employees who had the least “collaboration” pre-pandemic saw three times that amount during it, according to the researchers.

Microsoft’s study largely mirrors what other research has already revealed about remote work trends and what many people have found to be true anecdotally.

A study from Business Facilities in March found that “the U.S. increased its average workday by almost 40%, adding an extra three hours, the largest jump worldwide.” An April survey from Clockwise found a jump of 29% for time in team meetings, 24% in individual meetings, and 11% for “fragmented time.” And workers are working harder, leading 45% to report feeling burned out, according to consulting firm Eagle Hill.

As a result of this monumental shift in how work gets done, Microsoft’s researchers said that teams are now looking for “creative tactics” to communicate more effectively and efficiently while also balancing work and life.

Among the changes they’ve seen: “normalizing manager one-on-ones to help employees gain clarity and connection, increasing small-group meetings to combat the isolation of remote work, and reducing late-night instant messaging to address burnout.”

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