Over the last two years, we have witnessed the world of work change dramatically as we collectively embarked on a journey that would take us from remote working at scale to a more flexible hybrid approach. But as we head towards the time of year for self-reflection and lessons we have learned, the downsides of remote working are beginning to surface.
A recent study of 61,000 Microsoft employees published in the Journal Nature Human Behaviour revealed insights around the impacts of digital overload and zoom fatigue. The data was collected between December 2019 and June 2020. What makes the results intriguing is the stark contrast of a pre-pandemic world where only 18% of Microsoft employees worked remotely and what happened after the tech giant was forced to go fully remote on March 25th, 2020.
The working from home experiment
For many years, employees romanticized the idea of greater flexibility and working from home. If they could get away from back-to-back meetings in the office and constant distractions, they could be so much more productive. Debates around working from home vs. in the office gained momentum as bosses shuffled uncomfortably at the increasing number of requests coming their way.
The arrival of a global pandemic created an international working from a home experiment with businesses forced to go fully remote. What followed was a much higher number of meetings, emails, and instant messages on a variety of collaboration tools, with many feeling the need to over-compensate which resulted in longer days.
In a dark turn, a lack of face-to-face time made employees feel less interconnected, more siloed, less dynamic, and less likely to make any new connections. Reduced engagement, serendipity, and random conversations at the water cooler with a colleague from another team led to employees feeling dissatisfied and how they should be careful what they wished for.
The importance of face-to-face collaboration and communication
The problem with the binary choice of fully remote working is that video conferences and collaboration tools allow us to switch off our cameras and mute our microphones to work in isolation. Unfortunately, in doing so, we distance ourselves from our colleagues and stop investing in the relationships that build team spirit and drive innovation.
One of the most revealing insights from the study of 61,000 Microsoft employees was the impact that fully remote work had on the communication and interaction between different teams. Upon discovering that remote work caused employees' collaboration time with cross-group connections to drop by 25% of the pre-pandemic level, CEO Satya Nadella warned that we are endangering innovation by shrinking our networks.
When retreating to our silos, we are less likely to make new connections, making it challenging to acquire and share new information across an organization. After 12 months of remote working, it seemed that many had underestimated the value that casual collisions and serendipitous meetings in the office bring to a business.
There's a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by email and iChat. That's crazy. Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they're doing, you say 'wow,' and soon you're cooking up all sorts of ideas.".- Steve Jobs
Paving the way for the hybrid workplace
As we approach two years of the pandemic, some businesses are still debating the pros and cons of remote vs. office working. Although most will agree that collaborative creative thinking is hard to do remotely, one of the biggest lessons we have learned is that how we work is no longer a binary choice, and there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach.
Microsoft's study of itself that finished in June 2020 also puts into perspective just how far we have come in the last 18 months. Of course, in the beginning, going fully remote was a struggle for employers and employees alike. But it highlighted the value of serendipity, building meaningful connections outside of our teams. In the short term, fully remote working also increases productivity, but creativity will take a big hit in the long term.
We now have a wealth of collaboration tools at our disposal, such as email, video conferencing, and instant messaging services. But we have learned that there isn't a way to replicate in-person communication. Looking back at the data from Microsoft's study provides a timely reminder of the Steve Jobs quote:"you can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So, you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future."
However, the lessons we have learned over the last two years should be enough to urge employers to rethink everything from their office space, how they collaborate, and the technology required to ensure the hybrid workplace will prove the best of both worlds and work for everyone.