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Biggest takeaway from pandemic lockdowns for Microsoft? Teams stopped talking to each other

Maybe they were using, you know, Microsoft's collaboration service

As the majority of the desk-based workers lurched to working from home during the pandemic-induced lockdowns of 2020 and 2021, communication between teams fell and working hours increased.

In a peer-reviewed study published in Nature Human Behaviour today, researchers from Microsoft showed how colleagues at the Redmond-based software biz changed their communication and collaboration patterns during the first months of isolation.

Using data gathered from circa 61,000 Microsoft employees in the US between December 2019 to June 2020, the study shows that company-wide remote work caused the collaboration network to become more static and siloed: people were less likely to communicate with those outside their immediate business teams compared with when they spent time in the office.

At the same time, there was a decrease in so-called synchronous communication – phone calls, video meetings or face-to-face meetings – and an increase in asynchronous communication such as email, SMS or corporate chat, the data from emails, calendars, instant messages, and video/audio calls showed.

Together, these effects may make it harder for employees to acquire and share new information across the network, said the research team led by Longqi Yang, a senior applied researcher at Microsoft. In an accompanying blog, Microsoft said collaboration time employees spent with cross-group connections dropped by about 25 per cent of the pre-pandemic level.

The company blog argued that even if firms mixed working from home with office work – so-called hybrid work – the effects on collaboration patterns would still be present, albeit slightly mitigated.

"Without intervention, the effects we discovered have the potential to impact workers' ability to acquire and share new information across groups, and as a result, affect productivity and innovation. In light of these findings, companies should be thoughtful about if and how they choose to adopt long-term work-from-home policies," it said.

The results will no doubt add fuel to the tech industry debate on working from home. While half of companies are rethinking back-to-office plans as nasty COVID variants circulate, Amazon and Google have stated that they will delay the return to water coolers and suspended polystyrene ceilings until 2022.

In such circumstances, expect a raft of technologies pitched at solving the undesired effects of long-term WFH. Exhibit A: Google Workspace, "a better way for people to engage in topic-based discussions, share knowledge and ideas, move projects forward and build communities and team culture."

Microsoft itself has delayed its return date for staff to work on-site until 4 October, and those that do choose to commute in will need to show proof of vaccination before they set a foot through the door.

In the other camp is Workday and the UK's Chancellor of the Exchequer. The SaaSy HR and finance app slinger's CEO said five days a week at home might be "too much family time" and later splashed some dollars buying office space.

Months later, Rishi Sunak said he doubted he would have built the strong relationships that fostered his career if his first jobs had been conducted via Teams and Zoom.

Nonetheless, home working looks like it is here to stay for the foreseeable future. Better get used to some silo-breaking rhetoric and accompanying tech solutions. ®

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