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As It Prepares To Reopen HQ, Microsoft Urges More Flexibility in Businesses

Microsoft on Monday described plans to reopen its offices after closing them during the COVID-19 pandemic, and shared the results of its study on the effects of remote work on employees.

The "soft opening" of Microsoft's business sites has already occurred in 21 countries, where social distancing, routine cleanings and the use of face coverings are part of the protocol. Microsoft's headquarters in Redmond, Wash., will be next, with a reopening scheduled for March 29.

Microsoft is adopting a "hybrid" model of work (working both from home and at office facilities) as the new normal. It's easing into this change for its 160,000-plus employees via a six-stage hybrid workplace "dial"-type model.

"Once we reach a point where COVID-19 no longer presents a significant burden on our communities, and as our sites move to the open stage of the dial, we view working from home part of the time (less than 50%) as standard for most roles -- assuming manager and team alignment," stated Kurt DelBene, executive vice president at Microsoft.

Work Trend Index Study
Meanwhile, Microsoft described the results of a large commissioned study to examine various aspects of the work-from-home phenomenon. The report combines survey results with "labor signals" from Microsoft 365 services and the LinkedIn careers site. Microsoft also relied on expert opinion in formulating the report, which offers advice more generally for organizations.

This "Work Trend Index" study was conducted in January by the Edelman Data x Intelligence research firm using an online survey instrument. It sampled responses from "31,092 full-time employed or self-employed workers across 31 markets between January 12, 2021 and January 25, 2021."

According to the study's results, only business leaders were described as mostly "thriving" (61 percent) during the work-from-home state of affairs. Single workers were most likely to describe themselves as "surviving/struggling" (67 percent).

Remote communications increased between February 2020 and February 2021. Microsoft Teams use increased more than 2.5 times, with most of that traffic (62 percent) being unplanned. Teams meetings were longer (by 10 minutes). There were 45 percent more chats per week.

In February 2021, the Exchange Online messaging volume was up by 40.6 billion e-mails compared with that figure measured in February 2020.

The lack of in-person contact has tended to be more emotionally trying for younger workers, according to the study. It also indicated that "41% of employees are considering leaving their current employer this year," possibly because they've adapted to the remote-work phenomenon and think they can do it elsewhere.

Employees have reported being as productive or more productive under work-from-home conditions, but they also feel overworked (54 percent) and exhausted (39 percent).

"Nearly one in five global survey respondents say their employer doesn't care about their work-life balance," the report added.

Recommendations
The report flatly stated that business leaders are "out of touch with employees and need a wake-up call." Close working relationships between employees increased during the work-from-home period, but their more distant relationships with companies tended to flag during that same period.

Organizations should plan to empower workers and accept remote work when it can be done. Flexible work should be considered to be the new normal, according to the report. Many leaders appear to be accepting these ideas, with 66 percent considering office redesigns to support hybrid work. Moreover, the survey found that 73 percent of employees want the flexible remote work options to continue, but 67 percent of employees also want greater access to in-person work, too.

Here are the steps organizations should take, according to the report:

  • Create a plan to empower people for extreme flexibility
  • Invest in space and technology to bridge the physical and digital worlds
  • Combat digital exhaustion from the top
  • Prioritize rebuilding social capital and culture
  • Rethink employee experience to compete for the best and most diverse talent

Microsoft's Work Trend Index report goes by the title, "The Next Great Disruption is Hybrid Work -- Are We Ready?" It's the first such publication coming from Microsoft's "WorkLab" effort, which is studying COVID-19 changes. The report was published to "help business leaders on their own hybrid-work journeys," according to an editorial by Jared Spataro, corporate vice president for Microsoft 365.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for 1105 Media's Converge360 group.

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