“We have seen two years of digital transformation in two months.” Those were the sounding words of Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella in the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis. Organisations were suddenly forced to accelerate the implementation of technologies and adapt their remote work policies. But will these changes persist after the crisis? The following findings from our own research will determine the future of work.
Not so long ago, many organisations were reluctant to encourage remote work among their employees. It was easier to stick to the old ways and gather teams in the same room. Being forced to close their offices due to COVID-19, it took only a few weeks before those organisations started to see the benefits of this new way of working. To ensure business continuity, they had to find proper collaboration tools for their distributed workforce. Microsoft even had to balance the capacity of cloud services in order to upscale its collaboration platform Teams.
By now, tools like Teams have become commonplace for many employees. Understanding the new needs of organisations relating to remote work conditions, we decided to prioritise the development of technologies that facilitate collaboration and communication. Microsoft’s Work Trend Index is a collection of findings that helps to respond to the most urgent challenges. Information is gathered from trends that Microsoft sees behind the way people use tools, results from a Harris Poll survey of more than 2.000 remote workers in six countries, and conclusions from over 30 Microsoft projects.
The human factor is essential in developing collaboration tools. The psychological impact of this new way of working should not be underestimated. We all miss our daily informal chat at the office while enjoying a cup of coffee. Research from our Human Factors Labs has also found that remote collaboration is more challenging than in-person. Brainwave patterns associated with stress and overwork are much higher when collaborating remotely. However, returning to the office will not always make things easier. These brainwave patterns suggest that going back to in-person meetings after a period of remote work is more difficult as well.
The same research indicates that remote meetings are also extremely exhausting in comparison to other work. Due to high levels of sustained concentration, fatigue starts to set in 30-40 minutes into a meeting. It is therefore recommended to take regular breaks every two hours and limit meetings to 30 minutes. To help address these challenges, Microsoft Teams has been updated with new features. ‘Together mode’ is an option that uses AI segmentation to digitally place participants in a shared background. Having the feeling that everyone sits in the same room, helps to reduce distractions, pick up on non-verbal cues, and make conversations feel more natural.
Sharing documents is also easier than ever with Teams. A transcription mode even enables users to perform a keyword search on a recorded meeting to find the specific topic or discussion they need. Giving people high-performing technology is essential to guarantee employee well-being.
A typical workday used to start at 9AM and ended around 5PM. In a remote environment this seems to be changing as well. Data from Teams indicates that people are now working more frequently in the morning and in the evening hours. Performance-based working will become standard. How long someone works does not really matter, as long as the expected output is there.
From another perspective some people may also lose track of time when working from home. So we need to make sure that our professional activities do not interfere with our personal life. This is why Teams has a feature to silence notifications. Employees can also receive emails from the ‘MyAnalytics’ service with detailed information about their performances. For example, to show how many emails they have sent after 6PM.
The clash between work and personal life is mostly felt among millennials, who are often tasked with taking care of young children, and Generation Z. The latter are just entering the workforce and onboarding processes have become a real challenge when teams are dispersed.
Does this trend in remote work mean that we don’t need physical offices anymore? Not necessarily, but remote work will become an important part of most business cultures. According to our survey, 82% of the interviewed managers expects to have more flexible work from home policies after the pandemic. A whopping 71% of employees and managers expresses a desire to continue working from home at least part-time. This is why organisations need to review temporary measures they took to cope with the crisis.
They should make a distinction between added value and technology that is nice to have. Of course, proper security solutions are a must-have for any business. Microsoft is optimising its security software with artificial intelligence. Multi-factor authentication is essential to secure devices when people log in from different locations. The cloud enables us to intercept an infected email and make sure that devices from other customers are not affected.
Security and employee well-being are key factors to consider when enabling remote work in the long term. To some enterprises these investments may sound a bit overwhelming in the midst of a crisis, but they are necessary to build resilience to deal with future shocks. Some good advice: first look at what is already present in your organisation. Many technologies have features that are not properly used by companies, although they are paying for the licenses.
It is best to limit the number of solutions but take full advantage of existing technology. Windows 10 and Office 365, for example, have several security and collaboration features that only need to be activated. This is why assisting customers will be ever more important. Microsoft has its own unit of people who specifically work on improving the customer experience. Companies can also seek the assistance of expert partners who know the technology and have developed best practices to help users make optimal use of their tools and applications.
The future of work starts now and organisations should no longer postpone digital transformation. The past months have been a real burden, but technology will help to build resilience, prepare for the future, and shift the focus from disaster recovery to growth.