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The effects of remote work on collaboration

Microsoft gave anonymized logs to researchers to explore how people interacted mid-last year as the pandemic spread worldwide. The researchers published a paper with this summary:

Our results show that firm-wide remote work caused the collaboration network of workers to become more static and siloed, with fewer bridges between disparate parts. Furthermore, there was a decrease in synchronous communication and an increase in asynchronous communication. Together, these effects may make it harder for employees to acquire and share new information across the network.

I found the results unsurprising but valuable. However, before I highlight and summarize what I think are the most valuable conclusions, let’s look at the caveats:

  • This applies to a US technology company with a six-digit number of employees. If there are six of you in a fully remote startup, this probably doesn’t apply. Potentially also for bigger companies in vastly different industries or cultures.
  • The researchers analyzed data that was generated after all in-person connections have been formed. People who join fully remotely from the start might set up different habits.
  • This research doesn’t measure total productivity or innovation, only digital communication and interactions.

Networks and synchronicity

For individuals, it is beneficial to have access to new, non-redundant information through connections to different parts of an organization’s formal organizational chart and through connections to different parts of an organization’s informal communication network. Furthermore, being a conduit through which such information flows by bridging structural holes in the organization can have additional benefits for individuals. […] Our results show that the shift to firm-wide remote work caused business groups within Microsoft to become less interconnected. It also reduced the number of ties bridging structural holes in the company’s informal collaboration network, and caused individuals to spend less time collaborating with the bridging ties that remained. Furthermore, the shift to firm-wide remote work caused employees to spend a greater share of their collaboration time with their stronger ties, which are better suited to information transfer, and a smaller share of their time with weak ties, which are more likely to provide access to new information.

And then a bit later:

Media synchronicity theory proposes that asynchronous communication channels (such as email) are better suited for conveying information and synchronous channels (such as video calls) are better suited for converging on the meaning of information. There is also a rich body of empirical research that documents the myriad implications of communication media choice for organizations. For example, previous research has shown that establishing a rapport, which is an important precursor to knowledge transfer, is impeded by email use, and that in-person and phone/video communication are more strongly associated with positive team performance than email and instant message (IM) communication. […] we found that shifting to firm-wide remote work caused an overall decrease in observed synchronous communication such as scheduled meetings and audio/video calls. By contrast, we found that remote work caused employees to communicate more through media that are more asynchronous—sending more emails and many more IMs.

In other words, firm-wide remote work caused people to:

  • focus on existing and strong connections at the expense of reaching out to adjacent or creating new connections
  • shift to a type of communication good for exchanging information but worse for understanding the implications of that information

The behavior was consistent across all roles:

We tested for heterogeneity in the effects of the shift to firm-wide remote work on collaboration ego networks with respect to a workers managerial status (manager versus individual contributor), tenure at Microsoft (shorter tenure versus longer tenure) and role type (engineering versus non-engineering), and did not find meaningful heterogeneity across any of these dimensions

… however, managers and engineers engaged in even more IM and video calls than the rest:

We found that the switch to firm-wide remote work caused larger increases for managers than individual contributors in IMs sent, emails sent and unscheduled video/audio call hours. This is probably because, relative to individual contributors, a larger share of managers’ time is dedicated to communicating with others, that is, their direct reports (for example, to address issues blocking progress or conduct performance reviews), and representatives of other groups within the organization (for example, to coordinate activity and goals across different groups). We also find that the shift to firm-wide remote work caused larger increases for engineers than non-engineers in the number of IMs sent and the number of unscheduled call hours. This may be reflective of the fact that software development teams are particularly reliant on informal communication, much of which may have taken place in-person before the shift to firm-wide remote work.

Work hours

The period between when people start and stop work increased, but it’s not clear how people distributed work during those hours.

The increase in workweek hours could be an indication that employees were less productive and required more time to complete their work, or that they replaced some of their commuting time with work time; however, as we are able to measure only the time between the first and last work activity in a day, it could also be that the same amount of working time is spread across a greater share of the calendar day due to breaks or interruptions for non-work activities.

Effects of other people in your team going remote

This part was surprising. The majority of the behavior change is caused not by you staying in the office or going remote but by people in your team going remote.

More than half of the increase in IMs sent and emails sent […] and approximately 90% of the increase in workweek hours was due to collaborators switching to remote work. Overall, we found that collaborators switching to remote work caused workers to spend less time attending to sources of new information, communicate more through asynchronous media and work longer hours. Looking to the future, these findings suggest that remote work policies such as mixed-mode and hybrid work may have substantial effects not only on those working remotely but also on those remaining in the office.

My thoughts

At this point, it’s not clear what long-term consequences this behavior change might have on productivity and innovation; I’m not going to speculate. However, suppose you want to stay in the loop and understand what’s happening or ensure people you lead don’t start running off in different directions. In that case, you’ll have to develop ways and invest more time to counter the effects of this “natural” drift toward silos. Just focusing on work tasks will keep you isolated.

This situation is also not that new. People working in international offices separated by several time zones also lack synchronicity, so similar problems emerge. However, this natural experiment helped clarify and confirm that the issues are due more to a technical and geographical setup, not culture or mandates (though those can help or hinder too).


Don’t miss this one:
Strange about learning

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