A Glimpse Into the Future of Work From Microsoft Workplace Analytics

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A single view of the customer isn’t possible if you limit your data sources only to one line of business

Nine Köpfer

The COVID-19 pandemic changed many things. How work gets done was one of them.

While we scrambled to cope, researchers employed new workplace analytics to learn how well we did or didn’t adapt to the new conditions. And what powered workplace analytics was the cloud.

The Pandemic Created a Wealth Workplace Analytics

The pandemic pushed organizations to the cloud in droves, driven by workers’ need to be connected wherever they sheltered in place. At the beginning of the pandemic, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella observed, “We’ve seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months.” That transformation initially entailed organizations adopting Microsoft Teams to power virtual meetings. One case in point is the Canadian Department of Employment and Social Development, which moved 30,000 employees to the Microsoft cloud in just three months.

The move to the cloud made it possible for the first time for researchers to collect online data from enormous numbers of workers and record what they were actually doing during the workday. And no one has more access to real-time work data than Microsoft. With over 1 million companies using Microsoft 365 and over 200 million Microsoft Teams users, there has never been a richer workplace data set. According to Microsoft, its workplace research projects “analyze trillions of productivity and labor signals from across Microsoft 365 and LinkedIn to derive powerful insights about how people work and collaborate.”

Related Article: How Network Analytics Can Help Us Avoid Digital Fatigue

Unexpected Workplace Trends and Implications for the Future of Work

Microsoft shared snippets of research findings in a series of online reports, posted on its new Worklab website. The site features the “Work Trend Index” report, which surfaces new workplace trends. Also featured is its comprehensive 65 page report, “The New Future of Work: Research from Microsoft into the Pandemic’s Impact on Work Practices,” which details the gamut of 2020 work research, including insights about remote meetings and emerging collaboration patterns, productivity and employee well-being, IT and security aspects of remote work, and the societal implications of changing work patterns.

Many of the findings are somewhat obvious, like a marked increase in collaboration tool usage to stay in touch with remote colleagues. Other findings are less evident.  

Here are some of the remarkable findings from The Next Great Disruption Is Hybrid Work — Are We Ready? summary and what they bode for the future of work.

1. Finding: “There were 40.6 billion more emails delivered to commercial and education customers in February 2021 vs. February 2020.”

What this means: Even with the massive adoption of Microsoft Teams (and Zoom), email isn’t going anywhere. While 40 billion emails per month is a tiny piece of total monthly email volume, the number of emails is holding steady. This is largely because, beyond virtual meetings, collaboration tools are built for internal collaboration, but using them to do business with external parties raises some severe challenges. Organizations will need to find ways to reconcile the use of email and collaboration tools.

2. Finding: “Over 40% of the global workforce is considering leaving their employer this year … [we predict] 41% of the global workforce is likely to consider leaving their current employer within the next year, with 46% planning to make a major pivot or career transition.”

What this means: With a huge investment in remote work infrastructure, people can now work for geographically remote organizations. Also, new work norms embrace remote work patterns. On the flip side, organizations can now tap a larger labor pool, without regard to geographic constraints. The implications for business are immense. While business hubs with regional concentrations of experts will likely remain (think Silicon Valley, Austin, Raleigh), employment prospects improve as the range of potential employees/employers expands. But workers will need to travel occasionally … which brings us to the next finding.

3. Finding: “Over 70% of workers want flexible remote work options to continue, while over 65% are craving more in-person time with their teams. To prepare, 66% of business decision makers are considering redesigning physical spaces to better accommodate hybrid work environments.”

What this means: Along with the convenience of working from home, people crave human contact. So, while it may not be every day, people want to meet with teammates occasionally. Organizations eager to save on office space will need to accommodate hybrid employees, with comfortable and productive workspaces. Use of flexible workspace will explode as companies try to provide workplace meaningful experiences without paying for empty offices.

4. Finding: “There was a 66% increase in the number of people working on documents.”

What this means: Without a baseline number (Microsoft declined to provide one), it is hard to say if this is significant or not. It seems highly unlikely that people began to work more on documents during the pandemic. I chalk this figure up to Microsoft’s improved ability to measure how people are using Microsoft 365 tools like SharePoint, Teams and OneDrive, by counting how many documents were created, uploaded to the cloud or edited, rather than an actual increase in ‘working on’ documents.

5. Finding: “62% of calls and meetings were unscheduled or conducted ad hoc.”

6. Finding: “50% of people respond to Teams chats within five minutes or less, a response time that has not changed year-over-year”

7. Finding: “The average Teams user is sending 45% more chats per week and 42% more chats per person after hours, with chats per week still on the rise.”

What these mean: Look out for distractions, my friends! As people moved to remote locations, they lost the natural sense of workplace synchronicity fostered through collocation. Now more than ever, chat windows popping up on your screen scream for immediate attention. This constant distraction is a productivity killer that leads to feeling of overload and exhaustion. Which begs the question, “if we want to remain productive, will we need more technology to tame our new productivity technology?”

8. Finding: “Moving remote shrunk our networks, specifically, interactions with our close networks at work increased, while interactions with our distant networks diminished.”

What this means: Collaboration tools help us maintain existing strong social ties, but they don’t foster new connections. This means relying solely upon collaboration tools will work, for a limited period of time, as long as the corporate social network is relatively stable. But as people move in and out of the organization, face to face engagement will be needed to refresh and maintain the social network.

Related Article: 3 Perspectives on the Future of Work

Where Are We Headed?

Collaboration tools were a boon to organizations during the extended lockdown period when people were largely sheltering in place. But as businesses move forward, people will explore new opportunities and organizations will face new challenges of building hybrid workspaces through a mix of remote and face to face interactions, performed in a variety of unconventional office spaces.

David is a product expert with extensive experience leading information-intensive technology organizations. His specialty is helping organizations “do it right the first time”— get to market quickly and successfully through a structured process of working closely with design partners from day one.

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