A study of 61,000+ Microsoft employees found that working from home causes workers to become more siloed in how they communicate, engage in fewer real-time conversations, and spend fewer hours in meetings. The study, published Sept. 9 in the journal Nature Human Behaviour and co-authored by Berkeley Haas assistant professor David Holtz, made use of data from before and after Microsoft imposed a company-wide work-from-home mandate in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The findings suggest that a full-time remote workforce may have a harder time acquiring and sharing new information, which could have implications for productivity and innovation among information workers down the road. “Measuring the causal effects of remote work has historically been difficult, because only certain types of workers were allowed to work away from the office. That changed during the pandemic, when almost everyone who could work from home was required to do so,” said Holtz. “The work-from-home mandate created a unique opportunity to identify the effects of company-wide remote work on how information workers communicate and collaborate.” The analysis was based on anonymized data describing the emails, instant messages, calls, meetings, and working hours – all stripped of their content and identifying information – of the vast majority of Microsoft’s U.S. employees. The authors separated out the effects of remote work from other effects of the pandemic by using a statistical technique to compare those Microsoft employees who were already working from home with those who abruptly shifted online during the pandemic. Among the key findings:
• Company-wide remote work caused workers’ collaboration networks to become less interconnected and more siloed.
• Remote work caused workers to spend about 25% less of their time collaborating with colleagues across groups, compared to pre-pandemic levels.
• Remote work led workers to communicate more frequently with people in their inner network, and to build more connections within that inner network.
• Remote work caused workers to spend more time using asynchronous forms of communication, such as email and message platforms, and less time having synchronous conversations in person, by phone, or by video conference.
• Remote work caused the number of hours people spent in meetings to decrease by about 5%.