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Redefining productivity for the hybrid work era

Posted by Kanika Sinha

October 20, 2021    |     5-minute read (897 words)

Adapting to yet another change in work practices — this time the shift from 100% remote work to a hybrid schedule — necessitates a more expansive definition of productivity. For hybrid work, research shows that productivity needs to encompass individual well-being, social connections and collaboration.

Microsoft’s The New Future of Work report confirms the hybrid work model presents a whole new set of questions and challenges for employers and their employees. Workers need to assess the best place to carry out different aspects of their jobs, teams must determine how to collaborate and make the best use of in-office time, and employers have to figure out how to run hybrid meetings, for example. In this scenario, simple measures of productivity will no longer suffice.

The case for a new interpretation of productivity

Hundreds of researchers from Microsoft, LinkedIn and GitHub formed the New Future of Work initiative in a bid to improve in-office and hybrid work practices. By conducting more than 50 research projects, the group came up with a number of recommendations to improve hybrid work practices.

Method: Researchers estimated worker productivity using two types of data: self-reported worker data (asking employees if they feel productive) and worker activity data (counting the number of emails sent or lines of code written).

Findings:

  • When companies first went remote en masse in 2020, standard productivity metrics remained high. A year into the coronavirus pandemic, Microsoft’s Work Trend Index survey found the self-assessed productivity of over 30,000 global workers remained the same or higher. Another study found a 1.5% increase in the number of features checked on by developers per hour and a 6% spike in focus time. 
  • Remote work has blurred work-home boundaries. Some 49% of Microsoft employees reported working longer hours; 9% reported working fewer. In a separate global study of workers external to Microsoft, 54% of employees reported feeling “overworked” and 39% reported feeling “exhausted” one year into the pandemic.
  • Researchers observed a significant loss of the social benefits of working in an office among employees. Study participants reported difficulty with creative tasks like brainstorming when working remotely. And the group’s September 2021 paper published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour suggests remote work has caused teams at work to become more siloed, jeopardizing innovation, knowledge transfer and productivity.
Key takeaway: It may be tempting to equate higher levels of employee activity with business success. But doing so risks overlooking the factors conducive to long-term innovation. It’s important to redefine productivity in a way that factors in the challenges of hybrid work. This can be done focusing on individual well-being and on the social connections that spur innovation.

Adopting the new definition of productivity

Based on Microsoft’s cross-company research initiative, here are some ways managers can embrace a more expansive view of productivity in a hybrid work setting by prioritizing collaboration, well-being and innovation.

Collaboration

Under the old definition of productivity, coordinating teams around individual work schedules might have seemed unnecessary. But redefining productivity for hybrid work requires striking a compromise among individual and team needs. To foster collaboration under hybrid work:

  • Ask teams to create norms for how they want to work together. Members can share when they work best and schedule meeting-free or in-person days. Managers can set norms around times of day when responses are expected.
  • Ensure inclusive and intentional hybrid meetings. Use the hand-raise feature to make sure all participants get to speak. Assign a chat moderator to bring key subjects into the conversation. 
  • Include remote employees in pre-meeting conversation. Ask in-person attendees to join as soon as they arrive so remote participants can partake in before-meeting chitchat.
Well-being

Remote and in-person work each have their own pros and cons. Instead of expecting the same outcomes from both, leaders should build on what makes each one unique. To foster well-being under hybrid work:

  • Prioritize collaborative work like brainstorming for in-office days. For work-from-home days, nudge employees to design the day to incorporate other priorities, like family and fitness. 
  • Create staggered schedules so employees can avoid a long commute. Remind staff to set boundaries at home so they don’t work around the clock just because they can. 
  • Find out what works for each employee. Microsoft’s Work Trend Index survey found that while work-life balance and focus time were cited as reasons to go into the office by some employees, for others they were reasons to work at home. Probe what works best for team members, such as mornings or afternoons, and where they feel most productive.
Innovation

The conditions needed to precipitate innovation under hybrid work can only be accomplished by thinking of productivity more expansively. To foster innovation under hybrid work:

  • Consider what work should be done remotely versus in-person. Remote work may be optimal for individual productivity, but creative work and problem-solving often require collaboration. Similarly, starting a project may necessitate in-person meetings, but once workflows and responsibilities are settled, remote work is viable.
  • Meet new employees in person. Encourage new hires to spend time in the office to build social connections that in turn fuel innovation. 
  • Promote connections beyond the team. Support employees in building relationships with colleagues outside of their immediate work circles. Provide in-office opportunities for team members to learn from employees they’ve haven’t worked with before. The goal is to encourage knowledge diversity that is needed for innovation.

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