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What Microsoft is doing to ease the tensions of remote work

Culture may eat strategy for breakfast; right now, both need to emphasize flexibility, empathy and taking advantage of tools that make hybrid work more successful and less of a burden.

Image: GettyImages/vgajic

Returning to the office continues to be a thorny topic; this month Microsoft gave up on even predicting a date for reopening its U.S. offices. That’s because the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over, and its impact on the world of work is being felt by businesses and employees.

As Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella puts it, people are not just making choices about when, where and how they work but even why they work. But business leaders may still be in denial.

Disappointingly, only around half of the executives LinkedIn asked said flexibility is good for business and are planning to offer hybrid, remote and flexible working options (and only 16% of jobs on LinkedIn are for fully remote positions). They might need to be more flexible: 39% said they’re struggling to find qualified staff for open roles.

SEE: Research: Video conferencing tools and cloud-based solutions dominate digital workspaces; VPN and VDI less popular with SMBs (TechRepublic Premium)

For almost two-thirds of IT leaders, not being able to hire people with the right skills is more of a blocker on implementing new technology than how much the technology costs or adds security risks; hardly any of them worried about that in the same Gartner survey last year. And don’t rely on moving staff to new positions; only a fifth of employees think they can meet their career goals in their current companies. 

Many of those want to change jobs to get more control over their schedules—especially younger workers—and at least half of all workers in the same Adobe survey said they’re working too many hours as work bleeds into their evenings and weekends. 

Helping hybrid

Part of the problem may be adapting to remote and hybrid work amid the continuing stress of the pandemic, along with what Nadella calls “the hybrid paradox”; 70% of people want more human connection and face to face meetings, 70% want more flexibility.

The answer to that isn’t just an RSVP feature in Outlook so you can say if you’ll attend in person or remotely, making hybrid Teams meetings better with smart speakers and cameras in Teams Rooms or bringing the existing PowerPoint presentation coach to Teams as a speaker coach

Microsoft also teased its virtual reality metaverse with an avatar version of HoloLens inventor and Microsoft technical fellow Alex Kipman presenting in a virtual theatre.

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Having everyone bring their laptops to even in-person meetings so their video shows up alongside remote participants with artificial intelligence-powered speaker tracking that switches to the right video as different people start talking will certainly help make mixed meetings more even-handed for larger organizations. 

But it’s disappointing how complex the requirements are for the systems from Jabra, Neat, Poly and Yealink, putting them out of reach for smaller organizations (who may already struggle with setting up Teams Room devices. Unless it’s a Teams Room device running on Android, intelligent cameras need to be plugged into a Teams compute resource; that can be a small touchscreen system or a Surface with the right kind of dock from a vendor like Crestron. You’ll need extra Teams Room licenses for these devices, which is another level of complexity.

SEE: Windows 10: Lists of vocal commands for speech recognition and dictation (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

For small businesses, the main options are Bluetooth and USB speakers or a new docking station from Logitech, the Logi Dock, which will double as a speakerphone for meetings. You can get the Android-based Lenovo ThinkSmart View Teams display as a secondary screen with camera, speakers and microphone built in, but that’s designed for one person rather than a small group. There’s a missed opportunity here to simplify turning a meeting room hybrid for a handful of people in small organizations.

Hybrid culture

Adding hybrid features to technology doesn’t help if colleagues don’t respect the working hours you set when they invite you to meetings. Company culture has to make hybrid working healthy.

To normalise hybrid and remote meetings, even the Microsoft senior leadership team will carry on having weekly meetings with Nadella remotely. And in the spirit of doing away with meetings that could have been an email, the Microsoft Teams documentation points out that status update meetings could be a SharePoint team site and that you can look at recordings of previous meetings rather than asking someone to have another meeting to catch you up.

Microsoft has been piloting a growth and resilience toolkit it originally developed for college students with its own employees (and it’s now available through Microsoft Learn). Long before the Great Resignation (or the Great Reshuffle, as LinkedIn CEO Ryan Roslansky prefers to call it) technology companies were finding it hard to build more diverse workforces because their work environments weren’t inclusive enough. Working through strategies for problem solving, feedback, collaboration and learning turned out to be helpful both for solving bugs and for negotiating roles and responsibilities in team projects (especially after the stresses of the last 18 months). 

That builds on the work Microsoft has been doing in education to support social and emotional learning, including the Reflect tool in Teams for Education. The recent OECD global survey shows that the social and emotional skills of students strongly predict what grades they will get—and that feedback and encouragement from teachers and peers help improve those skills. In the workplace that translates into relationships with managers and colleagues.

SEE: Juggling remote work with kids’ education is a mammoth task. Here’s how employers can help (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Looking at internal working habits and comparing those suddenly working from home to the 18% of Microsoft employees who already worked remotely before the pandemic, Microsoft researchers discovered not just the usual shift to Teams meetings and chat, but changes in who employees connect with. Ties inside existing business groups got stronger, which is more efficient for passing information around. But there were fewer connections between groups, and if there wasn’t a formal connection between two different teams, there was less likely to be the kind of informal connections that expose people to new information and serendipitous discoveries.

Some of that is about managers making the effort to enable the kinds of conversations that are supposed to happen more at the office because people bump into each other in the kitchen or walking down the hall (although those interactions have always been less helpful for introverts and neurodivergent employees). Jeff Teper, corporate vice president for Microsoft 365 collaboration, talked to TechRepublic earlier this year about how managers should avoid making employees feel they need to be in meetings just to increase their visibility. That’s the kind of approach that’s becoming part of formal policies at Microsoft.

When you do attend a meeting, Microsoft research shows that women are more likely to use chat to comment, encourage or add useful resources than men. That’s useful and helps people who might not otherwise join in to contribute—but it’s important to remember that it doesn’t get them as much visibility as speaking up, so Microsoft also has created a guide to making this kind of parallel chat more useful.

In a recent podcast Microsoft CVP Brendan Burns suggested strategies like offering regular office hours and virtual coffee meetings: “Because there’s less serendipity, you have to focus on creating opportunities for conversation.”

Tools like Teams, Yammer and Viva can help those meetings happen, and an intelligent camera can help managers spot who isn’t speaking up very often. But there’s a much more fundamental renegotiation going on of what it means to manage people that technology can’t do for you.

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