Stanford Professor Bob Sutton recently posted a link to a fascinating piece of research by Microsoft regarding the shift to remote work. The article is titled, "The effects of remote work on collaboration among information workers," and it is authored by Longqi Yang, David Holtz, and a team of other researchers. This study examined emails, calendars, instant messages, video/audio calls and hours worked for more than 60,000 employees from December 2019 to June 2020 (covering both pre-pandemic work and several months after the shift to remote work). Here is what Microsoft discovered:
Overall, we found that the shift to remote work caused the formal business groups and informal communities within Microsoft to become less interconnected and more siloed. Remote work caused the share of collaboration time employees spent with cross-group connections to drop by about 25% of the pre-pandemic level. Furthermore, firm-wide remote work caused separate groups to become more intraconnected by adding more connections within themselves. The shift to remote work also caused the organizational structure at Microsoft to become less dynamic; Microsoft employees added fewer new collaborators and shed fewer existing ones.
The researchers do point out that the entire study took place with US workers at one company, Microsoft. That's clearly a limitation of the study. Moreover, they only studied the first few months of the pandemic. Companies clearly invested heavily in technology to support remote work and virtual collaboration as the pandemic persisted. Employees may have become more adept at working remotely and collaborating remotely as well. On the other hand, the scholars point out that these workers could "leverage existing network connections, many of which were built in person. This may not be possible if firm-wide remote work were implemented long-term." More work clearly needs to be done, but this research shines a spotlight on the potential downsides of remote work for large numbers of employees in a complex organization.