New Future of Work: Meeting and collaborating in a remote and hybrid world with Jaime Teevan and Abigail Sellen

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Two women side by side, Abigail Sellen on the left and Jaime Teevan on the right, in black and white smile and look forward. Teevan is holding a cell phone.

Episode 126 | June 30, 2021

For Microsoft researchers, COVID-19 was a call to action. The reimagining of work practices had long been an area of study, but existing and new questions that needed immediate answers surfaced as companies and their employees quickly adjusted to significantly different working conditions. Teams from across the Microsoft organizational chart pooled their unique expertise together under The New Future of Work initiative. The results have informed product features designed to better support remote work and are now being used to help companies, including Microsoft, usher their workforces into a future of hybrid work.

In this episode of The New Future of Work series of the podcast, Chief Scientist Jaime Teevan and Abigail Sellen, Deputy Lab Director at Microsoft Research Cambridge in the United Kingdom, explore the dynamics of meetings and collaborations in the context of remote work. They specifically address the difference between weak and strong ties in our professional networks and why both matter to employee and company success. They also break down the phenomenon of video fatigue and share ways in which remote meetings may actually have the advantage.

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Transcript

ABIGAIL SELLEN (TEASER): There’s been a lot of downside, obviously, to the pandemic—huge downsides—but as a researcher, it’s been just this amazing opportunity. And I remember back in March, when we were all told that we needed to go home and pack up our stuff, I was with my colleague Sean Rintel, who’s also a researcher in this area, and we suddenly looked at each other and went, “Wow, we need to study this.” So not only did it give us this great opportunity to really explore in-depth how we could think about technology differently and think about how it interacts with people’s work practices, but it allowed us to then sort of reignite interest around the decades of research that have been going on in this space.   

[MUSIC PLAYS UNDER DIALOGUE]

JAIME TEEVAN: Welcome to the Microsoft Research Podcast, where you get a front-row seat to conversations on cutting-edge technology. I’m Jaime Teevan, and I’ll be your host as we investigate how work practices have changed because of COVID-19 and what it means for creating a new and better future of work. 

[MUSIC ENDS]

In this episode of the series, we’re exploring the “Collaboration and Meetings” chapter of The New Future of Work report published by Microsoft. Perhaps the most obvious change that information workers experienced when moving to remote work last year was that meetings changed pretty dramatically, and we’re fortunate to have one of the authors of that chapter, Abi Sellen, here to tell us more about that. Abi is Deputy Director of Microsoft Research Cambridge, trained in psychology and human factors engineering. She started her career back in the early ’90s trying to measure the difference between in-person meetings and video meetings just as videoconferencing was being rolled out in research labs. She was one of the first people to explore whether workplaces decked out with cameras and monitors and mics and speakers could replace in-person social interaction, and in the years since, she has both lived with remote technologies and studied them in a variety of research labs, including at Apple, Xerox PARC, HP Labs, and, currently, Microsoft Research. Thank you, Abi, for joining us today.

ABIGAIL SELLEN: My pleasure.

TEEVAN: So there is a lot to cover in this chapter, which you coauthored with Nancy Baym, Rachel Bergmann, Adam Coleman, Ricardo Reyna Fernandez, Sean Rintel, and Tiffany Smith. Um, let’s start by looking at people’s social relationships. What happened to our social relationships at work during lockdown?

SELLEN: Yeah, so our social relationships at work took a bit of a dive, and I think one of the things that happened was we all very quickly realized that friendships with people at work are actually really important. And we also quickly realized that the technology we had to hand was not really gonna be a good replacement for those kinds of relationships, and so there are really two kinds of social relationships that started to suffer. So the first one is what we sometimes call “strong ties,” and that is the relationships that we have with the people that we work with on a day-to-day basis. They’re the people that we know really well; we might sit next to them. You know, it’s people that we, um, I guess, feel closest to at work because we’re working towards shared goals. And we started to miss the fact that we couldn’t just kind of look over to the next desk and ask a quick question or be aware of what people were up to and that this was a big problem. So that was the first thing; the strong ties were suffering. And the second one is what has been called “the water-cooler effect,” which is really missing just bumping into people that we wouldn’t normally seek out. So, you know, literally going to get a cup of coffee or get a glass of water in the shared kitchen and seeing people that you don’t really know that well but you start to have, you know, chat and banter with those folks. And those weak ties often become the strong ties, and we’ve started to miss that, too. So, you know, weak ties are really important because not only do they turn—often turn into strong ties, but they’re a source of new ideas, new knowledge, and this turns out to be really important to creativity and innovation. So the other thing that happened was we did a large study of I think it was 50,000 Microsoft employees during this past year of all-remote work and found that basically what most people were doing was doubling down on their strong ties in their network and letting their weak ties sort of wither away. So we were kind of, I guess, trying to get more work done, trying to be more productive, by doubling down on these preexisting networks, and the problem with that is that what that then starts to paint a picture of is a more isolated, siloed, calcified organization, and that’s a worry because both these strong ties and weak ties go together to make up what we sometimes call “social capital,” and social capital is the value that accrues from that interpersonal connection that we get at work, and that’s important because research has found that it, it affects all kinds of things—our personal happiness, our satisfaction, our productivity—but also for organizations, it affects their ability to retain their staff, to innovate, and to create a cohesive working climate. That’s basically a big worry for us, I think, and it’s something that, uh, has been one of the main findings from this past year when we look at collaboration.

TEEVAN: How do you think we can support better weak ties? I know just like being stuck inside all the time has actually brought out the introvert in me, and now when the doorbell rings and somebody’s there, it’s actually terrifying to me. I can feel that myself, that my sphere has sort of closed in on itself. How do we broaden that back out?

SELLEN: Yeah, well, it’s really tricky, um, given the tools that we have. So one of the things I noticed over the past year is that during meetings, at first, people were kind of focusing more on the task at hand. I think there was a bit of a panic about, you know, trying to be productive and to stay on task. And then as the year started to, uh, unfold a little bit and we got a bit more used to it, there started to be—well, this is what I noticed anyway—a bit more chitchat at the beginning and the end of meetings. There was more of an effort to do kind of social events using our meeting tools. Like here in England, there was a virtual pub event and sort of efforts to get fun things going with your colleagues. But they don‘t really seem to replace those water-cooler conversations because the irony is—is that you still have to plan them, right, and what we’re really missing is the unplanned stuff. So we were stuck in this situation where we’re trying to plan for something that isn’t normally planful, and we were being mindful of things that we usually take for granted, which is the fact that these things are kind of just things that happen, and they happen naturally when we’re in a workplace. So I don’t have really great answers for this so far, but just the fact that we now realize how important it is means that we can now start to be much more inventive about the technologies that we develop.

TEEVAN: Do you think there’s been any differences in the strong ties we’re able to maintain? I mean, I think about how much we’ve been collaborating this past year even though we’re—

SELLEN: Yeah.

TEEVAN: —on different continents. You’re very much a strong tie for me. Do you think there’s been differences there?

SELLEN: Yeah, that’s been really surprising for me, actually, and I think it’s because we’re sort of peering into each other’s homes now. So we’re much more—you know [LAUGHS], we’re much more aware of—well, we don’t see in, you know, somebody’s whole home space, but we see the cats coming in, we hear the leaf blowers outside the window, you know, we—we see kids running in and out, and those conversations ultimately turn to what’s happening in our homes and in our families. And at the same time, I think we’re also much more mindful of people’s larger lives, that the person that we’re talking to isn’t just a work colleague but might have a whole bunch of stuff going on at home, too. So I think we’ve all been much more reflective about it. It’s interesting, like, I’ve gotten to know you much better through all of this. I’ve made lots of new colleagues—and I would consider friends now—completely through the remote channels, but I also have, I think, new insights into the lives of people that I work with in the office and have worked with in the office, too. So it’s not all bad. I think that, actually, it’s made us all much more reflective about people’s whole lives and the place of work in our lives. And as managers, too—because I’m a manager—being much more mindful to ask about how people are getting on and how work plays out and how they’re managing to get work done.

TEEVAN: It’s true. I love it when people’s doorbells ring or their dogs bark or somebody interrupts them, or they have a big pile of laundry in the background.

[LAUGHTER]

SELLEN: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And the posters on the wall and, you know, the—the things that— the knickknacks in the background, which gives a clue to what people’s lives are really about, and that’s what work should be about to some extent, right, is actually enjoying the relationship with our colleagues.

TEEVAN: So one of the things that you sort of hinted at earlier in the discussion of weak ties getting weaker and not bringing us necessarily new information or new things, um, I know you’ve talked a fair amount about the impact that remote work has had on our ability to be creative and brainstorm and innovate and start new things. Can you speak a little bit more to that?

SELLEN: Yeah. So that’s another concern and something that has come up from the research in the past year. Many of the studies that we’ve looked at—and these aren’t just with our own employees but, um, work that we’ve done looking at knowledge workers from a variety of companies outside of Microsoft—have shown that the hardest kind of collaboration to do is the collaboration that involves creative thinking, sort of big-picture thinking, things like being able to strategize as a team, to pivot as a team. So doing that kind of let’s call it creative work is really hard to do remotely, whereas people seem to be getting along pretty well on the kinds of collaboration where you know what you’re doing, there’s a plan in place, you can kind of get on with stuff on your own or even as a team. But when it comes to those other kinds of meetings, like brainstorming meetings, which we would normally go into the workplace and, you know, scribble on the whiteboard or use the walls, put bits of sticky notes everywhere, you get a sense of the mood and the energy in the room, that’s all really hard to do remotely, so that’s a real challenge for us, and—and especially if you cast your mind forward to what does that mean for industries like ours, which, you know, critically rely on the ability to innovate and to generate new ideas and to brainstorm. So there’s not just the social capital that’s at risk. It’s our creative capital that’s at risk.

[MUSIC BREAK]

TEEVAN: Turning now to remote meetings, why is it that we find remote meetings so exhausting?

SELLEN: Ah, yeah, that’s a good question, and it’s—it’s a complicated answer, but let me make a stab at it. So this is something that people have been struggling with for a long time, right? My early career, when I just graduated with my PhD, um, I think you said earlier was trying to get at what are the differences between remote meetings through video technology and face-to-face meetings. And there’s actually been lots of interesting research that has come out recently as a result of the pandemic. So, for example, Jeremy Bailenson at Stanford has done some nice work in this area, you know, showing that—this notion of kind of “Zoom fatigue” or why is it so exhausting, why is it so fatiguing, to meet over video. There are a number of factors at play, like, um, you know, prolonged close-up eye contact with someone is really unnatural. There’s a strain from having to see yourself constantly like you’re looking in a mirror all the time and the fact that you’re physically tied to one place. But I think there are other big challenges that we need to think about here. So, you know, one of the things we know about video calls, especially if they’re—not so much if it’s one-on-one, but if there are a bunch of us on a call, it’s hard to do turn-taking, and so turn-taking is that kind of like fine dance that we do in conversation with each other where, normally, one person talks at a time, we don’t like long pauses, we don’t like it when people talk over each other and interrupt each other, and we’re very finely attuned to when a person’s come to the end of their turn at talk or when somebody wants to take a turn at talk. We have really good skills at being able to do that turn-taking. And so one reason that it’s difficult is poor audio. So if you have lag in your audio or you have a bad internet connection, that kind of undermines our ability to pick up those cues and to do that kind of fine-grained choreography. But we also know that when we share a room, we use the sights and the sounds that are around us to help us judge not just the ambiance and the energy in a room, but the attentiveness of people around us and a sense of when people want to take a turn or when people are listening. Um, so, you know, somebody leans in around the table next to you; that might indicate that they want to say something. You might hear that kind of sharp intake of breath by somebody at the table when they want to take a turn, or when somebody looks at you when they finish what they’re saying, you might know that they’re expecting you to speak next. Well, when we’re remote, we just can’t read those cues because we’re bounded by this little box, right, and we have a single stream of audio, and the really informative gestures by our remote colleagues are outside of the boundaries of that little box, and the audio’s all coming from a single speaker, so everything’s watered down, which is a real problem. And then the flip side of that is we then have to know how to perform properly so that people know—so we need to know how we’re being seen or heard by other people, right? So we now need to think about how we’re coming across, we need to think about how we’re being perceived by others, and so who hasn’t been in a video meeting where you say, “Oh, can you hear me?” Uh, “Can you see me?” And then you have to think about, “What can they see of me? How are they hearing me?” And that takes work. So that’s really exhausting. And the problem is as meetings get bigger, all of that gets worse, right? So I’ve been doing various presentations over the past year to an audience, and I have no idea of how many people are out there, whether they’re listening to me, whether they’re doing their email, uh, you know, whether they’re feeding their cat, making dinner, uh, just no idea. And—and so we get this feeling also that we’re kind of speaking into the void. So I think there’s lots going on in these calls, but a lot of it has to do with this problem of not knowing how we’re perceived and having to deliberately perform. And that’s way different than what happens when we’re sharing a room together.

TEEVAN: Are there things about remote meetings that are better than in-person meetings?

SELLEN: Yeah, so I think one of the interesting things that’s happened that our research has highlighted is the use of parallel chat during remote meetings, and, you know, some people don’t like it ’cause they find it really distracting, but we’re finding a lot of advantages, too, to parallel chat. So, you know, I talked about this turn-taking problem. One of the things we discovered was that, um, when we did this big diary study, hundreds of people in Microsoft reporting their experiences of online meetings, and younger women were saying that they actually found the parallel chat a good way of being able to take a turn at talk in ways that they wouldn’t normally feel that they could. So it was sort of allowing a voice for these—these folks that they normally would maybe struggle to have in a face-to-face meeting or in a large meeting. And then parallel chat was being used in all kinds of other interesting ways, such as people were sharing links and resources, um, you had a kind of nice record of the comments that people were making in a meeting, and there were all these other advantages that were coming out, and this was—this was something new, right? We—we started before lockdown not using it very much, and then it just really ramped up, and now, I’d say almost every meeting that I’m in now, there’s parallel chat going on. And, actually, you’re great at this, Jaime. [LAUGHTER]

TEEVAN: I really like parallel chat. SELLEN: You do parallel chat really well. Yeah.

TEEVAN: Have any of the things that you’ve discovered through your research changed the way that you’re doing meetings now compared to a year ago? I mean, so parallel chat’s one example. Are there other things that you’re doing differently?

SELLEN: Oh, yeah. So, like many people, I guess, I started off, you know, March of last year just setting up meetings for everything. Video meetings were replacing my one-on-ones, my small-group meetings, my large events, even my social events, and I was doing them one after the other. It was a relentless kind of wave of meetings that I was doing. Um, no breaks in between them. And, you know, added to all those interactional issues that I talked about, it was just the sheer volume of meetings that was becoming exhausting. And so very quickly, it sort of—word got ’round the company, and the company was actually really good about reaching out and saying, you know, “How do we do this better?” And we started instituting breaks between meetings; we started urging people to consider whether something wouldn’t be better done in a different way, like through a chat or through an email, or, you know, being really thoughtful about people’s time and the amount of time we were spending in meetings. So that did change, and I think it was pushed by all of us. And the other thing is that, um, well, I guess many people did this, too, but they were using video meetings to catch up with their family and their friends, and [LAUGHS] it was very soon that I just decided I couldn’t do that either. I could not do one more quiz. And, um, so, uh, I think there was a sort of a pulling back, I’d say, by about the summertime for me, but also our work group started to really pull back on that, and we became much more intentional about how we—first of all, if we needed a meeting, what its purpose was, how we were gonna run it. So we came up with this little acronym called CHARM, and that [LAUGHS]—it’s a little mnemonic that helps you think about, right at the beginning of the meeting, what are the ground rules for the meeting. So “C” stands for “chat.” Are we gonna encourage parallel chat or say we don’t want it ’cause it’s too distracting? “H” is “hand raising,” so how are we gonna handle questions? Um, do we want to use the hand-raise feature in Teams, for example, or just people put their real hands up or just jump in? “A” was for “agenda,” so, uh, do we have an agenda? Um, let’s make sure that it’s front and center if we do. “R” was for “recording.” Are we gonna record this? Is it OK with everybody? ’Cause sometimes we forget. And then “M” is “moderator.” So another thing we saw over the course of the past year is that more and more meetings were appointing moderators so that they could look at the parallel chat if there were questions or just keep us on track and make sure everything was running smoothly. So CHARM, it isn’t something that you have to do every time, but I think especially if a meeting’s big or you don’t know people in a meeting very well, it’s good to kind of run through that in your head if you’re running a meeting. So we started doing that, as well. Hopefully our meetings are more CHARM-ing now.

[LAUGHTER]

[MUSIC BREAK]

TEEVAN: So you’re in the UK while much of Microsoft is in the Seattle area. How has—have meetings changed for you being in a different time zone? Is it easier or harder or just different?

SELLEN: Yeah, that’s a really interesting one because, you know, the mother ship of Microsoft is over in where you are, Jaime, right? On the West Coast. And it used to be that we in the UK would kind of be the odd ones out when it came to joining a big meeting in—in Seattle or in Redmond, and then when everybody went into remote working, it felt like much more of a level playing field, right, that everybody was now having to do this, and actually, that’s kind of nice because we were all kind of grappling with the same issues, maybe more forgiving of the fact that maybe our internet wasn’t working very well or whatever. We were being more mindful of, you know, people’s schedules, I think, and being more intentional as I said earlier. So that was kind of good. The—the thing that also happened, though, for me, was that more and more of my schedule was sort of being pushed into Seattle time, so, you know, an eight-hour time shift, so more and more of my meetings were happening later in the evening and kind of shifted that way. So one thing that we’ve had to do—and I’ve said to my team—is don’t be afraid to push back because if you’ve got a meeting at 11 in the evening, maybe they just need to be reminded that you’re actually in the UK or that Cambridge is the Cambridge in England and not the Cambridge on the East Coast of the US. [LAUGHS] And so don’t be afraid to say that. So, you know, we’re never going to get around these time zone issues fundamentally, but we can be much more mindful, um, and I think we are being much more mindful.

TEEVAN: Has the use of video been helpful with that? Like the sort of ability to attend meetings asynchronously.

SELLEN: Yeah, I—I, um, I think that many of us are watching more recordings of meetings now, and that’s actually quite handy. So it’ll be interesting to see how that develops as, um, a new set of practices with people being able to—to watch things back, and even, you know, thinking of ways we can ask questions maybe in advance of meetings or follow up afterwards as a way to kind of do catch-up. So that’s another way in which we can look to, um, have more flexibility over our working lives. One big learning from all of this is that people really value flexibility for so many reasons, and our tools really need to reflect that.

TEEVAN: I’ve been in meetings where people will record their piece, too, so that if they’re not going to be there, you can play that recording and sort of have—

SELLEN: Yeah.

TEEVAN: —them contribute.

SELLEN: Yeah.

TEEVAN: So what’s going to happen to meetings when some but not all of us are back in the office?

SELLEN: Wow, that’s a really big question going forward. Actually, we’ve known for some time—so there’s been a long history of work in this area—that these hybrid meetings, where you’ve got some people in the room and some people dialing in remotely, exacerbate all kinds of asymmetries, right, so that remote people often don’t have enough of a presence in a room. You know, they might not be represented on a display the way that they should be, like they might be really huge at the front of the room next to the slides, or they might not have any presence at all visually, that it might be hard to hear them. So there are lots of issues around presence, and I’ve been in so many meetings—and I’m guilty of this, too—just walking out of a meeting room and forgetting that the remote person is still on the line. You know, we have to be much more mindful of things like that happening. And likewise, you know, if you’re remote, you might not see the activities around a whiteboard or the things that people are sharing with each other around a table, and the people who are in the room and the remote people both have—have a responsibility to be reflective and intentional about how they’re being seen and what’s the best configuration in a meeting. So, for example, a really simple one is that if you have a remote person displayed somewhere in the room, try and get the camera that that person is being viewed through as close to that display as you possibly can so that when you turn to look at that person, they are seeing you look at them. I mean, that’s just a really simple thing, right, and it’s something that we all—we all need to do with our home setups, too. So there are some simple things that we can do, but, you know, also best practice things. So if you’re in a hybrid meeting, at the beginning of the meeting, make sure you introduce everyone; you make sure that when there are questions, that you always include the remote people to see if they have any input; and certainly, at the end of a meeting, make sure that everybody says goodbye, um, to—to those people who may be disadvantaged and probably are disadvantaged by the fact that they’re remote.

TEEVAN: What got you interested in studying remote work?

SELLEN: So, um, when I joined the University of Toronto as a postdoc back in, uh, the early ’90s, that was one of the first what are called “media spaces” that was set up, and a media space, as you said in the intro, is basically an experimental setup where everybody’s office has a camera, monitor, microphone, and speaker, and the idea was to live the experience of remote work to see how we could play around with different configurations, different technological developments, to improve the experience of working remotely with one another. Because, actually, videoconferencing technology had been around since, well—actually, I think it was originally the ’50s and ’60s—there were, uh, picture phones, and the predictions back then were that, you know, these new technologies were going to mean the end of business travel. Well, that never happened. So come the ’90s, we’re still playing around with this, still trying to understand it, and we built these media spaces. So there was one at Toronto, where I was, and there was one at Xerox PARC, where I moved to the sister lab of Xerox PARC soon after that, and we had a media space there, as well, and we were able to really kind of live the experience of having all this technology in our offices. So that got me really interested in it, and then I started running experiments, trying to look at, for example, the mechanics of turn-taking in video meetings compared to face-to-face meetings, um, and trying to measure how conversations were different in those different conditions. And it turns out, it’s really hard to find significant differences if you just look at things like, you know, how many turns people take, how long those turns are, how many pauses people take; it doesn’t reflect people’s real experiences of what those conversations are like. So I moved on after that to use different techniques.

TEEVAN: As somebody who’s been studying remote work for decades, this past year must have been really interesting for you. Like what—what has that meant for your research, to have the whole world go remote?

SELLEN: Oh, yeah. Huge. [LAUGHS] It’s like this huge experiment, um, just there for the taking. And I mean, you know, there’s been a lot of downside, obviously, to the pandemic—huge downsides—but as a researcher, it’s been just this amazing opportunity. And I remember back in March, when we were all told that we needed to go home and pack up our stuff, I was with my colleague Sean Rintel, who’s also a researcher in this area, and we suddenly looked at each other and went, “Wow, we need to study this.” And we completely pivoted and started setting up a big experiment within Microsoft to study what was going on. So not only did it give us this great opportunity to really explore in-depth how we could think about technology differently and think about how it interacts with people’s work practices, but it allowed us to then sort of reignite interest around the decades of research that have been going on in this space going back to the ’80s, really. So that’s been great to be able to refocus on some of the—some of the things that have changed. Lots has changed, right? But some of the basic issues—some of the fundamental things that go on in remote work have not changed, and so it’s been great to be able to go back and revisit all of that and to see how we can now apply it.

TEEVAN: Thank you, Abi, for the amazing research that you do to make remote work better, and, uh, thank you also for your time. And thanks to our listeners for tuning in. We hope you’ll continue to join us as we explore the new future of work. You can learn a lot more about the research that we discussed today at aka.ms/newfutureofwork. Also, be sure to subscribe for new episodes wherever you listen to your favorite shows.

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