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Episode 127 | July 7, 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 Senior Research Economist Sonia Jaffe delve into the “Personal Productivity and Well-Being” chapter of the report, beginning with why measuring productivity isn’t as easy as just observing output or counting hours worked. They also explore how people already working from home helped them better understand how people adjusted to remote work, the diversity in experiences among workers, and how we can be better coworkers to our remote colleagues whether we’re working from home or not.
- Project page and report: The New Future of Work
- Future of Work digital magazine: WorkLab
- Guide: Hybrid Work: A Guide for Business Leaders
- Guide: Hybrid Workplace Flexibility Guide
- Annual report: The Work Trend Index
- Publication: A Tale of Two Cities: Software Developers Working from Home During the COVID-19 Pandemic
- Publication: How Work From Home Affects Collaboration: A Large-Scale Study of Information Workers in a Natural Experiment During COVID-19
- Microsoft Research Newsletter: Sign up to receive the latest news from Microsoft Research
Editor’s note: The privacy and protection of data is of the utmost importance to Microsoft. Research under The New Future of Work initiative, which includes qualitative and quantitative data, is conducted in accordance with the rigorous privacy standards developed by the company.
SONIA JAFFE (TEASER): We see these kind of benefits and challenges people face, and they’re so linked. People talk about valuing the flexibility, like, it’s great that my computer comes up with my little break timer, or I need to give my wrists a break, and so I go and I change the laundry, and that’s super convenient, but that makes it harder to create that separation. It’s because we lost the physical and temporal boundaries, but it’s also because we want to take advantage of that flexibility. You could just say, “OK, I’m going to pretend that I’m in an office and I’m going to be here 9:00 to 5:00 and pretend I’m not at home.” But then you would lose much of the benefits of working—or at least some of the benefits—of working from home, and so people’s reluctance to do that then leads to these challenges and this blurring of work and life boundaries.
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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.
We’ve been diving into the research contained in The New Future of Work technical report that Microsoft released, and the next chapter that we’re going to talk about is titled “Personal Productivity and Well-Being,” and it focuses on the impact that COVID-19 has had on how information workers’ individual work practices have changed this year due to us all having to work remotely. We’re joined by Sonia Jaffe, who—along with Jenna Butler, Mary Czerwinski, Shamsi Iqbal, Kate Nowak, Emily Peloquin, and Longqi Yang—synthesized the research about this coming from Microsoft and elsewhere. Sonia is a senior research economist in the Microsoft Office of the Chief Economist, and she’s worked on projects in health economics, industrial organization, and platform markets. Over the past year, she’s collaborated on, uh, various different projects looking at the effect of working from home and COVID-19 on work practices through both surveys and telemetry data. Sonia is also one of the editors with Brent Hecht and me of The New Future of Work report. Welcome, Sonia.
SONIA JAFFE: Thanks, Jaime. Glad to be here.
TEEVAN: Sonia, what inspired you to get involved in this research initiative? You’ve been a really active collaborator. What brought you into it?
JAFFE: So prior to COVID-19, I actually had been having some conversations with people in Microsoft’s HR department—human resources department—who were thinking about the future of work and seeing kind of broad trends that before the pandemic were moving much more slowly but starting to move towards, uh, remote work and thinking about what a pilot in that space would look like. And then COVID came along and did the pilot for us, or much more than a pilot, and so those conversations naturally led to me connecting with you and others who were doing research in this space and trying to make the best of this big uncontrolled experiment that was dropped on us.
TEEVAN: You know, one of the hardest things about studying productivity is figuring out how to measure it. What can you say about the different ways that information worker productivity might be measured?
JAFFE: Yeah, absolutely. From the perspective of an economist, when you talk about productivity, you first want to think about the fact that productivity is output per unit of something, either unit of, uh, input, unit of labor, or unit of time. And so in order to measure productivity, you first have to measure output, which for information workers is its own challenge. For specific types of workers, you can sometimes measure—like the like place that we’ve seen the most research historically is things like call centers, where you have tickets and—and calls fielded. For developers, there’s various measures of coding activity, of pull requests and collaborations. But these are all very, uh, imperfect proxies for the thing that we actually care about. And we don’t have a great kind of technical or telemetry-based measure of output. Often people find that asking people how productive they feel is actually one of the better measures when it’s available. And one of the projects that I worked on over the past year with people in MSR who focus on developer productivity was a survey that we sent out to software developers and program managers at Microsoft asking them how their productivity had changed, uh, during the pandemic. And one of my contributions to that survey—because I don’t have the specific expertise in software developer productivity—was asking not just how productivity had changed but how output and hours had changed so that we could try and start getting into this difference between how much are you producing and kind of how effectively or efficiently are you producing it.
TEEVAN: So that’s interesting. What about things like the number of meetings people attend or the emails they send? Are those useful, or are they …
JAFFE: Yeah, I think those are absolutely important for kind of understanding work practices. And I have another paper that we’ve been working on using telemetry data from Microsoft employees to look at what changes we’ve seen in things like time spent in meetings, email and IM activity, collaboration networks, and those have the distinct advantage of being much more broadly available, right? We sent out a survey, you get maybe 20 percent response rate, and you work with what you have, whereas with telemetry, we can look at a much broader population.
TEEVAN: Using these various different attempts to kind of approximate productivity, what are some of the key takeaways that we’ve seen about people’s productivity as they’ve moved remote?
JAFFE: Yeah, so the short-term measures of developer activity, so these kind of pull request–type measures, have been either flat or slightly increasing. I think a lot of people would have expected kind of these to fall off a cliff of like you’re not seeing the people you’re working with—all your work practices have been interrupted—and we did not see that. So those measures were kind of constant, maybe slightly up. That said, that’s the output aspect of it. Another thing we’re seeing across a whole bunch of different studies is evidence of increasing work hours. And this is also hard to measure in terms of using telemetry-based measures. We kind of can see like when people first start either having meetings or responding to emails in the day and then when they stop, but I think one of the patterns that a lot of people observed was, with people working at home, more interspersing of work and life. And so if I take a longer lunch break or someone stops work for an hour to help their kids with school or wants to go for a walk that they maybe wouldn’t have done in the office, all those things—which are, as information workers, one of the luxuries of this type of job, is it often has that flexibility—but that suggests that even if the kind of workday has expanded, that may not be fully reflected in people actually working that much more. And so we also struggle with measuring the kind of—the denominator of productivity of the amount of time that people [are] working. But the survey evidence when we ask people are, like, are you working more, less, or the same and also studies from prior to COVID that looked more specifically at working time do find that remote workers tend to work more, and it’s a combination of not having to commute and some amount of that time getting reallocated to working. Sometimes it’s a desire to kind of show dedication or show your face in a metaphorical sense. Because you can’t be in the office, like, 9:00 to 5:00 showing that you’re committed to your job, you demonstrate that commitment through longer working hours. And sometimes it’s just kind of a blurring of boundaries of if you’re—you have your computer in your living room or your bedroom and an email comes in, it’s very easy to respond, and that’s definitely one thing that has come up in a lot of research studies of the struggles people have with kind of establishing and following boundaries between their work and home lives.
TEEVAN: I certainly feel like I’m working more. [LAUGHS] Pre-COVID, when I used to work from home, I would sometimes just sit in bed and take calls from there or do email from there. Post-COVID, I sat in bed still and realized that that was way too much of a blurring of the boundary [LAUGHS] between.
JAFFE: Yeah, and, I mean, I think that—you mention COVID. I think that’s another super important aspect of it, is that at least initially, some amount of this additional work hours we saw was not actually about remote work or work from home, but about the fact that there was a pandemic and many of us were in lockdown. And so we didn’t have plans to meet friends for dinner or plans to go do this in the evening and—or couldn’t go to the gym. And so it was much easier to just kind of keep working. And that is one of the many respects in which the research struggles, and we’ve been working to try and separate out the effect of work from home from the effect of the pandemic, which if you’re a manager concerned about what your employees are doing day to day, maybe you don’t need to separate those out. But if you’re trying to think about the future—and hopefully soon we will be in a post-pandemic world—and wanting to understand what remote work or work from home is gonna to look like, then separating out those two effects is super important.
TEEVAN: Yeah, and so that’s an area where I know you have a lot of expertise. Can you tell us a little bit about how we can tease apart the impact of COVID from the impact of remote work?
JAFFE: Yeah, and it’s definitely hard because, uh, looking over the past year, we don’t have people who are working from home not in a pandemic. And so what one of the studies that I’ve worked on does is trying to use data on people who were working from home pre-pandemic and think about, “OK, so they’d already done the work-from-home transition,” and so if we look at how things changed for them from, say, February of 2020 to April, May of 2020, that’s kind of the effect of the pandemic; the people who are already working from home, the major change for them was the pandemic. And so that’s kind of our baseline. And then we compare those to the people who, in addition to being affected by the pandemic, also switched to working from home. And so if the two groups are sufficiently comparable and the effects are kind of separable, or linear, then we can use that as our control group and difference out the effect of the pandemic in order to get at the effect of remote work specifically.
TEEVAN: And do we see different results when we do that compared to when we don’t?
JAFFE: Yeah, so, I mean, one of the, uh, findings that a lot of studies have seen has been increases in meeting time, and we replicate that in our data just kind of observationally. But when we do this, this difference in difference of comparing to the control group, we actually find that people who were already working remotely saw a larger increase in meetings than those who were transitioning to remote work. And so it was something else about the pandemic, and Microsoft certainly had a lot of new business needs, uh, arising around that, and all those other things happening at that same time, the lengthening of the work days, that’s what seemed to be driving most of that increase in meetings and not remote work itself.
TEEVAN: That’s interesting. So regardless of the actual source, whether it’s COVID or remote work, we clearly are working longer hours now, and, you know, the kind of canonical complaint that I think of, uh, for information work post-COVID is meeting fatigue, and I know one study showed that the share of IMs sent between 6:00 PM and midnight increased by 52 percent, and that people who previously didn’t work weekends are, you know, working three times the amount of work that they used to do on weekends. What can you tell us about people’s ability to keep our work from seeping into everything? Like has there been an impact on our well-being, on sort of some of these other things that are sort of related to productivity but not necessarily directly part of that?
JAFFE: Yeah, I mean, I think those boundaries is definitely one of the biggest challenges that we’ve seen, um, in a bunch of different studies. I mean commuting provided a very clear both temporal and physical boundary for a lot of people, and a lot of people have struggled to replace that boundary. And I think it’s—it’s in some ways, I don’t know if aggravated is the right word, but we see these kind of benefits and challenges people face, and they’re so linked. So people talk about valuing the flexibility, like, it’s great that my computer comes up with my little break timer, or if I need to give my wrists a break, and so I go and I change the laundry, and that’s super convenient, but that makes it harder to create that separation. And so I think it’s part of why it’s so hard—it’s because we lost the physical and temporal boundaries, but it’s also because we want to take advantage of that flexibility. And in the surveys that we did, those same people who said that they valued the flexibility from work from home, many of them were also saying they were struggling with boundaries. The link between the benefit and the challenge, I think, is part of what makes it hard to—you could just say, “OK, I’m going to pretend that I’m in an office, and I’m going to be here 9:00 to 5:00 and pretend I’m not at home.” But then you would lose much of the benefits of working—or at least some of the benefits—of working from home, and so people’s reluctance to do that then leads to these challenges and this blurring of work and life boundaries.
TEEVAN: Yeah, yeah, yeah, I was super struck by the challenges of those transitions. You know, I mentioned how I moved from working in bed to setting up a separate workspace because I actually wanted to have an explicit transition. I also put a little bell on the door to my workspace so that when I open it, I don’t know, that ding sort of means you’re going to work or you’re ending work.
TEEVAN: Did any of the research findings in this chapter resonate with you in particular? Did you actually change your work practices in any way based on stuff you learned?
JAFFE: Um, I mean, some of them definitely, uh, resonated. Um, so another finding in the chapter is people struggling with social isolation, and again, it’s a combination of remote work and the pandemic, right? I would be a lot more OK with not seeing my coworkers day to day if I could, like, see my friends in the evening, but I think seeing that come out again and again in the research really highlighted that struggle that I was having and caused me to make more kind of explicit efforts to just have weekly catch-ups with my people on my team who I’m not actively working on a project with, but just to check in and hear what they’re working on and try and have, or re-create, a semblance of those hallway conversations that we would have in the office.
TEEVAN: I feel like that was something I did immediately after the pandemic, was, like, I did happy hours with—I was like, “Ooh, this is cool. I’m hanging out with friends who don’t live near me who I never would have seen. I’m seeing my aunts and uncles,” and then, I don’t know, keeping that up for a whole year, it’s like I gave up or something. [LAUGHS]
JAFFE: Yeah, I mean, I—my screen fatigue is definitely real. After spending all day at the computer, like, I want to see my friends, but I also don’t really want to sit at the computer for—
JAFFE: —more time after dinner.
TEEVAN: Right. Um, do you have a sense of, like, how people’s personal productivity has evolved over the course of this past year? Like, you know, are there phases or things that happened early in the spring of 2020, when we were just figuring things out, compared to, um, you know, in the fall, compared to now, when we’re starting to look towards hybrid work?
JAFFE: I mean, so—so one of the broad findings is just that there’s a huge amount of individual heterogeneity in how people are affected by remote work. Um, so I hesitate a little bit to make kind of big, uh, statements about patterns. Um, I will say that in the spring, I think there were a lot of concerns showing up in surveys and the different studies around burnout and kind of the unsustainability of the work practices that some people had developed. And I think that both on an organizational level to some extent and an individual level, people kind of made some changes to try and make it sustainable, realizing that we weren’t headed back to the office any time soon and we needed to make this work. And so I think that that got at least somewhat better over the summer and fall. Um, I do think that the year mark has been—I mean, this is not really from the research and more just from my conversations with people—but I think that the year mark has been difficult. And so maybe we’re seeing some more of that again. I haven’t seen a lot of, uh, panel studies or recurring surveys. Uh, the Work Trend Index that Microsoft put out in March did kind of show that there wasn’t, in terms of IMs and—and meeting times, we haven’t reverted to baseline. It went up, and if—if anything, like, it’s no longer skyrocketing, but if anything, it’s—it’s continuing to kind of creep up over—over the rest of the year. So definitely last spring was a time of more change. But in terms of those work practices, I wouldn’t say we’ve seen any kind of—of reversion to the pre-pandemic patterns.
TEEVAN: So you mentioned the sort of heterogeneity in people’s experiences to remote work. And I actually do personalized search research, and so I think about the individual variation that there is and that people experience, so much so that I actually kind of roll my eyes at it like, you know, “Yes, there’s always individual variation.” And yet, it seems with COVID and our experience of how, uh, work has changed, it seems like that’s deeply true, and that, you know, the—the variation in how different populations have been impacted by remote work is really significant. And I don’t know if you can speak a little to sort of some of the different ways that people have been impacted or the different experiences that are showing up in the data.
JAFFE: Yeah, I mean, you asked about productivity earlier, and one of the earliest surveys we did of people asking how their productivity had changed, a third said that they were less productive than they’d been in the office and a third said they were more productive. So really diametrically opposed effects on productivity. And I think the same is true for a lot of different dimensions. Um, distractions is another one that—that people have looked at. And for a lot of people, I think particularly those who don’t live alone or have kids at home, um, don’t have a private office space, there’s more distractions when they’re working at home during COVID. But we also had a lot of people who are telling us they had fewer distractions, right? If they were in some kind of open office space or even if they had an office where colleagues would frequently drop by to ask them questions; that doesn’t happen when you’re working at home. So I think those are certainly two big axes where people can just have really opposite experiences.
TEEVAN: Do you have any recommendations for people based on the findings in this chapter?
JAFFE: I mean, I think we talked about kind of the challenges around isolation and the desire to kind of be intentional and—and explicit about reaching out to people and—and maintaining connections with coworkers. Um, I think that it can also be really helpful to have conversations with coworkers about communication preferences. Um, I think that people sometimes get a little overwhelmed with the IMs and the emails and all the different apps and that really just being explicit about what types of communication you want to have via different media or, like, “It’s OK to send email after hours, but please don’t IM me.” Or, “If your status is ‘do not disturb,’ does that mean I shouldn’t IM you at all, or it’s OK to IM you, just don’t expect a response?” Really, just having those conversations, I think, can make the process work better for a lot of people and be less stressful.
TEEVAN: Thank you, Sonia, 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.