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Episode 132 | August 12, 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, Chief Scientist Jaime Teevan and Senior Principal Researcher Siddharth Suri explore the many ways people were impacted by work shifts during the COVID-19 pandemic. They talk about how race, gender, income, and other factors are indicative of how people have fared and what this means for the future of work. The researchers discuss the importance of examining potential hidden consequences—and patience—when using short-term data to make long-term decisions, emphasizing aspects of burnout and innovation. Topics covered in this wide-ranging conversation include benefits of commutes and a silver lining in the shift to remote and hybrid work—the movement of more innovative jobs out of large metro areas, creating momentum for greater opportunity in diverse locations. The research that Siddharth Suri describes in this podcast was jointly done with Hana Wolf of LinkedIn.
- 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
- 2021 Work Trend Index: “The Next Great Disruption Is Hybrid Work—Are We Ready?”
- White Paper: “How Many Jobs Can be Done at Home?”
- White Paper: “Characteristics of Workers in Low Work-From-Home and High Personal-Proximity Occupations”
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.
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SID SURI (TEASER): The people who can work from home are more likely to be white and more likely to be in the top half of the income distribution—and more likely to have employer-provided health insurance, which is something you really need when there’s a pandemic raging. Conversely, who can’t work from home? They are more likely to be people of color, people in the bottom half of the distribution, and people less likely to have employer-provided health insurance. Think of people like bartender, waiter, mechanic, nurse, these kinds of jobs. And so right then, you can see that working from home just sort of cloved society in two. It exacerbated already present structural inequalities in society today.
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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.
In this session, we turn to the last chapter of The New Future of Work technical report, titled “Societal Implications.” And we’re fortunate to have one of the authors of that chapter, Sid Suri, joining us. Sid is a Senior Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and a computational social scientist. His early work analyzed the relationship between network topology and human behavior. Since then, he’s become one of the world’s leaders in designing, building, and conducting experiments on crowd platforms, and in 2019, he published a book on gig work with Mary Gray titled Ghost Work. Welcome, Sid.
SIDDHARTH SURI: Thank you, Jaime. It’s a pleasure to be here.
TEEVAN: And so, Sid, in this chapter, you and your co-author, Hana Wolf, cover the research done at Microsoft and elsewhere that tries to tease out some of the long-term implications of the rapid shift to remote work that we’ve observed this past year. And, I mean, that must be really hard. We’re trying to see these long-term trends using just a year’s worth of data. What are some of the approaches that you used to have confidence in your ability to do this?
SURI: So first of all, yeah, it was pretty hard, but I also want to say that it was made a lot easier by my extremely talented co-author and collaborator, Hana Wolf, of LinkedIn. She was an amazing person to work with, and she and I are just looking for excuses to keep working together. You guys brought us together, and I couldn’t be happier that you did that. A lot of what we had to do, unlike a lot of the other tracks, is we had to get data from the outside world—outside of Microsoft. So, for example, shortly after the pandemic hit, I literally found myself downloading and analyzing BLS—Bureau of Labor Statistics—data to understand the disproportionate impact working from home had on African Americans, Latinx people, et cetera. And the numbers, they kept me up at night, Jaime. The African-American population is over-represented in the education and health sectors. They got decimated by work from home. The Latinx community is over-represented in the hospitality sector. They got decimated by work from home. And it’s just one of the many examples we have of how this pandemic disproportionately hurt people of color as opposed to those who are not of color. It was, uh, sobering.
TEEVAN: Yeah. Well, and so you bring up an interesting point there. Most of the research in The New Future of Work report focuses on information workers.
TEEVAN: And what you’re talking about right now are different populations of workers. What can you tell me about sort of how work breaks down between information workers and essential workers and others?
SURI: Yeah. So, basically what we found pretty early on—and this is relying on a couple different economic studies that we can put the references in the show notes if you want—uh, was that who can work from home? The people who can work from home are more likely to be white and more likely to be in the top half of the income distribution—and more likely to have employer-provided health insurance, which is something you really need when there’s a pandemic raging. Conversely, who can’t work from home? They are more likely to be people of color, people in the bottom half of the distribution, and people less likely to have employer-provided health insurance. Think of people like bartender, waiter, mechanic, nurse, these kinds of jobs. And so right then, you can see that working from home just sort of cloved society in two. It exacerbated already present structural inequalities in society today, and I just described how working from home split society across race, also income. But Jaime, every single dimension we looked at, whether it was LGBTQ status, disability status, caregiving status, you name it, there was a disproportionate impact of working from home along that dimension.
TEEVAN: You know, so one of the things that I noticed is that some of the kinds of work that we don’t historically think of as information work actually did sort of, out of necessity, become information work, um, during this period. You know, for example, folks are attending exercise classes remotely, or musicians are hosting concerts remotely. We’re visiting doctors from home. You know, was that something that was observed in the data? Are there implications of this for us to understand?
SURI: There are. Um, actually, if you go back to some of those economic studies I was pointing you to, if you look at some of the assumptions in those studies about what jobs can and cannot be done from home, it’s really illuminating. So, for example, one of the studies assumed that teaching could not be done from home. But sure enough, necessity was the mother of all invention—
SURI: —and all school became done remotely and virtually and from home. And, you know, you mentioned telemedicine. Basically, people have been talking about telemedicine since we were in grad school—
SURI: —you know, decades ago, and it basically got nowhere until COVID hit, and now, all of a sudden, telemedicine is an everyday part of our life that we just accept. So, it really did ratchet up the digital transformation. Now, another theme of our work is the unintended consequences of all of this. That sounds great, right, at first. Oh, I can see my doctor online. You know, I don’t have to go in, I don’t have to risk getting COVID, et cetera, et cetera. Conversely, people are putting off a lot of preventative medicine. I, myself, I didn’t go to the dentist for a year and a half.
TEEVAN: That’s going to make the dentist fun. [LAUGHTER]
SURI: Oh, yeah. Oh, it—it totally—not going to be fun at all. I don’t want to talk about that. [LAUGHTER] Um, and so what are the long-term consequences of that? It’s yet to be determined, and this goes back to your first question. One part of your first question I want to highlight—is a lot of people are making long-term decisions based on short-term data based on what happened after COVID hit, and I think that is a very, very dangerous place to be.
TEEVAN: So, you know, we have to be making decisions now, though, and we don’t have long-term data. What should people be doing?
SURI: For sure. So, you know, Microsoft, for example, Satya Nadella, after COVID hit, I couldn’t have been prouder to work for him. He came out with this quote. It was brilliant. It was like, you know, “Yeah, okay, productivity hasn’t fallen off a cliff. We’re doing okay. But what are the effects of social capital? Are we headed for a burnout situation?” It’s just that he had this long-term vision in mind that we don’t quite know what this picture is, and I want a little bit more information before I take these drastic actions of permanent work from home policies and things like that. And I think that was a very insightful decision on his part.
TEEVAN: What can you tell us about what’s happening with social capital?
SURI: Yeah, so, uh, with, uh, Longqi Yang, um, Sonia Jaffe, David Holtz, myself, and a whole team of E&D including yourself and Brent—Brent Hecht, that is—we spent a lot of time looking at the social and collaboration network of Microsoft employees, and through some clever statistical methods, what we managed to do is separate out the effects of working from home from the effects of COVID. And the idea here is, God willing, COVID won’t last much longer, and we might move to a situation where there’s more remote work. So, what can we say about that situation? And what we found, in a nutshell, is that working from home causes the network of information workers to be more siloed. There’s less inter-group communication. So, one business group, another business group. There’s less edges and connections between them. That’s one kind of way that they’re siloed. Another way that they’re siloed is there’s less bridging. So, if I’m connected to you, and you’re connected to Brent, but I’m not connected to Brent, you act as a bridge between Brent and I. There’s less of that. So that causes less information flow around the network. So these kinds of things, if you sort of turn that knob and let it go till infinity, you get a very sort of siloed network, where people aren’t communicating between teams, between groups, they’re not getting the fresh sources of information from other teams and other groups, and it really scares me in terms of innovation and how we’re going to innovate. So, it’s a worrying trend. It’s another example of how there’s a short-term phenomenon here, but the long-term consequences of which we have not yet seen.
TEEVAN: So, this all seems pretty dire. Were there trends that you saw that made you hopeful or there were positive things to look forward to in the new future of work?
SURI: Yeah, that’s a good point. Um, I’m not going to sugarcoat this. I would say the vast majority was pretty dire. There were a few silver linings. Number one would be something around geography. So, in the United States today—and Scott Counts and his team at MSR [Microsoft Research] are really tackling this issue—a lot of the innovation you see is around big cities. That’s where a lot of the, uh, high-paying jobs are around information work and things like that. And one silver lining is companies are starting to say, “Hey, wait a minute. This remote-work thing—it’s kind of working. So I can pay $160K for somebody in Silicon Valley or I can pay $100K for someone who is even more experienced but lives in Omaha, Nebraska. Why don’t I just do that?” And so it’s creating a little bit more opportunity for people in diverse geographies than before.
TEEVAN: Are cities going to look different as a result of that? Like, is that going to change the way that our geography is set up?
SURI: This is one of the things that I personally am most interested in, and I’m definitely keeping my eyes on as time goes forward. On the one hand, you know, there’s the argument I just made. You know, you can hire people in geographies with lower wage costs. Great. On the other hand, people have been predicting the demise of New York City ever since the Spanish flu hit in 1918. So, it seems a little premature to do that. So, I don’t know how it’s going to shake out, but I definitely see a world with more remote work. The question is, “How big of an effect will it be?”
TEEVAN: Yeah, you know, you’ve talked a lot about the differential impact of the pandemic on different populations, as well.
TEEVAN: And I know rural Americans are 12% less likely to have home broadband. Do you think rural infrastructure is going to be an issue, um, or is this crisis going to force our rural infrastructure to get better?
SURI: Okay, yeah. And I want to give a special thanks to Bill Buxton to alerting us to this issue, both in the US and in Canada. Yeah, this is a real issue. Broadband penetration in rural United States is nowhere near what it is in cities. I forget the statistic, but it is actually in our “Societal Implications” chapter. I looked it up. What we see, especially in the education context, because the broadband is so much poorer in rural networks, kids are having a hard time staying in school. I mean, they just literally just can’t get online to see their classes. And this has caused almost kind of a wasted year for many kids across rural America. And this is also super, super problematic. And you just made a good point that also—in terms of work going forward—if you live in a place without broadband, you’re not going to get that high-paying information-work job. So, absolutely, rural versus cities is yet another dimension that has cloven society in two due to COVID.
TEEVAN: You know, also related in some ways to geography and in particular the fact that we’re not all commuting right now—
TEEVAN: Um, I remember, like, there was this early meme post-pandemic, where everybody was posting, like, you know, polar bears wandering the streets of cities and, like, “Nature is healing.” Um, I know, on the Microsoft campus, we’ve had bobcats hanging out in, like, outdoor café areas.
TEEVAN: Um, you know, what can you tell me about the environmental impact of COVID-19?
SURI: First, I’ll tell you about the environmental impact, but then I want to talk more—a little more about commute on humans in a minute. So, the environmental impact. Um, I had the pleasure of being on a panel with a woman from, um, UNDP, not too long ago. And, um, her name is escaping me. And I asked her point-blank about this. “Is there any hope that we’ll make a dent in climate change due to not having to commute so much?” And what she said is, “A small dent, but what would actually make it a much, much bigger dent is if companies would be able to shut off their climate control in their offices because everyone’s working from home. That would actually magnify the dent much more.” That was pretty interesting to me. Uh—
TEEVAN: You know, uh, before we get to the commute thing, though—
TEEVAN: I mean, another thing that I’ve heard that’s sort of interesting is, if you think about people moving remote and then needing to come together still, at times. Maybe you have more air traffic.
TEEVAN: Maybe the fact that people are living in rural areas, they have to travel further for groceries. Like, it feels like there’s these potential—
TEEVAN: —long-term externalities to that, as well.
SURI: For sure. That seems, um—and it can be counter—what you’re saying is, this can be counterintuitive. You might just think, “Oh, I’m not commuting to work every morning. There’s got to be a savings here, right?”
SURI: “Duh, right?” But then what you’re seeing is, uh, everyone moves an hour away, two hours away, then for that one, you know, meeting where I got to drive that hour or two hours, I just made up, like, two or three weeks’ worth of commute in one shot. So, it’s a little less clear as you might think. But there’s an added cost that I also want to bring up, which is, like, if we’re all apart, then are we innovating? Yes, I’m—I’m saving that commute time, but are we innovating? Am I contributing to my company in the same way? Am I contributing to society in the same way? So, yeah, I saved on commute time, but maybe my output is also down. So, how does that net out? This is really, really, really complicated accounting.
TEEVAN: Yeah. So, then you said you were going to say a little more about commute. I didn’t mean to cut that off.
TEEVAN: I just got excited about the environmental stuff.
SURI: No, no. I’m excited about both. And about the commute, so, one of the key themes that came out of the, um, it was the software development track—uh, Chandra Maddila and, um, and Ginger, uh, Hudson. One of the phrases that came out was, “Productivity is personal.” And this is a key scientific insight that came out of our whole initiative, but especially that track. And what they mean by that is the same phenomenon can help one person’s productivity and hurt another’s. So, let’s take commute, for example. So, they surveyed people—Denae Ford and her team—they surveyed people. And a lot of people were saying, “Look, I don’t have to commute. I get that time back. Boom, I’m more productive.” But then other people were saying, “Look, I used my commute to work to plan out my day, to think about, you know, how I was going to allocate my time, to what things on my to-do list. And then, on the way home, I would use my commute to decompress, to switch out of work mode, and switch into home mode.” It just never crossed my mind that commute could possibly have a positive benefit to anyone ever! And it turns out, it does. And then, you know, Shamsi Iqbal, your longtime collaborator and you and, you know, your team built this thing called virtual commute to get the good bits of a commute back but leave out the bad parts, which I thought was a brilliant piece of innovation. So, like I said, the same phenomenon can boost one person’s productivity and can take from another.
TEEVAN: Yeah. Can we look at the scale of the shift to remote work? Do you have a sense for how many people were working remote pre-pandemic? And then how many people were working remote post-pandemic?
SURI: So, I recently had to give a talk about this around MSR. And this is the first slide. So, if you rewind into your minds—everyone on the audience just rewind in your mind back to February of 2020. At this time, less than 5% of working Americans worked from home three or more days a week.
TEEVAN: Nobody worked from home, really. Like, that was not many, hmm?
SURI: Exactly, exactly. Now you fast-forward to March or April. 37% of Americans were working from home five days a week. So, in the course of a few weeks, a third of working Americans went from basically never working from home to working from home five days a week. I would argue that is the most significant disruption Microsoft has ever seen its entire history. Never has there been a disruption that affects a third of information workers in a matter of weeks.
TEEVAN: Yeah, It’s a third of all workers, right? And most of those are information workers.
SURI: Yeah, yeah.
TEEVAN: Yeah. Are things going to go back to normal—”normal,” like in quotes? [LAUGHTER] Because things have been really different this last year. But, like, often—
TEEVAN: These huge disruptions end up, like, in retrospect, just being little blips.
SURI: So, Abi Sellen made a wonderful point—another one of our illustrious collaborators. You know, before COVID, basically, like I just said, less than 5% of people working from home three or more days a week. So, basically, almost all work was being done in the office. During COVID, like I said, [LAUGHTER] almost all work is being done in the office. Now, the future is going to be almost, by definition, somewhere in the middle. And, you know, prominent economists—like Nick Bloom from Stanford—he predicts two days a week at home and the rest in the office. I actually kind of believe that. I don’t believe we’re just going to go back to February 2020. I think we’re going to go to some new kind of equilibrium with more remote work than this sort of hybrid model where, you know, some people are full time at home, some people are part time at home.
TEEVAN: Um, do we know what people want? Like, do people want to be working remotely? Do people want to be back in the office?
SURI: So, our Asia lab is ahead of us in the sense that they’ve already returned to the office, so to speak. And if you look at their usage of how many days a week, on average, people come into the office, it’s pretty much uniformly distributed between one and five days a week. Economists would call that a revealed preference. Secondly, there’s been surveys done of Microsoft employees. They predominantly are preferring, again, some kind of situation in the middle—not full remote and not full in the office, but something like two days a week at home, three days a week in the office.
TEEVAN: Do you have a sense for how business leaders are starting to prepare for hybrid work or sort of looking forward to the future for, um, what they should do? Or do you have advice for business leaders as they move forward?
SURI: Well, in terms of what business leaders are actually doing, uh, I’d actually push that question back to you, Jaime, because, uh, you got more of the ear of the business leaders around Microsoft than I do. So, I’d push that one back to you. One piece of advice I would give would be, like I said, don’t fall into that trap. Don’t make long-term decisions on short-term data. Think about the data you’re staring at, think about how it was gathered, and think about, “Is this the right thing for me to be extrapolating from?” And I think thinking like that is going to save you a lot of heartache going forward. Do you have any observations from what the business leaders around Microsoft are thinking about?
TEEVAN: Yeah. Certainly, you see, across the tech industry, a range of things that people are doing, right? You have some companies, um, moving to remote-first models. Microsoft has taken, I think, a good, thoughtful, measured approach, from what I can tell. So, we’re looking to support folks working from home up to 50 percent of their time, which seems roughly consistent with the literature I’ve seen that suggests you can work, you know, two and a half days from home without deteriorating your social networks. It’s interesting to look at how folks are revisiting space and rethinking the workplace and what space looks like and how we’re using our in-person, in-office time.
SURI: Right. Just before we get to the space, there’s the one bit I want to highlight is Microsoft’s more measured approach, which we brought up a few minutes ago. And one of the reasons I love that approach is because, uh—and Shamsi and, um, Mary Czerwinski and their team—they did a survey about this. And they found out that women were struggling more than men. And moreover, people with caregiving responsibilities were struggling more than those without. And when you put that together, you know, women caregivers were struggling the most. And this more measured approach, I think, is the right way to go. You know, right now, women caregivers are really, really struggling. So, if we can take this more measured approach, maybe we can figure out ways to relieve some of the pressure off of them and get them, you know, sort of back to equal. What I don’t want to see is the wage gap—which women have worked tirelessly for the past few decades, at least to get it to 88 cents on the dollar—I would hate to see that work come undone. So that’s one thing I really like about this measured approach that Microsoft is taking.
TEEVAN: Now, I certainly know, as a mother to four kids, that it’s pretty hard to focus on work with schools closed. And you know, I want to be helping my kids manage through this crisis.
TEEVAN: I think that’s a great example to your point about making short-term dec—
TEEVAN: It’s—It’s actually almost the opposite. It’s like making a short-term decision to address a short-term issue, but it will have long-term implications, to the extent that women scale back the work they’re doing or leave the workforce.
SURI: Exactly, exactly. I’m actually afraid that wage gap is going to close because the women start leaving the workforce, and it would actually close for the wrong reason.
TEEVAN: Yeah, that’s interesting. That speaks to your point of really looking carefully at the data, as well.
TEEVAN: Well, is there anything that I forgot to ask or an important point that you want to—you want to make sure we hit on before we sign off?
SURI: I guess the important point I would like to make before we sign off, like I said, uh, first and foremost, I want to give a ton of credit to my collaborator and co-author, Hana Wolf. It was a pleasure working with her. She was absolutely brilliant. Secondly, I want to give a thanks to you, Jaime, Brent, you know, all the leadership work you guys did. It was just, uh, honestly, it was kind of fun. You know, it was a ton of work, but it was just super interesting. There was a time—I’ll never forget it—like, Hana and I were on a call. We’re like, you know, neck-deep in BLS data or something. And she just told me—she just chuckled to myself. She was like, “Every time I open the New York Times,” she was like, “Sid and I figured that out, like, a month or two ago.” [LAUGHTER] And it was because of your leadership. It’s because of Brent—because of all the people you guys brought together—that, you know, we had all this data in our hands. We were swimming around in it. We could draw these insights. And we were sort of ahead of the game. And it was just a ton of fun to work on.
TEEVAN: Well, great, Sid. Thank you for your time today. And thanks to our listeners for tuning in. 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.