Microsoft research has found that employee communication networks became static and less interconnected during the pandemic-driven shift to remote work. Industry observers said collaboration tools like email, chat and video conferencing haven't replicated the benefits of in-person communication.
Company researchers published the study this month in the science journal Nature Human Behavior, examining how 61,182 US Microsoft employees communicated during the first six months of 2020. During that time, work-at-home became mandatory because of COVID-19, making in-person communication impossible.
According to the study, employees were less likely to have ties with colleagues in other business units after remote work took hold. Instead, workers spent more time communicating with those within pre-existing groups. That caused a troubling decline in cross-group communications -- a necessary means of passing along new information.
"Two people connected by a strong tie can often transfer information more easily (as they are more likely to share a common perspective)," the study said. "By contrast, [outside the group] ties … are more likely to provide access to new, non-redundant information."
The study found that remote work made Microsoft's collaboration network less dynamic as well. Workers met fewer new colleagues after the transition and spent less time with the ones they did meet. The study authors said that was problematic because workers perform better when meeting new people or reconnecting with acquaintances.
Niel Nickolaisen, CIO at Sorenson Communications in Salt Lake City, said his experience mirrored the study's conclusions. He found that collaboration tools, including video conferencing, failed to help remote workers build and maintain the relationships needed for co-workers to work well together.
"With products like Zoom and [Microsoft] Teams, it's just too easy not to build those relationships and too easy not to pay attention," he said. "I can turn off my camera and work on something else. I can mute myself and work on something else."
Also, collaboration tools don't have the spontaneity of in-office interactions. Nickolaisen said he must check a remote employee's calendar and set up a meeting instead of just looking at employees' desks and seeing whether they're available for impromptu talks.
That lack of spontaneity makes meeting new colleagues and intracompany communication difficult, said Gartner analyst Mike Fasciani. He said it's easier to build relationships through impromptu interactions, like sharing a cup of coffee in the break room or talking in the hallway in the office, as opposed to a scheduled, online conversation.
"As [that] relationship builds, the scope and depth of the collaboration have a chance to grow into more creative and meaningful outcomes," he said.
Microsoft's researchers attributed some of the communication shortfalls they uncovered to the media through which employees chose to collaborate. The study said synchronous communication, including phone and video calls, fell as workers opted to interact more by email and instant message. By using text only, employees made it more difficult to communicate complex information to each other.
Distractions tied to online communications are also a problem, Nickolaisen said. Communicating through a computer screen means notifications and other work tasks will always pop up while employees collaborate.
"Even if I am interested in the topic, there are lots of things on my monitor asking for my attention -- a message from the CEO, an email from someone on my team asking for advice on an urgent issue, a contract to review before the deadline," he said.
Cultural changes needed, too
New tech features alone are unlikely to solve the problem. Tom Arbuthnot, an IT architect at systems integrator Modality Systems, said Microsoft had created an "Icebreaker" bot for Teams that pairs two random people in a company for a conversation -- an effort to disrupt organizational silos. However, it's easy for employees to ignore the bot and focus on more pressing work, especially if a business isn't actively encouraging its use.
"I don't think the tools, in their own right, can fix [this]," he said.
Companies must attack the issue with cultural changes, Arbuthnot said. He suggested that organizations committed to ongoing remote work hire a full-time internal communications manager. That person's role would be to foster cross-business conversations and encourage the development of new social ties.
The study's findings come when companies are trying to figure out how many days a week employees could be allowed to work from home once offices reopen. Businesses also must determine to what extent collaboration tools can replace in-person communications.
Answers to those questions are essential because employees prefer not to be in the office five days a week. A recent PwC survey found that 55% of 1,200 office workers wanted to do their jobs from home at least three days a week.
The Microsoft study authors said businesses could minimize the negatives of remote work by having teams in the office on set days or require everyone in the office on particular days. Another option is to let only certain types of employees work remotely.
Mike Gleason is a reporter covering unified communications and collaboration tools. He previously covered communities in the MetroWest region of Massachusetts for the Milford Daily News, Walpole Times, Sharon Advocate and Medfield Press. He has also worked for newspapers in central Massachusetts and southwestern Vermont and served as a local editor for Patch. He can be found on Twitter at @MGleason_TT.