Whatever managers previous fears about remote work, the pandemic has proved that most knowledge workers can get their daily tasks done just as well from their living rooms as from the office. Study after study confirms most people's personal experience that, at least for those without child care, health, or other challenges, productivity has actually inched up with the advent of widespread remote work.
Which means working from anywhere is a great thing, and companies don't need to worry about its impacts on performance, right?
Not so fast, suggests a massive new peer-reviewed study from Microsoft that found that, while remote work is fine for plowing through day-to-day work, it has the potential to put a serious damper on collaboration and innovation long-term.
Short-term productivity goes up, long-term creativity goes down.
The study, which was just published in Nature Human Behavior, analyzed data on the communications of approximately 61,000 Microsoft employees in the U.S. gathered between December 2019 and June 2020. Crunching the numbers revealed that while hours worked went up slightly when employees shifted to working from home, communication, particularly real-time conversations, fell significantly.
Switching from a corridor chat to an exchange of emails isn't a one-to-one substitution, and the researchers worry about the knock-on effects of changes to the way office workers collaborate.
"Without intervention, the effects we discovered have the potential to impact workers' ability to acquire and share new information across groups, and as a result, affect productivity and innovation," they write. "Based on previous research, we believe that the shift to less 'rich' communication media may have made it more difficult for workers to convey and process complex information."
Balancing the pros and cons of remote work
This probably doesn't come as a huge shock to anyone who has been working remotely this past year and half. Just using my own family as an example, when schools were open, the pandemic posed no problems to my productivity. As a writer, I've long found it's easier to pound out articles without colleagues popping in to chat about last night's must-watch TV or where to find that document from three weeks ago. If you're working on a defined task and doing so in a reasonably distraction-free space, remote work is ideal.
On the other hand, take the case of my screenwriter husband. A large part of his job is generating fresh ideas with collaborators and talking a group around to something resembling alignment to execute on them. Remote work for him has translated to sky-high stress and reduced productivity. I can't count how many times he's emerged Zoom-addled from his office to lament how much easier life would be if he could just get on a plane and talk to someone. When I read that Netflix is desperate to get people back into the office, I wasn't at all surprised.
Most of us don't sit in writers' rooms for a living, of course, but every business requires some degree of team-based innovation. Microsoft's study confirms my husband's rants that this kind of collaborative creative thinking is hard to do remotely.
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella calls this ability of remote work to simultaneously improve heads-down productivity and harm creativity the hybrid work paradox. And as a Microsoft blog post accompanying the new study notes, "Solving the Hybrid Work Paradox will be the challenge of the decade. ... As Satya has said: 'Our new data shows there is no one-size-fits-all approach.'"
Maybe a hybrid model will work for you. Maybe offsites will get the job done. Maybe you'll need to change policies depending on what projects you have on your plate. But if you want to both keep your people happy and keep your organization's creative juices flowing, you're going to need to wrestle with both the upsides and downsides of remote work.