After the Covid-19 pandemic, it's clear that working from home (WFH) is here to stay. Many employees seek the autonomy and flexibility afforded by WFH. So in order to attract top talent, and dodge the destructive path of the Turnover Tsunami and The Great Resignation, organizations need to allow for remote, hybrid, or mixed-mode work arrangements for the foreseeable future.

But what impact does remote work have on an employee's ability to do their work effectively? There are, not surprisingly, lots of moving parts to the picture.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, it was difficult to know if WFH policies positively impacted employees' productivity. There were arguments on both sides, with anecdote and intuition framing people's points of view.

Drawing such conclusions would have required an actual experiment of sorting employees into different work-location groups. And prior to the pandemic, no organization was (rightfully so) willing to randomly and arbitrarily assign some employees to work in-person and other employees to work remotely and then track the resulting productivity behaviors in people's work as a function of the work location.

To fill this hole, researchers at Microsoft recently conducted an experiment to understand the causal effect of remote work on employees' collaboration and communication practices. 

Microsoft's research findings.

Leveraging Microsoft's company-wide WFH policy at the beginning of the pandemic, the researchers compared those employees who were already working remotely before the pandemic to other employees who were suddenly forced to work remotely. The researchers examined collaboration and communication practices and accessed nearly 62,000 Microsoft employees' anonymized emails, calendars, instant messages, video/audio calls, and workweek hours between December 2019 and June 2020.

The results revealed that remote work caused employees to spend less time collaborating with "weak ties" (those not in their typical network) and with those in other functional units. Given that collaborating with new people is linked to learning new knowledge, these results indicate that WFH may make it harder for organizations to innovate.

The results are not unique to engineers. The researchers analyzed all U.S.-based Microsoft employees except for senior leaders and those handling sensitive data, indicating that a diverse array of workers (e.g., marketing and business operations) also encountered difficulties collaborating and communicating because of remote work.

Given that WFH is here to stay and considering this research, what can organizations do to de-risk the negative effects of remote work on collaboration practices? 

Be intentional about your employee experience.

The Spontaneous Encounter Theory suggests that accidental run-ins in an office environment breed innovation because people exchange information they wouldn't otherwise have during meetings and other formal communications. 

These are completely lost in the Zoom-infused world of WFH. So, because of the limitations, it's incumbent on organizations to actively design employee and team experiences where these sorts of casual but still critical interactions can readily happen.

Researchers at Harvard Business School have found a potential solution: host "virtual water cooler" events. Water cooler events are both informal and synchronous and can be facilitated via teleconference (i.e., Zoom). As a testament to the power of these seemingly trivial events, the researchers' field experiment at a large global organization found that WFH interns who attended a virtual water cooler with senior managers were significantly more likely to receive offers for full-time employment and achieve higher weekly performance ratings.

To facilitate virtual water cooler events, HR professionals can randomly assign employees (across functional units and hierarchical levels) into groups of three to four and incorporate these informal sessions directly into employees' weekly calendars. To encourage participation, consider offering a gift card to purchase food or drink to consume during the session.

But what about Zoom fatigue? Is it really that wise to schedule yet one more virtual meeting? The fatigue aspect comes from the fact that the psychological reaction we adopt in our usual work meetings is a 'face-to-face competitive' stance. More informal events like these encourage a 'side-by-side collaborative' stance which isn't so mentally depleting.