Business Development & Partnerships
Published on: 5 March 2021 • 3 min read
Work is changing. In today’s global economy, virtual teamwork has been increasing for several years as multinational teams collaborate across geographic borders. The current coronavirus pandemic has only accelerated that trend—more teams are relying on technological tools to interact virtually. In a research that combined surveys with more than 2,000 employees, 30 research projects and studies of the human brain, Microsoft has assessed what’s changing in the virtual new world, the pros and cons of video conferencing, and how work will evolve.
Remote work offers advantages for employees in multiple ways. While cutting a commute can immediately improve work-life balance, many home-based information workers also benefit from greater control over when they work. The Microsoft study illustrates how the amount of Microsoft Teams chats increased by 20% at 8 am and 6 pm (both times outside the traditional 9–5 workday) as a result of teams working on more flexible schedules. “If we have a more flexible work schedule, we can be more productive.”, reports one information worker, “I can take breaks and not feel one bit bad about it.”
Employee wellbeing has risen for some as a result of virtual teamwork— 62% of survey respondents reported higher levels of empathy for colleagues after observing their home lives. For remote workers, the move to online also made work more inclusive. “Remote participants used to be invisible,” said one information worker, “but not anymore.” And it’s not just employees who are benefiting; companies now understand that a lot of work can be done remotely. According to a Boston Consulting Group study of 12,000 workers in Germany, India, and America, 75% of workers said they were “at least as productive” when working remotely.
Working from home is not always easy. Intermittent wifi is one problem, ergonomics another. “At the office, I have a keyboard, two screens, and a comfortable chair,” says one information worker. “When working from home, I’m sitting at the dining room table.” Sharing a residence presents challenges, whether that’s millennials jockeying for space with roommates or parents figuring out home-school. More than 50% of under-40s in the UK, China, and the US reported difficulties balancing personal responsibilities while working from home, according to US market researcher Harris Poll.
Even when remote workers do find quiet time and space to concentrate, virtual teamwork can be tough. Video conferences—in which workers concentrate exclusively on the screens in front of them—are more tiring online than in real life, reveal Microsoft researchers. Looking continually at close-up images of colleagues (and yourself) can cause “Zoom fatigue,” says Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab. This is attributed to the lack of behavioral cues you can grasp in person, such as whose turn it is to speak, extreme focus time and seeing little of the people you are talking to.
Despite the challenges, there are some best practices for virtual workers:
For some employees, working from home has been a dynamic forced by the coronavirus. But for many workers, the pandemic has caused a paradigm shift. The way people balance work and home; the adjustment in how teams collaborate virtually; and the shape of employees’ working hours (more spread across different times) have profoundly changed over the last year. Many are still adjusting to the new normal. The Microsoft study cites one future challenge: new teams which have formed and bonded virtually will not necessarily mesh as easily back in the office. However, recent video-conferencing technology improvements (better tools for sharing information; audio that reduces background noise; features to show colleagues that you’re not contactable) should make work more efficient for teams combining in-person and remote models.
The hybrid model—featuring virtual work and office attendance—is likely to continue post-pandemic. Both models have merit. In-person office work enables colleagues to build relationships more naturally, while gaining insight into co-workers’ home lives has brought many virtual teams closer. Flexible and fast-moving firms can differentiate themselves to prospective employees by integrating best practices across in-person and online collaboration. In the Microsoft study, more than 70% of managers and employees said they wanted to maintain the work-from-home model, at least part-time. Innovative recruiting platforms such as CareerLunch already embrace the hybrid work model, allowing ambitious job seekers to learn more about companies through informal meetings – either in person or from the comfort of their home.