Article title:Current Article: What a Year of WFH Has Done to Our Relationships at Work

What a Year of WFH Has Done to Our Relationships at Work

We know it’s been a while, but do you remember bumping into colleagues in the office hallway, chatting about weekend plans or a big project you’re working on? Do you recall finding yourself in the right place at the right time, giving someone a missing piece of information or introducing a colleague to someone new? If you’re like many people, you may not have realized how much these conversations mattered until you found yourself working from home.

These informal interactions are key to what’s known as social capital — benefits people can get because of who they know.

You rely on your social capital every time you’ve hit a dead end and someone pitched in to help you, even though they didn’t have to.

It shows up when you need expertise and someone you’d only met once was able to offer it.

You also help others build their social capital when you go above and beyond to support them with knowledge, mentoring, or kindness.

And the reason you can turn to someone else and offer extra help is that you’ve built a base of familiarity and goodwill through these unplanned interactions that once filled our workdays.

The shift to remote work, however, has changed the nature of social capital in organizations — and not necessarily for the better. While employees report more meetings than ever, they also report more isolation and less connection.

This year, teams across Microsoft (including ours) have conducted over 50 studies to understand how the nature of work itself has changed since early 2020. Microsoft’s annual Work Trend Index is part of this initiative and includes an analysis of trillions of productivity signals — think emails, meetings, chats, and posts — across Microsoft and LinkedIn’s user base. It also includes a survey of more than 30,000 people in 31 countries around the world.

One of the biggest and most worrisome changes we saw across these studies was the significant impact that a year of full-time remote work had on organizational connections — the fundamental basis of social capital. People consistently report feeling disconnected, and in studying anonymized collaboration trends between billions of Outlook emails and Microsoft Teams meetings, we saw a clear trend: the shift to remote work shrunk people’s networks.

Specifically, at the onset of the pandemic, we saw that interactions within close networks increased, while interactions with distant networks diminished. As people shifted into lockdown, they focused on connecting with the people they were used to seeing regularly, letting weaker relationships fall to the wayside. Simply put, companies became more siloed than they were pre-pandemic. And while interactions with close networks are still frequent, we’re seeing that now — one year in — even these close team interactions have started to diminish.

Microsoft Teams chats reveal a similar trend. Between April 2020 and February 2021, the number of people posting chats in a Teams channel — designed to include the whole team — have decreased by five percent. In contrast, the number of people posting small group or one-on-one chats has increased by 87%.

Strong workplace relationships matter for many reasons, and the Work Trend Index identifies several of them.

The survey shows that strong workplace networks impact two things critical to the bottom line: productivity and innovation.

On productivity, people who said they feel more productive also reported stronger workplace relationships than those who don’t. They also feel included on a typical workday.

On the contrary, those who said their interactions with colleagues have decreased this year were less likely to be thriving at things that lead to innovation, like thinking strategically,

collaborating or brainstorming with others, and proposing innovative ideas.

But there’s hope. When we studied trends in countries where more people had returned to hybrid work environments, we saw improvements in team isolation. For example, in New Zealand, we saw spikes in team isolation — measured by the amount of communication with distant networks — when lockdowns were issued. When lockdowns were eased, team isolation improved. We saw this trend in other countries as well, like Korea.

This data supports our hypothesis: remote work makes teams more siloed, but adding some in-person time back to the workplace will help.

Ensuring that tomorrow’s workplaces are engaging, innovative, creative, and inclusive will depend on creating structures and policies that support social connections at work. The organizations of the future, the ones people will be most excited to work for, will be those that foster supportive social ties for those in the room, and also those who are not. Here are some things to consider.

Be proactive. With remote and hybrid work, you can’t count on bonds to form as side effects of hallway conversations.

Instead, encourage teams to seek out diverse perspective by bringing in visitors from other teams or outside the organization during meetings, by sharing learnings far and wide — and offering to do

the same. Check for groupthink often by running ideas by people outside the teams where ideas took form.

In addition, research, including our own ongoing work, shows that hybrid and remote employees do better when managers take time for regular one-on-ones.

So, ask managers to be the glue and dot connectors who help bring people together — including across seemingly unrelated groups.

Encourage and reward social support.

The work of helping others build their networks, manage their challenges, and relieve their stress is usually mixed in with non-work chatter and occurs outside official meetings.

As a result, it is often invisible to the organization and not seen as the essential labor it really is.

Yet, our ongoing research shows that people who report that their company encourages and rewards them for providing support to others with bonuses and promotions are more likely to feel satisfied

with their job and are happy about where they work. They also tend to report higher quality social interactions, which are essential to a high-functioning team and business.

For example, a company’s reward system can be based not only on individual accomplishments, but also on how employees build on and support the work of others.

In sum, a culture of kindness, fun, and cooperative collaboration is just as important to the bottom line as your daily to-do list. Organizations should understand that being nice to each other, chatting, and goofing around together is part of the work that we do. The spontaneous, informal interactions at risk in hybrid and remote work are not distractions or unproductive. They foster the employee connections that feed productivity and innovation — these interactions are the soil in which ideas grow.

The analysis used in this article considered an aggregated 122 billion email interactions and 2.

3 billion meeting interactions in Microsoft Teams and Outlook across industries and countries around the world between January 1, 2019 and January 31, 2021.

We removed all personal and organization-identifying information, such as company names, from our data before analyzing it and creating reports.

We never use customer content, such as information within an email, chat, document, or meeting.

The Work Trend Index survey portion of the research was conducted by an independent research firm, Edelman Data x Intelligence, among 31,092 full-time employed or self-employed workers across 31

markets between January 12, 2021 to January 25, 2021.

Nancy Baym is a Senior Principal Research Manager at Microsoft who studies how people understand and incorporate new communication technologies in their relationships. A former communications professor, she helped found the field of Internet studies. Her books include Twitter: A Biography, Personal Connections in the Digital Age and Playing to the Crowd: Musicians, Audiences, and the Intimate Work of Connection.

Jonathan Larson is a Principal Data Architect at Microsoft who leads a team of developers and data scientists focused on researching new approaches to scalable network machine learning. Prior to Microsoft, Jonathan was chief scientist and technical fellow at Sotera Defense Solutions on assignment to DARPA and led a variety of data science and big data efforts across several programs.

Ronnie Martin leads future of work communications at Microsoft. She spends her days talking to researchers and experts who study topics like socially intelligent meetings, productivity, wellbeing, social capital at work, and human-computer interaction. She shares this research in Microsoft’s Work Trend Index.

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