According to new research, when people work remotely, channels of contact between colleagues, teams, and departments are cut.
The study of 61,000 Microsoft employees — published Thursday in the journal Nature Human Behavior — found remote work led to more siloed lines of communication and fewer real-time conversations.
While working remotely full-time, employees were also less likely to spend time in meetings, limiting the opportunity for collaboration and information-sharing.
“Measuring the causal effects of remote work has historically been difficult, because only certain types of workers were allowed to work away from the office,” study co-author David Holtz said in a press release.
“That changed during the pandemic, when almost everyone who could work from home was required to do so,” said Holtz, an assistant professor at the University of California’s Berkeley Haas School of Business.
Researchers were able to monitor changes in behaviour by relegating entire workforces to the home office.
Holtz and his colleagues reviewed anonymised data from hundreds of emails, instant messages, conversations, meetings, and working hours documented by Microsoft workers for the study. Before analysing the mails, all of the content and identifying information were scraped.
Researchers had access to data on employees’ jobs, managerial status, business group, and duration of tenure at the company, in addition to communication data.
Researchers analyzed the volume and trajectory of messages — calls, texts and emails — across different groups of employees. The research team also tracked the time employees spent in scheduled and unscheduled meetings.
When the workforce began to operate remotely, communication networks shrank, with fewer calls, emails, texts, and meetings across different teams and departments, according to the statistics. Researchers discovered a 25% decrease in cross-group collaboration.
However, researchers discovered that communication inside groups occurred more frequently. Increases in in-group communication were predictably attributed to increased quantities of texts and emails, as colleagues spent less time on the phone or in video conferences when working from home.
Because roughly 15% of the Microsoft’s workforce was remote prior to the pandemic, researchers were able to isolate the the effects of working from home and working with remote colleagues.
“The fact that your colleagues’ remote work status affects your own work habits has major implications for companies that are considering hybrid or mixed-mode work policies,” Holtz said.
Having one’s teammates and collaborators in the office at the same time, for example, can improve communication and information flow for people who are in the office, as well as those working remote, he said.
“It’s important to be thoughtful about how these policies are implemented,” Holtz said.