In the past four months, work has changed dramatically. But will these changes persist in the future? The second Work Trend Index explores this idea by combining perspectives from three sources of information: trends in customer use of online tools; the results of a Harris Poll survey of more than 2,000 remote workers in six countries, and the conclusions of more than 30 research projects carried out at Microsoft that seek to learn about the experience of remote workers through surveys, interviews , daily studies, focus groups, and studies of the human brain.
The goal of these investigations is to discover both the good and bad aspects of telecommuting so we can accelerate product development in the right areas, predict how work will change in the future, and help our clients thrive in this new world of work.
Brain waves show that fatigue caused by remote meetings is real
One of the most talked about inconveniences about teleworking is that it can be more difficult or exhausting than collaborating in person. Researchers at Human Factors Laboratories recently undertook the task of understanding this phenomenon. Do teleworking and video calls represent a greater challenge for our brain than face-to-face meetings? Brain studies suggest: yes.
Remote collaboration is more difficult, but returning to face-to-face work can be just as difficult
In one of the studies, the research team asked 13 two-person teams to perform similar tasks together: once in person and once remotely. The study subjects wore an EEG device that monitored changes in brain waves. The study found that distance collaboration is mentally more difficult than collaboration in person. Specifically, brain wave patterns associated with stress and overwork were much higher in distance collaboration than in person collaboration. However, they also discovered something unexpected: if the pair worked remotely first, their brain waves suggested that it was more difficult for them to work together in person on the second task later.
Although the social connection and work strategies created when working in person are thought to be replicated in a remote work environment, this is not the case. The study provided two important insights: In a world that is increasingly migrating to telework, people find distance collaboration mentally more difficult; But also, as they return to more frequent face-to-face work as the pandemic lessens, they may feel that that work is more difficult than before COVID-19.
Video calls cause fatigue
A second study found that the brain wave markers associated with excessive work and stress are significantly higher in video calls than in non-meeting-related work, such as writing emails. Also, due to high levels of sustained concentration, fatigue begins to be felt within 30-40 minutes of the meeting. With days full of video calls, stress begins to be felt just two hours after the start of the day. The study suggests several factors that cause this fatigue from video calls: having to continually focus on the screen to capture relevant information and stay participatory; less non-verbal signals, which help to perceive the atmosphere of the room or to know whose turn it is to speak, and to share the screen with a very reduced view of the people with whom you are interacting.
To help with this, we recommend taking breaks every two hours to allow the brain to “recharge,” limiting meetings to 30 minutes, or, if possible, interrupting long meetings to take short breaks. To help resolve these issues through technology, a series of “Teams updates” have been designed to create a more humane connection between people and reduce fatigue from video calls — two of which are Together mode and Dynamic view.
“Together” mode is a new option in the “Teams” experience that uses AI segmentation technology to place participants in a shared digital background. The view makes you feel like you are in the same room, reducing distractions in the background, making non-verbal cues easier to pick up, and making conversations feel more natural. This mode is ideal for meetings where many people speak, such as brainstorming and round tables.
One of the first investigations in which biosensors were used to measure brain activity, shows that the brain works less when participating in a meeting with the Together mode than with the grid view. This suggests that “Together” mode can help combat the fatigue that some telecommuters have been experiencing.
“Dynamic View” – Gives a number of improvements with regards to the traditional “Teams” meeting view to make it more interesting. Using AI, meetings will now dynamically optimize shared content and video call participants. The new controls also allow to customize the view according to user preferences, including the ability to display shared content and specific participants together or to minimize shared content to have a broader view of the audience to whom the presentation is being made.
The Pandemic may have changed workplace culture forever
In the studies, one of the most consistent themes was that this unprecedented situation has accelerated the merging of work and personal life, which could affect workplace dynamics forever.
More than half of the parents who participated in the survey (54%) say that it has been difficult to balance the demands of home while working from home. This burden was heaviest for millennials – who are currently the largest generation of workers – as well as newcomers to the workforce, Gen Z. This may be because this group is more likely to have to care for young children or share workspaces with roommates while working full time.
“With four people in the house all the time it is difficult to find your own space.” – Information Worker.
Although balancing childcare with telecommuting is temporary, it could change our relationship with our co-workers in the long run. 62% of people surveyed say they feel more empathy for their colleagues now that they have a better outlook on life at home. This sentiment was especially high in China and Mexico, where 91% and 65% of the survey participants felt more empathy, respectively. “We have accepted the telecommuting lifestyle.
In certain cases, the shift to telecommuting is also making work more inclusive. Half (52%) of the people surveyed feel more valued or included as remote contributors in meetings because now that they are all within the same virtual room. This sentiment was strongest in people from China (65%) and Germany (57%). There has been seen that conversations during meetings have become a channel for more people to express their opinion. Specifically, chat messages within meetings increased 10 times from March 1st to July 1st .
The 9 to 5 business hours may be fading
In the most recent report, the average time between the first and last use of virtual meetings increased by more than an hour. In that report, the concept is further explored: does the 5-day, 9-to-5 workweek keep disappearing? The data suggest yes. In was found that, people work more often in the morning and afternoon, but also on weekends. Virtual conversations from 8 to 9 a.m. and from 6 to 8 p.m. have increased more than at any other time of the day (between 15% and 23%). Work on the weekend has also increased – conversations on Saturdays and Sundays have risen by more than 200%.
“With more flexible working hours we can be more productive. I can take breaks and not feel guilty about it. ” – Information Worker
“My hours get longer… That is the reality. Although we used to connect, now our laptops are with us in the kitchen, and people need information instantly ”. – Information Worker
This fusion of work and life as a workplace trend will endure thanks to the potential of technology to help solve some of the inherent problems. There will also continue to be innovation in the areas of organizational analytics and employee wellness in the future.
Physical offices won’t disappear in the future of work
Many workers around the world have been telecommuting in the past five months, at least part of the time. As organizations adjust to this new normal, many wonder if physical offices will disappear in the future of work. Our studies indicate that the work will surely consist of an optimal combination of face-to-face and distance collaboration.
For example, 82% of the directors surveyed expect to have more flexible telework policies after the Pandemic. On the other hand, 71% of the employees and directors expressed the desire to continue working from home at least part of the time. We have also heard similar opinions in our focus groups.
“Before, if your boss didn’t see you at the office, it meant you weren’t working. As long as you finish your job, it shouldn’t matter where you do it. ” – Head of business decisions
Even so, our investigations revealed several annoyances related to teleworking. Almost 60% of the people surveyed feel further away from their colleagues since they telecommute more frequently. In China, this figure soared to 70%. Likewise, only 35% of the participants in a study have space exclusively to work remotely. And only 5% of the people who participated in our Harris Poll live alone.
Therefore, it is not surprising that distractions, connectivity issues, and a lack of ergonomic work environments have been singled out throughout our study as some of the top telework-related annoyances. This indicates that, despite the fact that the future of work will be more remote than ever, physical office space – which provides benefits such as connected and ergonomic workspaces and provides opportunities to socialize and strengthen the bond with the team – will continue being a fundamental part of the future of work.
“When I work from home, I do it at the dining room table. In the office I could have one keyboard, two monitors and a comfortable chair ”. – Information Worker
“There have definitely been some issues as several of us telecommute here and have had problems with Wi-Fi.” – Information Worker
In summary, this global shift to teleworking has created both opportunities and challenges for the future of our workforces. On the positive side, this situation of working and learning from home as a family has created more empathy among teammates and transformed the perception of both managers and employees about the effectiveness of remote work. In addition, it has made work more inclusive for remote collaborators.
On the negative side, more teleworking can lead to longer work hours, video call fatigue, and deprivation of personal relationships, such as spontaneous conversations in the hallways, which can strengthen team bonding and simplify collaboration. And the lack of connected and comfortable workspaces at home is still a productivity problem for most of us.
It is essential for organizations to have the unique ability to help their customers seize opportunities and overcome these obstacles. You can be sure that as the world of work evolves, so will the tools. As we all navigate the accelerating change of an unprecedented age, we must remain steadfast to enable every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.
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