Microsoft warns: Embrace hybrid work or prepare to lose half your workforce

Use software for supporting rather than surveilling your staff, and you can get them up to speed faster — and make more sense of how Microsoft Viva is different from Teams.

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Image: Alistair Berg/ Getty

Can technology stop the Great Resignation turning into the not-so-great new job experience? With resignations and moves to new jobs at their highest level in 20 years, more than half of new UK employees were onboarded remotely in the last 18 months, and almost half of those said that made it harder to feel part of their new company and to absorb team culture, to connect with new colleagues or even to get up to speed on the tools and processes for doing their new jobs, according to a new Microsoft study.

Those are fundamental challenges for making someone part of a new team, said Nick Hedderman, director of the modern work business group at Microsoft UK.

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"You can clearly see in this world of remote work and remote onboarding the challenges that poses both at a very macro level—do I believe in the purpose of the company, and do I feel like I'm getting a connection—all the way down to the day-to-day operations."

HR teams have some of the same worries. Just over a third felt that remote onboarding made it more difficult to provide effective and specific training for new staff whom they worry don't have easy access to the information they need.

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Microsoft survey about remote onboarding shows some issues.

Image: Microsoft

On the other hand, Microsoft's earlier research showed that the benefits of remote work—flexible schedules, no traffic-clogged commute, the possibility of better balance between work and family, more equal opportunities for those who have been excluded by traditional work and more socially responsible company policies—appeal to employees. The paradox companies have to tackle is that they want that as well as connection. "Seventy-three percent of people wanted hybrid work or some form of remote work to continue in the future, and yet 63% want to be back together in some way shape or form with people," Hedderman noted.

That's why, despite the issues for staff and HR, organisations are designing hybrid work strategies. "They're acutely aware if they don't, they're going to lose their best people because guess what, people want the level of flexibility."

In fact, HR and workers feel that there are some significant benefits to this new way of working: 59% said  it's had a positive effect on people's mental well being by having a higher level of flexibility.  

"Fifty-one percent of employees liked the fact that they can mix remote and in-person together, and actually half the people surveyed say they would leave their organisation if there was not the hybrid option offered." That's even higher (57%) for women.

"The can of worms has been opened, so to speak, and everyone's experienced what it's like to remote work. And if that flexibility is not offered in the future, then it's highly likely that you're going to lose your best talent to employers that do have that."   Nick Hedderman, director of the modern work business group at Microsoft UK  

"The can of worms has been opened, so to speak, and everyone's experienced what it's like to remote work. And if that flexibility is not offered in the future, then it's highly likely that you're going to lose your best talent to employers that do have that."

On board, not overboard

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Starting a new job without going into the office can be tough.

Image: Microsoft

So far, only 37% of HR decision-makers who have on-boarded new staff remotely think technology can bridge the gap. To improve that number, Hedderman suggested organizations see this as a fundamental moment to rethink the way work gets done rather than using technology to try to deliver the in-office experience elsewhere.

"When the pandemic came, there was a rush to digital, but to replicate the way things were done in the office. 'I want to see everyone on the screen. I need a nine by nine grid in the video meeting software so I can see everyone's faces.' But just replicating the old in digital is not good enough."

Instead of continual meetings, take advantage of people being distributed to adopt asynchronous work. "This is a way of empowering people to get the work done on their own terms when it makes sense for them." That gets you the teamwork that creates better outcomes without forcing everyone into a meeting room (even a Teams meeting room).

Hedderman pointed at Microsoft's recent acquisition of Ally for setting and managing OKRs (objectives and key results—metrics which will be at the heart of the next Viva tool). "That's a way of operating where you think about what are your objectives? What are the key results you want to achieve? What are the initiatives, and how do they all link together? What's everyone's role in the company against those objectives?"

If you do have meetings, he suggested silent meetings. "Let's take the first 25% of the meeting to spend time getting to a shared understanding, reading through the content, maybe using the technology to mention and comment and start building a sense of where the energy needs to go, where the debate needs to go in, and using that to inform the rest of the time you have together."

Viva Insights is there to help employees get a sense of "how you're operating and the network you're building and how you're spending your time, including thinking about your own well being." That might include enforcing the end of your working day with reminders now that the natural bookend of the commute is gone.

Those kind of insights can be particularly helpful for people in their first job who would usually pick up the norms about what a working day looks like from watching colleagues, Senior Product Marketing Manager Krizia Ceccobao said.

"How do people who are newly graduated and started in the job market know what normal is? How do they learn to manage their daily routine: how many meetings [to have] or if they can have breaks or how long the meeting should be to maximise efficiency, but also have some rest in between? If we can enable them with the technology, and share some good guidelines and best practices, they can learn the good practices that have been shared throughout an organisation."

Managers can use Viva Learning to structure how they onboard new starters, Hedderman suggested. "With new people in my team, I will go through and have a conversation with them about what are the things I think they need to learn and send them those links to those courses through the learning module and assign them to those individuals. I also have a development conversation with them about what are the things they want to spend time on over the next six months and make some recommendations of courses they might want to do."

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Less formally, Viva Topics and other Microsoft 365 tools can help new starters get up to speed on things you might normally turn round and ask someone else in the office about, like project names and acronyms (and might struggle to pick up from context in a Teams conversation). "Take three-letter acronyms," Hedderman suggested. "We've got a lot of those in Microsoft. And as we're now rolling Topics out into all of our SharePoint sites, you can just hover over the top of that TLA and then you know what it stands for and get a sense of what it represents, and maybe see some people that work on it and some files that are related to it."

Following up on those is a way for people early in their careers to build their network, Ceccobao noted. "When you see that topic card, you think, 'Oh so this is what it is, maybe I can reach out to that specific expert.' It creates a connection that you didn't have before and then you're more confident to take the next step."

Viva Connections is more like official SharePoint sites where the organization can demonstrate what it wants culture to be. "[Think] curated content much like a newspaper or a digital website that is built specifically for the organisation," Hedderman said. "Internal comms [teams], people in HR and other business leaders contributing to that content helps you to really get a sense of what it's like to work in the organisation, its mission, its purpose, its values."

Support, not surveillance 

These new ways of working need to come from the top, and it means experimenting, which is what the analytics in Viva Insights are for, Hedderman explained. "You can only experiment if you can measure and you need to be able to get data to measure. If you, as the CEO of the organisation, say, 'I don't want people working in the evenings,' how would you know if that's happening? If you use the data in the Microsoft Graph that shows when people are using Teams and sending emails, you can start measuring that and compare the promise of company culture with the reality and then take action."

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  Use the workplace analytics templates in Viva insights to create queries that help you understand how employees work across your organization.

Image: Microsoft

A worrying number of organizations seem to be turning to technology not to support staff but to spy on them, using webcams and keyloggers. The Better.com CEO apologized recently for sacking staff over Zoom but said that they were laid off for working only two hours a day, suggesting the company is tracking their activities.

To avoid issues like that, Viva Insights anonymizes information in the manager view (as long as you have more than five people on staff because it would be too easy to spot individuals in a small group). "It's not about the person or about the hours that they work. It's about the trends you're seeing in the data and having that data to be able to make informed decisions about how to operate, how to make your operations as efficient as they can be for the tasks that you've got in hand."

Managers should be using the data to ask questions (and possibly make sure staff have enough support) rather than make judgements, Ceccobao warned. "I could be working after hours as a personal decision, because I'm working from home and there's a child with me and I have to take care of them and I have that flexibility, and that enables me and empowers me. Or am I doing this because my workload is way too high and so I can't cope?"

Technology won't fix management and staffing problems but it is a useful tool, Hedderman suggested. "This is a big revolutionary moment: The pandemic has given us an opportunity to re-evaluate how things are done. If leaders aren't thinking about how to change the way they work and using technology to enable it, then they're missing a trick. That's how competitive advantage will be made and lost in this market over the next few years."

But they also need to be conscious that people aren't just working remotely; they're working remotely in a pandemic. "Any leader that says 'I can't wait to get back to work again' needs to check their language because actually people have never been working as hard."

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By Mary Branscombe

Mary Branscombe is a freelance tech journalist. Mary has been a technology writer for nearly two decades, covering everything from early versions of Windows and Office to the first smartphones, the arrival of the web and most things inbetween.