Remote working: These new Microsoft tools help students and workers feel less stressed

Social and emotional learning for students, workplace wellbeing for employees: how Microsoft is building technology to help support people.

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Educators need tools to help students develop emotional awarenes and empathy.

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2020 may be the year that we're all thinking about the impact of stress on productivity, but educators have been asking for tools and experiences to help students develop the emotional awareness and empathy that sustains us in periods of stress for some time. The 30%-plus of first-line and information workers who said in Microsoft's survey this summer that the pandemic has increased their feelings of burnout at work seem to correlate very strongly by country with increases in working hours. But they also blame feeling disconnected from colleagues and find it hard to separate work and life.

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Mark Sparvell, director at Microsoft Education: "Emotions are the gatekeeper of cognition, of attention and of motivation."

Image: Microsoft

At any age, the key to dealing with complexity, ambiguity and change is emotion, Mark Sparvell, director at Microsoft Education, told TechRepublic: "The research for decades and decades has been very clear that emotions are the gatekeeper of cognition, of attention and of motivation."

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Learning to understand and manage emotions -- 'social and emotional learning', as it's known -- doesn't just improve academic achievement at school, important as that is. "We also recognise that its impacts stretch beyond childhood and have long-term effects on adult lives," says Sparvell.

"If we take school to be a place where society is created and recreated, then social and emotional learning helps us to empower young people to shape those preferred futures that we all want to live in."

Feeling effective

"It's clear that emotions matter for attention, memory and learning," continues Sparvell. "They matter in our quality of our decision making, they matter for our relationships, and how we interact socially, they matter to our physical and mental health, and they matter to our performance and creativity. And for young people right now, particularly, they provide those preventative factors to allow them to be able to navigate complexity and challenge."

Sparvell rattles off study after study showing the importance of social and emotional learning, from academics and the World Economic Foundation: Microsoft has partnered with McKinsey and the Economist Intelligence Unit, with the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and with Goldie Hawn's neuroscience-based mindfulness programme, the Mindup Foundation. 

He also cites UK Cabinet Office research tracking social mobility and child poverty from the 1970s that matches other research done around the world.

"There were positive benefits for young people moving through into the world of work -- moving into social life and also moving into civic life -- in terms of improved self control and self regulation, which means they were more likely to hold stable jobs, to earn more income, to have less encounters with the law. Improved self perception and self awareness contributed to their subjective wellbeing -- they were happier. They were more engaged, more likely to be volunteers. Compared with cognitive ability assessed at the same age, social and emotional skills mattered more to general wellbeing."

The skills that help students succeed with today's remote and hybrid learning match uncannily well with the skills HR professionals say are currently missing from the workforce, Sparvell notes. "As I looked at those skills, a light went off in my brain. These are exactly the same skills and dispositions that the young people who are succeeding in navigating this complexity and ambiguity of remote learning and hybrid learning possess. These are all social and emotional skills, and they are exactly the dispositions and the competencies that the global employers are looking for right now," he says.

"When we looked at the students who were doing well during COVID, [top skills were] critical thinking and creativity, self regulation -- the ability to work independently. Cognitive flexibility is really important, that ability to deal with change, ambiguity and complexity; to prioritise, to rank, sometimes to know what to let go. And then perseverance -- resilience with purpose."

As the focus turns from purely technical skills and calls to get everyone coding, these ancillary skills become even more important for a world where AI-powered automation is common, says Sparvell.

"A couple of years ago, when people talked about new 'future-ready' skills, they largely meant technological skills for the digital economy -- get everyone coding! This has been refined to recognise that it's higher cognitive skills -- the ability to synthesise and abstract and reason -- along with social and emotional skills, and then those technological skills, [that are] indispensable. As intelligent machines take over those more physical repetitive and basic cognitive tasks, so higher cognitive social and emotional technological skills are becoming crucial," he says.

"We know from our own research that 30% to 50% of growth jobs -- not current jobs, but growth jobs -- will place a premium on those qualities by the 2030s because they're exactly the ones which can't be replicated, can't be automated and can't currently be outsourced to AI."

Frivolous or foundational?

The specific features that Microsoft has introduced under the social and emotional learning banner can look rather simplistic. For education, there are stickers in OneNote and Praise badges in Teams, along with a Reflect tool asking students to look back at the end of the week and say how they feel. For businesses, Teams is getting a 'virtual commute' to help staff ease in and out of the work day; Workplace Analytics will offer personalised suggestions like booking focus time (or setting up 1:1 sessions for managers); and Yammer has more reaction emojis and a new way to praise work colleagues.

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Praise badges are designed to help Teams users recognise their peers for excellence at work.

Image: Microsoft

These may be small things, but if they're used by teachers and managers in a system properly designed to provide support, they're not necessarily trivial. "It could be seen as frivolous, but when you look underneath the hood it's based on hard neuroscience, and research that has been running for 17 years," Sparvell points out.

"All humans want some basic things to be seen to be heard, to have choice and to matter. Closing feedback loops, doing emotion check-ins, using stickers, using praise: it comes back to 'I see you, I hear you, you matter, and you have some choice'. People's anxiety levels start to reduce a little bit -- especially right now, where people feel out of control and feel as though they don't have choice, they don't have voice and agency."

Providing feedback about social and emotional skills helps young people feel better about themselves and helps them develop those skills. That's what the Praise badges are for, and the badges for education go beyond the Team Player, Problem Solver and Awesome badges in the mainstream Teams app.

"They've been very intentionally selected from a globally recognised character-trait model called the Big Five, which introduces five broad character traits and within each of those are a set of specific social and emotional skills," says Sparvell. "We tested the skills with students to work out which skill seemed to be most sticky for them. And then we built the Praise feature, which allows students to send a praise to another student, or a teacher to a teacher, or a teacher to a student, because we know two things happen when you do that: one is, you're practising gratitude, and we know that that rewires the brain to look for the positive, which at the moment is critical; the other thing that happens is you help to develop an emotional vocabulary -- to develop emotional intelligence, you must have emotional vocabulary."

The 'pressure testing' included taking an early iteration of Reflect to students in juvenile detention centres. "The kids basically ripped it to pieces and said, 'No, we're just not even going to'. So we took what we thought was fabulous and scrapped it and we started again. And I think now we've got something which contributes: it doesn't solve problems, but it contributes to the resources and the toolkit that educators have got to help them do their important work," says Sparvell.

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Sparvell has worked with teachers who use the stickers as teaching resources by using terms like 'resilience' and 'empathy' in Immersive Reader, using a picture dictionary or an emoji keyboard in Word to match the visual representation of emotion with the words. "In the hands of a skilled expert in learning design, like a teacher, something that seems to be almost trivial can become a catalyst for really powerful learning," he says.

For business users -- who may not have a manager with the training to track employee wellbeing, or who might want to use the tools on a personal level -- having control is vital to make this useful in a time of stress, rather than an irritating interruption, Sparvell says.

"At the end of the day, I should be the person who is completely in control, able to choose and use the tools to benefit me. The analytics function in Outlook that notices I don't have any breaks next week and is going to hopefully find a spot in my diary, and say 'Mark, you don't have any breaks at all next Tuesday -- do you want me to block this little bit of time you've got?' I find that really helpful so I'm not going to turn that off. But other things I don't want, I should be able to turn them off."

The commute feature in Teams will have both functional and emotional approaches, for people who prefer to think about tasks that need to be done or to reflect on how they feel about work. In fact, having the kind of emotional awareness that the social and emotional learning tools help students develop lets them take advantage of similar tools once they reach the workplace, Sparvell points out.

"Self awareness is one of those critical capacities of emotional intelligence. I can recognise my emotions, I can understand how they are impacting me and others, I can accurately label them with that emotional vocabulary, I can express them, I can communicate them to others, and then I can regulate them. With any of these tools, the user really needs to have developed those abilities, to choose and use the tools which will add benefit to them and their lives, and to turn off those that don't."

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