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The Message Microsoft Is Sending to Managers After a Decline in Team Connectedness

Akos Stiller | Bloomberg | Getty Images
  • Microsoft internal data indicates that overall team connectedness slipped as the remote work period dragged on.
  • The technology company, which has been surveying its own 150,000+ workforce daily, says the data shows that managers who take a more active role in helping employees manage work/life balance and prioritize tasks have the more engaged teams.
  • Microsoft is bringing more workers back to offices this week, but says lessons it has learned from the pandemic are here to stay in a hybrid work era and include new keys to effective managerial performance and onboarding of new employees.

Microsoft is bringing more employees back to offices, but it is continuing to learn big lessons about keeping hybrid and remote work productivity up in the Covid era. That has been slipping.

Recent surveying of 150,000+ Microsoft employees by the tech company's head of people analytics, Dawn Klinghoffer, and her team, picked up a significant decline in team sentiment about connections since the mass pandemic work from home experiment began. Microsoft saw employee reporting about feeling connected decline, though not in a straight line, from 91% in April 2020 — its baseline for this data point as it did not track it pre-Covid. Connectedness fell to 75% by November 2020; went back up to 79% in December 2020, and then began to plateau in February of this year.

"The shift to remote work was slowly eroding team connection," Klinghoffer notes in a report out Tuesday. "At the beginning of Covid, people were really focused on staying connected in new ways," she says. "But as time went on, those team connections grew harder to maintain."  

What hasn't worked (hint: virtual happy hour)

So what hasn't got the job done? According to Kathleen Hogan, chief people officer at Microsoft, one ineffective method was the attempt to lead with the recreation of team experiences in a virtual environment— from lunches to offsites, desk-side chats and happy hours. 

"Our data tell us that our employees need us to focus on the basics first, like work life balance and prioritization," Hogan, who spoke at the CNBC @Work Summit on Tuesday, relayed in an email to CNBC about the latest data ahead of her appearance. "Only then can a spectrum of formal and informal touch points like team moral events help strengthen team bonds."

Hogan didn't say the virtual cocktail hour doesn't have a place in virtual work. Some teams might enjoy it, while other teams thrive on virtual chat. "But the most important takeaway for me is that before those things can be effective, the fundamentals must be in place first," Hogan wrote.

Microsoft managers who have made this distinction have the teams which have continued to thrive throughout the pandemic versus those experiencing collective fatigue. Managers who have taken on a greater role in helping individual employees prioritize tasks and manage work/life balance have kept team morale higher, the company's survey data indicates.

At Microsoft, managers with this focus often have weekly "1:1s" during which they can help employees prioritize and overcome challenges. But it's not just the "scheduled time" that pays off, Hogan says. Microsoft teams have also started to set aside time at the beginning of meetings for check-ins. "When work gets busy, it's easy to focus on the work, but when managers take the time to show they care about the whole person, it boosts the entire team's connection and morale," she explained.

Hybrid is the new permanent state

If it seems intuitive that managers are important to teams, that's because it is.

"Managers have always mattered," says Hogan.

In fact, Microsoft manger programs and best practices were in place before the pandemic, rather than being enacted due to the pandemic work data. But Microsoft's data suggests that manager support matters even more in a digital world.

Microsoft is betting the permanent state for many companies will be as a hybrid work organization, and that means this emerging role of managers will be critical to understand, and support with training and resources.

The 91% survey number in team connection which Microsoft tracked in April 2020 was a data point "we felt pretty good about," Hogan wrote to CNBC.

Getting back to that level is the goal for the hybrid era.

"As we adjust to hybrid work, our job is to look for ways to bring those levels back up to where they used to be," she wrote.

During her comments at the CNBC @Work Summit on Tuesday, Hogan added, "As we think about hybrid it is about empowering managers to empower employees."

For a company with employees in 190 countries it is difficult to have one policy for all, especially in a world of work going through unprecedented changes. Decisions on hybrid and remote work are still evolving — Microsoft says for the majority of employees up to 50% of time working from home will be possible without manager approval. But other issues like relocation policy remain less clear and "ultimately, it is dialogue with manager and employee," she said at the CNBC event.

One focal point for manager support to retake the highs in team morale: new employees.

Onboarding 25,000 new employees during Covid

Microsoft added 25,000 employees during the pandemic and Klinghoffer's team found that at the 90-day point, managers were substantially more important than peers for new hires. 

The data showed that, compared to pre-pandemic Microsoft, new employees said reliance on managers for support during the onboarding process increased almost 20%, while reliance on peers for initial support declined 15%. 

This focus paid off quickly in new employee sentiment, with Microsoft new hires who said managers played an active role 3.5 times more likely to say they were satisfied with their onboarding experience, and 1.2 times more likely to feel like they were making important contributions to the team. 

The Microsoft findings echo other recent research on the importance of managers in the evolving study of remote work. A study conducted by Harvard Business School professors Raj Choudhury, Iavor Bojinov and Jacqueline Lane, looking at remote interns participating in a large corporation's flagship summer internship program, found that the interns who had randomized opportunities to interact synchronously and informally with senior managers were significantly more likely to receive an offer for full-time employment, achieved higher weekly performance ratings, and had more positive attitudes towards their remote internship.

The findings on managers should not be taken to mean other relationships are less important, Hogan said.

Especially for new employees, "onboarding buddies" — someone who has recently gone through the onboarding process themselves — should be a source of support. "They are great for questions like what an acronym means or how to find tools and resources at the company," she says. Peers, meanwhile, are key to gaining institutional knowledge, and an understanding of team culture and what is expected on the team.

"Each of these support areas are critical to a great onboarding experience," Hogan explained. "It just takes a bit more effort from managers to keep the team rowing in the right direction."

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