The sudden outbreak of COVID-19 has changed the way people work globally, blurring the boundaries between work and life. Recently, a research team from Harvard Business School published a preprint paper, which analyzed data from over 3 million users on online collaboration platforms and found significant changes in meeting patterns, email frequency, and work hours. This article summarizes the latest research and other related studies, attempting to provide suggestions for organizations and individuals to optimize their work arrangements and adapt to the special circumstances caused by the pandemic.
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The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the original operation mode of organizations worldwide. As the number of infections increased, companies and organizations around the world closed their offices to reduce the spread of the virus, which has had a significant impact and posed challenges for organizational coordination and decision-making processes. The policies to deal with the pandemic have also become an unprecedented “natural experiment.” Based on two articles, this article analyzes the latest research results of electronic data on collaboration platforms, and answers the following three questions to explore the impact of the pandemic on collaboration patterns in work:
- How can we collaborate in different modes after remote work?
- Can we maintain our original work relationships and social networks?
- How can we further build communication networks, refine data analysis, and respond to the challenges brought about by the pandemic?
01-“Short and frequent” meetings.
On July 20th, Harvard Business School released a preprint research paper (DeFilippis et al., 2020) that explored the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on employee communication patterns, based on lockdown situations in 16 major metropolitan areas in North America, Europe, and the Middle East. Researchers collected meeting and email metadata from 3,143,270 users (belonging to 21,478 companies) using the Microsoft communication platform. Through econometric modeling and regression analysis, they compared changes in employee interaction behavior on collaboration platforms and email before and after the lockdown.
Regarding meeting variables, the results showed that the average number of meetings per person increased by 12.9%, the average attendance per meeting increased by 13.5%, but the average meeting duration decreased by 20.1%. These changes resulted in a significant reduction in the total hours spent by employees in meetings after the lockdown (-11.5%, -18.6 minutes per person per day). These results were all highly significant (p<0.001).
After the lockdown, changes in meeting activity were relatively stable. Compared to the eight weeks before the lockdown, the average meeting duration continued to decrease during the entire lockdown period, and the average number of meeting hours per person per day continued to decrease. There was a slight rebound after one month. Meanwhile, after the lockdown, the average meeting size continued to increase, the number of meetings increased to a peak two weeks after the lockdown, then fell back but remained at a high level.
As shown in the figure, the blue dashed line represents the baseline week, and the red dashed line represents the lockdown date. We define the week prior to the lockdown as the “baseline week,” and the lockdown date as the midpoint of the lockdown week. The vertical axis coefficient represents the change in communication activity relative to the “baseline week,” and the horizontal axis represents the time axis relative to the lockdown date (in weeks).
- Meeting hours: The number of meeting hours per user per day.
- Meeting frequency: The number of meetings attended by each user per day.
- Meeting attendees: The number of attendees per meeting.
- Meeting duration: The duration of each meeting.
For email activity, after the lockdown, the number of internal emails sent increased by 5.2% (+1.4 emails per person per day). There was no significant change in the number of external or personal emails sent. The workday span was defined as the number of hours between the first and last email sent on a given day. The results showed a significant and relatively persistent increase of 8.2% (48.5 minutes) in the workday span.
Overall, email activity increased significantly in the two weeks following the lockdown. The number of internal emails sent sharply increased in the week prior to the lockdown, and then continued to decrease each week thereafter, returning to pre-lockdown levels or lower by the fourth week. The average number of recipients per email showed a slight peak before the lockdown and then gradually stabilized. However, by the eighth week, the average number of recipients per email was still significantly higher than the pre-lockdown level. After the lockdown, employees’ workday spans were generally longer than in the two months prior to the lockdown.
- Internal Email Volume: The number of emails sent internally per day. The sender and recipient have the same email domain (“@company.com”).
- External Email Volume: The number of emails sent externally per day. The sender and recipient have different email domains (“@company1.com” and “@company2.com”).
- Individual Email Volume: The number of emails sent by a single user per day.
- Email Recipients: The number of recipients included in an email (including To, CC, and BCC).
- Workday Span: The number of hours between the first and last email sent by a user within a 24-hour period in their local time zone.
- After-hours Email Volume: The number of emails received by users outside of designated working hours (i.e. weekdays from 8am to 6pm).
There are also some regional differences in these changes. In many European cities, such as Brussels, Oslo, and Zurich, meeting durations sharply decreased after lockdowns and continued to decline in the following month, while in US cities such as Chicago, New York, and Washington DC, the decrease in meeting duration was relatively small and stabilized a week after lockdowns.
Most cities saw an increase in workday span, but in some regions such as San Jose, Rome, and New York City, it remained relatively high and returned to baseline levels after several weeks in other regions.
On July 15th, the Workplace Analytics research team at Microsoft published a report in the Harvard Business Review (Singer-Velush, Sherman, & Anderson, 2020), which quantified daily work in Microsoft 365 and conducted anonymous surveys on employee emotions.
The report found that overall, weekly meeting time increased by 10%, while the average meeting time decreased. Meetings under 30 minutes increased by 22%, while meetings over an hour decreased by 11%.
This suggests that meetings have been getting longer in the past few decades, but research shows (Perlow, Hadley, & Eun, 2017) that meetings negatively impact employee effectiveness and well-being. During remote work, shifting towards shorter meetings is a natural outcome. According to an internal Microsoft confidence survey, this shift has been widely accepted by employees. Therefore, we should reflect on whether meetings over an hour are truly effective (do they really need to be that long? Is it effective time management?). This is one of the long-term impacts of remote work.
Before the pandemic, it was hard to imagine commuting time being spent elsewhere. We were used to concentrating on meetings in the morning, taking a break at lunch, focusing on work in the afternoon, and returning to personal life at the end of each day. When this regular life suddenly stopped, relatively flexible arrangements emerged.
Many teams at Microsoft have changed their meeting times from 8am to 11am and from 3pm to 6pm. As our lives become more fragmented and meetings become more frequent, work hours have become more flexible.
- An internal Microsoft research report shows that before the crisis, instant messaging interaction during lunchtime would decrease by 25%, but now it has decreased by only 10%.
- A new “night shift” has taken hold to catch up on work that was not completed during the day. Instant messaging sent between 6pm and midnight has increased by 52%.
- Employees who were previously protected on weekends suddenly find the boundary between work and life blurred. The amount of weekend work for employees who previously worked together for less than 10 minutes during weekends has tripled during remote work.
As the pandemic spread, employees around the world began working from home, making effective communication crucial. After lockdowns, meetings were adjusted to a “short and frequent” mode, and employees expanded their communication range. At first glance, the shortening of meeting times seems to contradict other changes in meeting activities, but the correlation between meeting length and meeting frequency or scale is not significant. In fact, many employees found it necessary to shorten meeting times to accommodate more frequent meetings with more people.
Compared to face-to-face meetings, employees find it difficult to concentrate for long periods of time during online meetings. Balancing work and life (such as taking care of children who cannot attend school) also puts pressure on employees. The lack of clear boundaries between work and family affairs can lead to overwork. Changes in work schedules may be due to the blurred distinction between work and personal life.
The function of meetings has also changed after remote work. Lockdowns have brought many challenges that require unplanned emergency coordination. If everyone is in the same office, many problems can be solved through impromptu interaction. Now, flexible work hours can meet family needs and give employees some freedom and flexibility in their schedules. Every person working from home participates in relatively short meetings to quickly exchange new plans, share completed work, increase accountability, determine work priorities, and carry out other activities that are usually informally handled in the office environment.
02-Managers are being overwhelmed by work.
Belongingness is a core human need and an intrinsic motivator, which is why work relationships are so important – strong social connections can help employees feel happier, healthier, and build stronger networks. After transitioning to remote work, this trend has quickly emerged at Microsoft and many client companies. Previously, we would naturally greet acquaintances we ran into at restaurants during lunch or exchange pleasantries with familiar faces in the office hallways. Now, more informal online communication and team-building activities are needed to foster relationships.
At Microsoft, these online social activities are diverse, ranging from “team lunches” to “virtual happy hours,” from “pajama parties” to “pet shows.” Overall, online social activities have grown by 10% in a month. One-on-one online meetings between employees have increased by 18%, indicating that people are actively using communication platforms to stay in touch. Huddles includes thousands of one-on-one meeting templates.
However, it cannot be ignored that remote work makes it difficult to establish new relationships. Research (Berstein et al., 2020) indicates that remote work may disrupt three activities that are critical to the long-term health of an organization:
Onboarding new employees. Excellent onboarding involves two goals: 1) familiarizing new employees with the company’s way of working, including its vision, history, processes, and culture; 2) creating a safe environment where they can leverage their strengths and express their true thoughts. The first goal is relatively easy to achieve – have new employees watch training videos on video conferencing software. The second goal is much more difficult to achieve, as ice-breaking activities with new employees often require a lot of face-to-face interaction. Without the spontaneous interaction in the office, it can have a negative impact on trust, innovation, and collaboration in the future.
Establishing “weak ties” is important. “Weak ties” refer to shallow or peripheral relationships among organizational members who do not collaborate closely but still maintain contact over time. “Weak ties” provide novel information and complementary expertise, and have been shown to play an important role in organizational performance, including innovation, improving or maintaining product or service quality, and achieving small project goals. However, it is difficult to create “weak ties” online. While we used to be able to collide with each other in a real environment, feel each other up close, and get to know each other, now employees can only deal with applications in a pile of video conferences, document exchanges, and “clouds” in a single way.
Cultivate emotions. Remote work makes it difficult for managers to observe and promote the establishment of their talent pool. When everyone is working from home, the value of rotational programs and cohort-based training programs is difficult to realize. Front-line managers are under pressure to establish effective working relationships within and between teams, and “on-site” management cannot or is difficult to be transformed into “management through online messaging.”
According to the analysis results of multiple indicators (Singer-Velush, Sherman, & Anderson, 2020), managers are the first to turn to remote work. Senior managers spend more than eight hours a week on coordination work (Note: An increase in coordination work time does not necessarily mean an increase in total work time. Usually, work with high concentration tasks will be reduced to free up time for coordination work). During the epidemic, the total call volume of Microsoft employees doubled, from 7 hours per week to 14 hours per
week. In order to support employees, maintain contact, and manage geographically dispersed team members, in March of this year alone, the number of instant messages sent by managers increased by more than double (115%), while the number of instant messages sent by ordinary employees also increased by 50%.
At the same time, managers can take advantage of the situation to improve employees’ adaptability. During remote work, employees’ work hours have reached a peak. However, employees who have the most “one-on-one” meetings with their managers each week have the least increase in work hours during the pandemic. In short, a good relationship between employees and managers can help employees prioritize tasks, protect their time, and shield them from the negative effects of the pandemic.
Some employees believe that managers have increased the frequency of “one-on-one” meetings, allowing them to communicate effectively. This is especially helpful in the early stages of remote work, as it can effectively address the transition. From the manager’s perspective, the pandemic has also made them realize the need to better understand employees and to spend time helping them set and achieve goals.
The figure shows the increase in work hours for managers during remote work. Compared to senior managers, front-line managers have approximately twice as much coordination work and overall work hours growth.
Therefore, how to reduce the workload for managers, especially front-line managers, through organizational restructuring is the next issue worth considering.
03-Building communication networks as a new way
The social network of over 90,000 Microsoft employees (Singer-Velush, Sherman, & Anderson, 2020) showed that during the pandemic, most employees maintained their existing connections, and the size of most people’s social networks increased. The increased connections within existing work groups and between different groups indicate the adaptability of employees and teams, with more internal communication and bridges being built to the outside.
Currently, most research on the impact of the pandemic on work is still limited to descriptive results of the organization as a whole. The next step is to use this electronic communication data to construct dynamic networks before and after the pandemic, quantify the organization’s informal relationship network, and obtain relevant information. For example, by examining the network size, density, and constraints of individual employees and their position within the organization’s network, their abilities can be evaluated, and their role in the organization can be determined. The communication efficiency and innovation capabilities of each work group can be measured based on the internal network density and external scope, as well as the extent to which they may become “information islands” within the organization.
Many studies have explored variables related to internal communication in companies and collected data to construct internal communication networks. A paper published in the American Economic Review in mid-2020 (Impink, Prat, & Sadun, 2020) outlined some research dimensions related to communication activities in work:
Intensity: For most knowledge workers, the time and energy spent on communication can be measured by the number of emails and instant messages sent, read, logged in, or planned and/or attended meetings. These rough variables can be enhanced and improved in several ways. The energy spent may be influenced by the number of meeting participants or the nature of the meeting: a meeting with 50 people, unlike a one-on-one meeting with a manager, may require less concentration and have lower interaction intensity (even multiple tasks can be performed simultaneously, such as replying to emails). Colleagues with good relationships are less likely to send emails to each other and are more likely to interact through instant messaging. Meeting time can also provide information about the nature of interaction, such as whether it is a training or team activity.
Collaboration: Communication and meeting data can also reflect collaboration between employees. For example, the type of participants (same or different departments, internal or external) reflects the nature of the meeting, and we can judge the collaboration of company employees by calculating the proportion of meetings with multiple departments participating or with external personnel participating.
Aggregations: In some cases, email and meeting data can be connected and matched with employee information, such as their rank, tenure, and location (headquarters or branch). This enables researchers to distinguish between different control ranges among employees, between employees and managers, and between managers, further reflecting the relationship between management level, different intensity, and different modes of interaction.
Longitudinal Variation: Under the premise of protecting employee privacy (such as canceling the identification of employee level information), communication data can be used to measure the strength and collaboration of measures aggregated longitudinally, daily, monthly, and annually. Therefore, these data can be used to study the differences in internal communication patterns before and after external “shocks” and strengthen the research design of communication data, which will enhance the value of data mining and the predictive power of related models.
Textual Analysis: Also under the premise of protecting employee privacy, system analysis of the text of emails or instant messages will provide a lot of “soft” information on corporate culture and values.
These dimensions and variables can help us refine data analysis and more comprehensively reflect the organization’s communication network and its dynamics, to guide management decisions.
Understanding the changes in people’s behavior and situations is only the first step. The next equally challenging but more important task is to figure out how we should actively respond to and appropriately correct these changes. Research (Dai, Milkman, & Riis, 2014) shows that many businesses aim to focus their efforts on building innovative and resilient frameworks for the future. Fortunately, now is an excellent time to reshape work culture.
Microsoft and many other companies plan to shift their research focus to continue supporting the changes needed for organizational health and business continuity. These changes include new processes and strategic deployments, resetting tools and workspaces, standardizing collaboration, and adjusting employee health resources. Future work will become more digital, flexible, remote-friendly, and even remote-first. Despite most domestic companies returning to office work, they still maintain habits formed during remote work, such as reliance on instant messaging and longer workweek spans. As businesses and organizations gradually move back to physical offices, it will be crucial to measure work patterns according to relevant metrics and focus on people’s new adaptations.
Is today’s work permanently different from before the pandemic? We don’t know yet, but data can provide us with continuous real-time information that we can use to influence what happens next, adjust internal regulations, and external strategies. Government departments can also use this information to improve laws and regulations to better protect workers’ rights. Understanding these changes is believed to be the key to improving organizational resilience in the coming months and even years.
Author: Sophia Harrington
Professional team meeting collaboration expert with years of experience and a wealth of knowledge in the field.
Specializ in helping team members communicate and collaborate more effectively during meetings.