Episode 125 | June 24, 2021
For Microsoft researchers, COVID-19 was a call to action. The reimagining of work practices had long been an area of study, but existing and new questions that needed immediate answers surfaced as companies and their employees quickly adjusted to significantly different working conditions. Teams from across the Microsoft organizational chart pooled their unique expertise together under The New Future of Work initiative. The results have informed product features designed to better support remote work and are now being used to help companies, including Microsoft, usher their workforces into a future of hybrid work.
In this episode of The New Future of Work series of the podcast, Chief Scientist Jaime Teevan and Director of Applied Science Brent Hecht of the Experiences and Devices group in Microsoft share how an internal SharePoint document led to what they believe is the largest collection of research on the pandemic’s impact on work. They’ll discuss the role of research during times of disruption, the widening scope of productivity tools, why going back to work two to three days a week is ideal, and what else companies should keep in mind as they decide on new work models.
- Project page and report: The New Future of Work
- Future of Work digital magazine: WorkLab
- Guide: Hybrid Work: A Guide for Business Leaders
- Guide: Hybrid Workplace Flexibility Guide
- Microsoft Research Blog: How research can enable more effective remote work
- Microsoft News Center: Microsoft unveils new Employee Experience Platform—Microsoft Viva—to help people thrive at work
- Microsoft Research Newsletter: Sign up to receive the latest news from Microsoft Research
Editor’s note: The privacy and protection of data is of the utmost importance to Microsoft. Research under The New Future of Work initiative, which includes qualitative and quantitative data, is conducted in accordance with the rigorous privacy standards developed by the company.
BRENT HECHT (TEASER): I knew this was going to be a time in which research would need to come to the service of the company in a big way. There were tons and tons and tons of work questions which affected, again, Microsoft ourselves—like how we actually get work done—as well as all of our customers using all of our products. And when tons of questions emerge, that’s when research should be shining and doing its best work.
[MUSIC PLAYS UNDER DIALOGUE]
JAIME TEEVAN: COVID-19 forced an unexpected, rapid shift in the way that workplaces conduct business. In response, Microsoft employees quickly coordinated the expertise and experience of teams across the company to understand the switch to remote work and its impact. The results, which are captured in The New Future of Work report, have helped shape how Microsoft serves its customers and our internal policy. I’m Jaime Teevan, and welcome to the Microsoft Research Podcast.
In this series, we’re going to talk to researchers from different areas of the company about how work practices have changed and what that means for creating a new and better future of work. But first, we’re going to talk about what went into creating the report with Brent Hecht, who is one of the report’s editors. Brent is director of applied science here at Microsoft and an expert in human-AI interaction. He is also a professor at Northwestern University. A lot of his research focuses on understanding and mitigating the cultural, geographic, and economic biases that are reflected and reinforced by technology. And, to tell you the truth, we’ve been really fortunate to not only be able to learn from Brent this year about how work has changed, but also to have him working hard to ensure that those changes end up having a positive impact on the world. Welcome, Brent.
BRENT HECHT: Thanks, Jaime.
TEEVAN: So, help me paint a picture of the research that is included in the report. Tell me a little bit about the different kinds of research that are covered there.
HECHT: Oh, boy, it’s almost easier to tell you what isn’t covered there. The joke we have is that it’s a bit of a Star Wars bar of, um, uh, research and a—a very big Star Wars bar. So, we have people from really all parts of the company. We have folks coming from the Office team, the Teams team, you know, these types of products that folks use at work, but then also people from Xbox and LinkedIn and, of course, Microsoft Research, uh, which is an amazing research institution that’s been around for a number of years. And we also have folks who apply all sorts of different methods. So there are people do—you know, applying the state of the art in terms of causal inference from telemetry data. There are folks who rely on very in-depth interviews with customers and with users. Um, there are folks who do survey work. Um, so we’re really looking at the changes in work practices that have occurred through all sorts of different lenses.
TEEVAN: In the context of Microsoft Research, we tend to think a lot of the more academic research that happens at Microsoft. Can you tell me a little bit more about the kinds of research that happen outside of Microsoft Research?
HECHT: Oh, yeah, for sure. Um, you know, there’s all sorts of new knowledge-discovery mechanisms in, uh, Microsoft and new capability-discovery mechanisms in Microsoft outside of Microsoft Research or, um, as the cool kids call it “MSR.” In particular, we have folks who are data scientists, who are masters at, you know, wrangling telemetry to answer questions. We have folks who are UX researchers, and they go out and talk to customers, again, in a very in-depth way and try to understand what they’re experiencing and how to help them have a better work experience. Um, we have folks who do a lot of incubation stuff. So from a—a research perspective, this reminds me a bit of like the system-building line of work that occurs in, you know, fields like HCI, where folks, they have a hypothesis, and they test the hypothesis by basically trying to build out a system. Folks in HR who are doing surveys and other sort of business-analytics work. And then, of course, we have folks in real estate and security, our arm that manages the campus, who also use a—a wide variety of methodologies that are easily understood as research, but, you know, aren’t typically published.
TEEVAN: What about the populations being studied? I gather there’s probably the same kind of range in populations as there are in methods.
HECHT: Oh, yes. [LAUGHS] So, um, you know, again, it’s kind of like who isn’t being studied? Uh, so, we started out a lot by looking at ourselves, actually, just because, um, you know, this was a—a situation in which Microsoft experienced a shift along with the rest of the world, in fact, a little bit earlier, right? So, like, um, the Redmond campus was one of the first major offices, uh, to get sent home in the United States, and so we started looking at ourselves. And so we looked at all sorts of different functions at Microsoft, so engineers, uh, PMs, folks in all sorts of different roles. Uh, but then, of course, we branch out and then talk to, you know, customers in a huge variety of industries. Uh, we had researchers, uh, talking to folks who were running small- and medium-size businesses. We had folks who looked at populations in the United States, in India, in Europe, folks that looked at populations that we hypothesized might be having specific types of challenges, so new hires, the unique challenges facing women—all sorts of different populations. That’s not to say that we don’t have more populations to study—we definitely do—but it was a pretty diverse set.
TEEVAN: And, so, with so many teams involved in the project, everyone coming into this must be bringing different goals and different things that they’re trying to get out of the research that’s happening. What were the goals of the initiative? Like, how were the findings being used by Microsoft?
HECHT: It’s a great question, Jaime. So, you know, this initiative—and we can talk more about, uh, how we got started; it really was an amazing accomplishment of turning chaos into order. [CHUCKLES] And uh, uh, one, uh, way that we did that was we sort of built a consensus around four goals. The first goal is—is just foundational. We decided that, you know, the whole company needs to be sharing knowledge and collaborating on research as we all sort of uncover what this, uh, new mode of work is looking like and how best to support it—you know, blocking, tackling, following research best practices. So, when you have findings, you share those out. If you’re working in the same area, you build on the findings that were shared out, and then you share those findings back, right? You look at prior work that’s been done. Remote work is not a new thing. It’s been around for a really long time, actually. The term “telecommuting” came out of the oil crisis in the 1970s. And so we look back: do we need to ask this question, or has someone asked this question, uh, before? We’re really lucky in that way in that Microsoft Research actually, uh, has been, for multiple decades, a real leader in understanding and supporting remote work. Uh, so we had folks around who could point us to their papers and [CHUCKLES] prior papers, as well. So that’s foundational. Um, and that—that allowed us to create this enormous body of research, which is, uh, in large part, uh, reported out in The New Future of Work, uh, report. So, that—that’s the foundation. You know, then the question is like how can we make this research most beneficial to our customers and—and to the world. And so we focused our efforts along those lines into three categories. One was thought leadership. So we wanted to make sure that, uh, we were communicating our research to the public; uh, making sure that, uh, the public understood that we get that they’re facing challenges and that we’re working on those challenges; and making sure that our leaders in the company were updated with the latest findings so they could communicate, uh, those findings out to the many people that they talk to every day. Um, secondly, we had internal impact. So, you know, Microsoft has this strong culture of dogfooding, which—which means sort of using our own products and making sure they’re great before we ship them out. We took that same approach, uh, with regards to our own work practices. So a shining example of that is as HR was defining Microsoft’s own post-pandemic, uh, work practices, we were in that room and—and we made sure that the policies that were being put in place aligned with the best available data. We were able to do that, which was wonderful. And then, third—and this one’s the most straightforward—we wanted to make sure that the research was available to product leaders, uh, the minute they needed it, right? So, uh, helping to inspire new features; uh, helping to solve challenges; uh, helping them understand the user problems that folks were facing. Through a lot of sweat and a lot of effort [CHUCKLES], we were able to, uh, make progress along all three of those types of impacts, uh, very, very significant progress, as well.
TEEVAN: Now, you mentioned that there’s over 30 years of remote research that has, uh, come out of Microsoft Research. What are we able to learn from that work?
HECHT: Oh, boy. A—again, it’s kind of like, “What are we not able to learn?” [LAUGHTER] Um, you know, doing research on new work practices that emerged during the pandemic, there was always sort of a paradox in that a lot of the questions had been asked in the past, and we can learn a lot from the literature, but they all also required an update, [CHUCKLES] so in some ways they were both a—asked and—and not asked. To the extent they’d been asked, the MSR research really, really helped us out. So No.1 is the best people to ask for research in a topic that you want to learn quickly about are the people who have been doing research in that topic for a long time. And we had lots of people to ask, so I spent a lot of April, May, June—and this was the case for a lot of the researchers who participated, you know, in our initiative—reading papers that were suggested [CHUCKLES] by MSR folks, you know, including their own. You know, more specifically, MSR had some very interesting work, you know, even in the ’90s, in, uh, a domain that, uh, we’re starting to see a lot of product movement in. This is sort of trying to think about ways that we might have live connections with people that are persistent versus, you know, just through sort of the meeting architecture. There’s been a lot of research, sort of like second- and third-order research that we can just sort of skip that first step; that research allowed us to do this. Thinking about things like, for instance, when we want to keep our camera on, when we want to keep the camera off. Uh, Sean Rintel at MSR has done some interesting work highlighting that. Making people turn on the camera might not be the best idea for many types of meetings. Um, we wrote a great blog post that sort of summarized, uh, all of this literature.
TEEVAN: Let’s talk a little bit about last year in March and April and what that was like.You were new to Microsoft at the time. Um, I know I had just moved out of Microsoft Research and, uh, into the product teams. And, you know, we were there to really try to help our products move into the future and, you know, advan—you know, bring about the future of work. And then COVID hit, and we all got sent home. What was your initial reaction to that?
HECHT: Well, you know, uh, you and I were—were sharing our initial reactions quite a bit. [LAUGHTER] Um, you know, uh, uh, there were so many. One was that I knew this was going to be a time in which research would need to come to the service of the company in a big way. So as we all shifted home, an enormous amount of ambiguity that affected almost every business decision emerged, right? It wasn’t just work, but there were economic questions, of course, health questions, as well, but there were tons and tons and tons of work questions which affected, again, Microsoft ourselves—like how we actually get work done—as well as all of our customers using all of our products. And when tons of questions emerge, that’s when research should be shining and doing its best work.
TEEVAN: Did you really know that, though? Like I—I just remember being terrified. [LAUGHS] And I’m like, “We’re in this new place, and there”—you know, like, big changes happened and, like, there’s a huge fear of a big economic downturn. I’m like, “They’re going to decide they don’t need research—”
TEEVAN: “—and, like, what are we going to do?” I—I just remember being scared.
HECHT: Well, yeah, Jaime, you’re—you’re right. I was scared, too. [LAUGHTER] We—we—we had a couple conversations along those lines. But, you know, like—like, um, I think all folks during that time period, there were a lot of thoughts going in parallel. So, like you know, you can focus on work for an hour or two, [CHUCKLES] then you’re thinking, “Oh, my goodness, what’s going to happen to the world? You know, is—is—is my family going to be OK?” Back to work for an hour or two. You know, one thing I did do, though, as part of this thought process was, I don’t know if you recall it, I put together a one- or two-page document that summarized the literature on why research is actually especially important during times of—of economic stress and how companies that have leaned in to research, uh, during those times have accelerated out of the, uh, the downturns, you know, remarkably better than those that haven’t.
TEEVAN: And I actually I remember that was really valuable, and I—and I thought the frame that you provided was useful, too, where there are sort of two things that companies do in significant times of disruption. One of those things is to become highly efficient at the things that they do. And that—that was what was triggering my own personal fear of, like, “Oh, no, are they going to trim research as part of that efficiency?” Right? But then the other piece that’s also extremely important—and, and has proved to be super important this last year—is to sort of, you know, make sure that they’re in a place to accelerate out of the disruption or out of what’s happening.
HECHT: Yes, yeah. And I think, you know, actually, Jaime, this is the first time I’ve reflected back on that in a while. We did that with this initiative, right? So we’re—we’re now in a position to be able to accelerate into the new future of work and, uh, have tons of knowledge and tons of capability in place that’ll, uh, I hypothesize [CHUCKLES] will, uh, position, uh, Microsoft to really be able to help our customers thrive in this new future of work and create a better, uh, model of work than existed before.
TEEVAN: Yeah. No, ironically, COVID actually made our job easier in that we have required all of [LAUGHS] this innovation this year. It would have been really hard to drive the sort of change that we’ve seen. So—so, you talked about the organized chaos that was going on at that time, too. Tell me a little bit about that.
HECHT: So to call it organized chaos, I think, isn’t quite, uh, I—I think that’s giving us a [LAUGHS]—a little bit of a pass. I’d say it was chaos that we then organized. [LAUGHTER] Yeah, I guess, around this time, a little bit earlier, last year, you and I both noticed many, many email chains going around in leadership, among sort of lower-level software engineers, [CHUCKLES] and in the mid-tier. Everyone was thinking about the types of questions that they have about remote work, how that affects, you know, the types of products we want to build, new features, these types of things. I mean, our email inboxes were completely full of these questions. Credit to you, Jaime, you recognized that it was time to move super quickly [CHUCKLES] to, uh, make sure that everyone was sort of rallying around a single flag, and that flag really needed to be, uh, research, right? People were asking research questions, they had falsifiable hypotheses, these types of things. So, you know, moving super quickly, I think it was over a weekend actually—and we can talk about work-life balance a little bit later [LAUGHTER], but that was, that was not a time for work-life balance—um, and, uh, over a weekend, you know, we threw up a SharePoint page that described, uh, you know, “Here’s some resources from MSR. We’re aggregating all the groups that are working on different topics related to remote work.”And, you know, within a week or two, we had spun up this massive initiative, The Future of Remote Work initiative, um, that grew to have 50 different research projects, again, from all over the company, using all sorts of different methodologies, studying all sorts of different populations, all meeting together, all having their work synthesized into, you know, uh, six cohesive documents that were, you know, focused in specific topic areas. Meeting every other week, or every week, at the beginning, putting on presentations for everyone, again, coordinating with leadership, and so on and so forth. So we built this—what we believe is the largest cross-company research initiative, um, in Microsoft’s history. Uh, you know, [CHUCKLES] we—we—we built it in about two weeks, so that was the chaos turning into, you know, a degree of order, at least.
TEEVAN: And the world’s largest research initiative trying to understand work practices, too, and how that’s changed—both internally and externally.
HECHT: I would—I would hypothesize that’s the case, right? So it’s—I mean, the—the Teams, uh, side had—has 700 members; our newsletter has about 1,000. I—it—you know, it’s hard for another company to be able to have that degree of scale, in terms of, uh, knowledge discovery and capability creation for, um, changing work practices.
TEEVAN: It really was like a bit of a stone soup in that way, right? In that it was sort of created the idea that we were going to collect the re—[LAUGHS] the research. And then, like, it was—it was interesting, too, ’cause there was just—I was amazed at all of the different corners that were doing interesting and important research.
HECHT: Oh, yeah. Me, too. You and I have talked about that, right? So, like, this initiative has allowed people—you know, ourselves, like, we’ve gotten super connected to the folks in—in the real estate org, for instance, right? So a person on our team is now on—they created a scientific advisory board, and that person now sits on their board. They understood they have amazing research assets, you know, within the company, uh, and other parts of the company they wanted to tap into. We realized that we have amazing, you know, insights into all sorts of, uh, elements about the—the physical aspects of—of work. And—and, you know, Jaime, this is something we’ve been talking about recently—when—as work practices are changing, the expertise that Microsoft has in areas that previously were more support areas, supporting the people who did product work predominantly, now that expertise is product work. [CHUCKLES] So we’re getting all sorts of customer questions about, you know, “How are you doing real-estate investments?” You know, “How are you doing the interior design?” These types of things. And, uh, we’re trying to build Teams features to support different types of, uh, meeting rooms and [CHUCKLES]—and all sorts of, uh, these things. And then also, uh, on the HR front, right? So, we have this big Microsoft Viva launch, which, you know, emerged, in part, out of the changing work practices we’ve been discussing. That’s going to draw heavily on, you know, Microsoft’s HR expertise. We’ve traditionally considered a productivity software to be, you know, Word and PowerPoint and Excel, and, of course, those are incredibly important, uh, but Viva is an attempt to, um, expand our definition of productivity software to do things like support people’s well-being, help them turn off at the end of the day, um, help organizations lead when, you know, some percentage are in the office, some much larger percentage are remote, people are distributed around the world, how can we help communicate cultural values and—and these types of things. So, it’s a big expansion in terms of what we consider to be productivity software, and the research that we’ve done over the last year has really highlighted how that is a research-driven expansion. The difference between, uh, Word making you productive and, uh, software that helps you schedule focus time, for instance, it’s not a distinction worth making—it all helps you get your job done, helps you have, uh, better life at home, um, and, you know, helps you bring your best self to work.
TEEVAN: Do you have any interesting examples of folks doing research across these boundaries, either across methodological boundaries or across organizational boundaries, that came out of everyone coming together towards this common goal?
HECHT: You know, you and I both just came out of our biweekly call, where we do, you know, share-outs of product developments and research associated with remote and hybrid work and changing modes of work in general. And, you know, for about 20 minutes, there was a discussion about how, um, an amazing researcher in the Office organization has done a yearlong diary study of how people in that organization are adapting to all—all of this change. And, you know, you could see the eyes light up from product folks, from folks in MSR, uh, folks at LinkedIn. Everyone’s saying, “Wow, this is an amazing dataset!”And everyone had a different way to use that dataset. So someone from MSR is like, “This is going to be amazing for hypothesis generation. And then, we can go and do some large-scale, you know, experiments or causal analyses.” You know, at LinkedIn, they were thinking about trying to do some, uh, additional coding work with that data, and—and so on and so forth. So that’s just something that’s very top of mind. And it was such an—an enjoyable, just as an individual researcher, 20 minutes, where we all kind of just brainstormed together. The other examples are just—you know, they’re everywhere. So, lots and lots of cases of folks in MSR getting really embedded in product teams and, uh, helping product teams address hugely important questions. As I mentioned, you know, we’re in a part of the org that, uh, shows products like Office and—and Teams and, uh, Bing and these types of things. And—and, you know, a person on our team, Longqi, Longqi Yang, um, he’s, you know, embedded with our, uh, real estate and security, uh, helping them do, uh, their research. We’ve had a lot of conversations with HR. The list goes on and on and on. It’s almost actually—I—I wonder. I’d have to double-check, but some huge percentage of the projects are cross-org, which is, as anyone who’s familiar with a large organization, a pretty big accomplishment.
TEEVAN: But it almost seems like actually the whole initiative is a case study worth studying in the context of remote—remote work and remote research.
TEEVAN: I wonder if there’s anything that we can learn about running large-scale research collaborations from this. And I do know we had Peggy Storey with us, who studies—
TEEVAN: —that and helped us some. But I don’t know if you have additional thoughts on that.
HECHT: Yeah, sure. I mean, and there are things we’ll try to fix, but both of us are excited about thinking about this as a model, as a best practice for doing research on questions that are strategically important in a company. You know, the default before this is, if there’s a strategically important question, chances are there are seven different groups working on that question in silos, right? You and I both have been in—in the research world for a long time. That is not how the best research [CHUCKLES] gets done. There’s a reason why we submit our papers to journals that everyone reads, and then there’s peer review and—and these types of things, and—
TEEVAN: Ironically, we can still get siloed even when it’s all external [LAUGHS] and published, you know—
HECHT: Yes, that’s true, yeah, yeah.
TEEVAN: —across different disciplines.
HECHT: This is true, across disciplines. That is a—that is a big challenge. Right, right, right. But we are lucky in the, in the sort of public research world—or the scholarly research world is another way to describe that—that, um, there are incentives in place for us to share our work with others, uh, very intense incentives, right? And, uh, those incentives sometimes don’t exist within companies. And through this initiative, we put those in—in place and, uh, I think, without—almost without exception, everyone loved it, right? So, these are folks who are deeply inquisitive, and now they have a route—relatively low-cost route—uh, in, in which to get access to information they wouldn’t have been able to get access to before.
TEEVAN: Yeah, and it’s a real nice example of sort of the cultural pillar that Satya drives us towards, to of “One Microsoft” and making sure we’re all working as—
TEEVAN: —one company. [LAUGHS]
HECHT: Yep, yep. And in some ways, research is—is, uh, an amazing use case for “One Microsoft” because, you know, there’s no reason why two people should discover the same thing within the same company, right? Everyone should be [LAUGHS] working together, and, uh, a person—the person who discovered that first should then share that information with the person who would have discovered it, [LAUGHS] again, and then that person can build on that work and discover something new, right?
TEEVAN: What didn’t work in the context of the collaboration?
HECHT: Oh, that’s an interesting question. Um, you’ll—you’ll not be surprised to hear me answer, [CHUCKLES] or provide this answer. While we were able to, I think, by several orders of magnitude increase engagement with external research, a lot of the knowledge-discovery practices within, you know, all large firms, people are incentivized to, you know, for instance, discover things from first principles and talk directly to customers, which is all great, um, but that’s work that should be done in the context of knowing what’s been written about, uh, that topic, you know, for a long period of time, so you can target that efforts more effectively. So, I’m—I’m always dreaming about ways that we can, uh, you know, encourage folks to engage with the literature, which—which a lot of these folks, you know the, the folks doing this knowledge discovery—amazing knowledge discovery—these aren’t necessarily folks who have PhDs in computer science or, uh, a social science. These are folks who are experts at—at doing, for instance, UX research within industry or—or at Microsoft. Um, and they bring an amazing amount of additional ways of knowing and—and capability to the table. So this is one area where I—I hope to be able to do some scaffolding and some training. And vice versa, I hope to learn from them all the tricks of the trade in terms of how they get the best data out of—out of our customers and, um, how to make sure to maximally support our—our customers in doing so. Another thing that is—ultimately, a lot of the challenges associated with remote work either were at the intersection of computer science and social science or were actually purely social science. And we made a ton of progress in terms of communicating the importance of deeply considering social science questions, understanding the complexity of social systems. But we—we still—we, you know, that’s—it’s a journey. [LAUGHS] It’s—it’s not a destination.
TEEVAN: Is there anything in particular that came out of the new future of work research that changed your own personal work practices?
HECHT: Oh, yes. Um, a—a number of them. [CHUCKLES] Uh, you know, we were just talking about how we’re going to be deploying, you know, within our own team, Jaime, the—the best practices for hybrid work, that—that emerged out of our—our research. So, going into the office three days a week, making sure at least two of those days is, you know, we’re synchronized so we can get the benefits of, you know, serendipitous interaction and these types of things. So, that’s going to hugely shape our lives here. Uh, another one is, you know, I’m about to have my first kid, and—and, um, uh, hoping that remote work is shifted to hybrid work and that daycares are up and running when I emerge back from parental leave just because the findings around folks who are managing small children are honestly, you know, very concerning. Um, and you know, and also speaking of concerning, this was less of an issue for me, but one of the benefits of remote work, right, is that my—I do have a—an officemate here. It’s my wife, [CHUCKLES] Stephanie. Um, and she’s someone who really benefits from the in-person social interaction and sort of low-cost social interaction that happens at work. And she was getting really frustrated with the degree to which she was feeling socially isolated, and I was able to tell her, you know, “You’re not alone in that. A huge percentage of people are reporting that as, like, the No. 1 challenge they’re having, uh, with remote work.” So, you know, in the vein that when you’re struggling with something, when you find that you’re not alone in that struggle—at least, uh, for me—that always makes me feel a bit better. Um, so, you know, to be able to put those types of challenges, um, in context.
TEEVAN: Are things going to just go back to the way they are—like, you know, sometimes it’s easy to make too big of a deal out of a disruption that’s happened. Are—are we over-indexing on this?
HECHT: Chances are, no, they won’t go back to the way they were. And if they do, we’ll have missed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make work better. Now, that said, uh, I mentioned the complexity of social systems, you know, earlier. Uh, social systems are, you know, extremely complex, and so it’s difficult to predict, you know, with a great deal of precision, you know, the way things will end up in a year. That’s not to say research can’t tell us, uh, how to take action. It can. What it is, is predicting, you know, several different possible outcomes, and it’s also predicting a good amount of uncertainty. And, uh, business leaders like to hear that, right, because they know how to deal with uncertainty—you diversify, et cetera, et cetera [CHUCKLES]. And we also need to prepare to support all sorts of different models of work in—in the meantime. We no longer can make an assumption that most people are working in one way, regardless of whether that’s, you know, hybrid or fully remote or, um, uh, in the office. The best available data suggest that we’re going to get some changes, um, but the specific changes are difficult to predict.
TEEVAN: As people are getting vaccinated and folks are headed back into the office, um, we’re getting a ton of questions, and there’s a lot of uncertainty around what hybrid work is going to look like. What have—what have we learned from this past year that we can carry forward?
HECHT: Sure, yeah. And—and I should mention, in terms of different modes of work, you know, the most likely outcome we’re going to see is, again, increased diversity in modes of work and then a surge in hybrid work, right? So understanding hybrid work is definitely something that’s top of mind [CHUCKLES] for us at—at Microsoft, uh, primarily for our customers but also for ourselves. So, um, you know, we know a lot more about full remote work than we do hybrid work because of the mass amount of attention that’s been going into [CHUCKLES] remote work over the past year. That said, we do know a lot about hybrid work from two sources. One is that, you know, China has been in a hybrid mode—at least, uh, at a lot of companies—for over a year now. And that’s true to a certain extent in other markets, as well. And we also can learn from the past literature on hybrid work. This has not been the first time where at least a small percentage of people have been going into the office, you know, four days a week and working remotely one. And so, uh, you know, I just finished, uh, with a bunch of colleagues, writing up, uh, sort of a best-practices document that we’re going to be using internally at Microsoft. Um, and I mentioned some of this stuff, uh, before, but the literature suggests that going into the office two to three days a week is probably the best way to go, leaning more towards three. And there are a number of reasons why that’s the case. One is the job-satisfaction benefits. At least, the—the best available data suggests that they max out, uh, around that point. The effects on workplace relationships are—based on, uh, at least one, uh, decent study—negligible if you’re spending at least half your time in the office. But if you spend more than half your time at home, uh, workplace relationships deteriorate. And, uh, uh, so on and so forth. The question then is like, “How do you spend those—those days?” So for instance, if your team is spending three days in the office, you should at least spend two of those days as a team together in the office because so many of the benefits, including the relationship dynamics I just mentioned, happen because everyone is in the office, not just because you personally are in the office. And that actually, uh, highlights a—a more general point about, uh, hybrid work, uh, but choices in—in work models more generally. Your individual choice does not only affect you. It’s, uh, actually a lot like masks in some ways, right? So, let’s say my team goes into the office and I’m not there. Well, that’s a lower-value experience. Um, let’s say that a new hire—we know that new hires, uh, likely should spend, uh, more time in the office if they can—a new hire goes in the office, but there’s no one [CHUCKLES]—there’s no one there. Well, that—they might as well be at home. Unless, uh, unless they have a—a better setup in the office, there’s not a lot of reason, uh, to be there. Broadly speaking, as you’re making these choices, uh, best practice in hybrid is to consider all of the ripple effects for your team, for your org, and, you know, for your entire company, as well.
TEEVAN: What is one of the things that you’re most proud of having accomplished this past year?
HECHT: Oh, that’s a good question, Jaime. Um, [CHUCKLES] let me think.
TEEVAN: Doesn’t have to be what you’re most—just something that you are proud of. Mosts are always hard. [LAUGHS]
HECHT: You know, there are a couple things that I’m—I’m really proud of, and I know you share some of these. One is, this was a real opportunity to, you know—our job is to help a part of the Microsoft org understand the value of research and use that research to innovate, you know, quickly and responsibly and bring innovation to our customers in a way that creates a ton of customer benefit. And this past year was an amazing use case for how research can help the company. [CHUCKLES] So I am proud that we were able to deliver on that, uh, uh, use case. Uh, another thing I’m really proud of is all the relationships that, uh, formed through the initiative that will persist long beyond even our—our sort of, uh, new rendition of the initiative, you know, which will go on for some number of years, but not as long as those relationships. I think the folks at, uh, Microsoft Research, for instance, will have a plethora of, uh, product contacts that they wouldn’t have had otherwise for—for many, many years to come. And you know what? Another thing that comes to mind is, I think the initiative helped the employees at Microsoft put their heads down during a very chaotic time and gave them a place to make a positive impact in a way that wouldn’t have existed otherwise.
TEEVAN: That’s true. You know, I feel like it gave me purpose. In—
HECHT: Yeah, me too.
TEEVAN: In, you know, in all of this, uh, scariness and transition, I felt like I was doing something to help the world, and that felt good.
HECHT: Yeah, you know, and reflecting personally, that’s something that I’ve always, you know, tried to do, actually, during [CHUCKLES]—during times of disruption. Um, so, I’m recalling, after the—the 2016 election, regardless of politics, it was a time of extensive disruption, right? So I ended up writing a—a research agenda for one area of computer science, you know, reflecting on all the problems that emerged in the, uh, 2016 election. So for instance, misinformation, uh, email security, the need to make sure that rural areas are benefiting from the tech economy, and so on and so forth. And that turned out to be pretty useful for folks, um, and that felt really good ’cause it—it made me feel like I could do something. And there’s an element of, uh, [CHUCKLES]—there’s an element of—of that here, as well. And I should note that it’s scaled, right? There probably were about 100 people that were quite engaged with the initiative, and for those people, I think it had that—it had that effect. And you could sort of tell, like, everyone—a lot of friendships emerged out of the initiative, too, I think, as people went through something difficult together and—and did something, uh, good to help the company and—and, more importantly, help our customers. And speaking of helping our customers, I just feel really good that we did great research that manifested itself in product directly or indirectly, so that’s something that, um—you know, we’re so heads-down, uh, continuing to understand the [CHUCKLES] changing work practices and create a new and better future of work, uh, that sometimes it’s—it’s hard to, you know, come back up and look around. It’s like, “Hey, yes, you know, like, these products that—that folks are going to be able to use are better because we really worked hard to rigorously understand changing work practices and, uh, ways to support them.
TEEVAN: Well, thank you, Brent. And thanks to our listeners for tuning in. We hope you’ll continue to join us as we explore the new future of work. You can learn a lot more about the research that we discussed today at aka.ms/newfutureofwork. Also, be sure to subscribe for new episodes wherever you listen to your favorite shows.