Ying Liu remembers the first in-personing Liu remembers the first in-person, all-hands meeting in months at the Microsoft offices in Beijing, China. It was summer 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic was gathering steam in other parts of the world, but community spread in China had come to an early halt after a strict lockdown. Companies had begun encouraging employees to return to their workplaces.
At that first gathering, “a lot changed—how people sat in the room, how they spoke, the social distance,” says Liu, a product user experience researcher. No one hugged or shook hands, and eye contact made up for the masks and the lack of human touch. No food or beverages were offered to the 40 or so attendees.
“We were all happy to see each other, to see that everybody was OK,” Liu says. “There was a lot of laughter.”
As China hummed back to life after lockdown, Liu and other Microsoft researchers found an ideal setting to study how work environments might look post-pandemic. Researchers were intrigued to learn that respondents felt more productive and satisfied with a hybrid work structure than with a fully in-office or fully remote one. Another twist: Many workers found that in-office social engagements were a larger draw than they had expected.
“China was in this time machine ahead of us,” says John Tang, a Microsoft researcher based in Silicon Valley who collaborated on the study. “They had worked through this recovery process, and they were a leading indicator entering hybrid mode months ahead of the rest of the world.”
Nearly 70 percent of employees in China preferred hybrid work.
As employees return to offices around the globe for at least part of their workweek, the situation in each country and company will vary, and business leaders will need to find approaches that best suit their workforces. One thing is clear, though: New ways of working will bring surprises, and flexibility is key.
Build a more flexible working culture
In Microsoft’s study, nearly 70 percent of the 475 China-based employees who responded said they preferred hybrid work, and similar proportions of workers chose one, two, three, four, or five days a week back in the office.
The top factors driving people to the office were a better workplace setup, in-person meetings, and social engagements. On the flip side, those opting for remote work cited commute times, family care, and the ability to focus.
The desire for face-to-face time was clear: Nearly half of the survey respondents reported that they were synchronizing days in the office with colleagues.
That apparent paradox—an interest in flexible remote work options but also in in-person work—is a phenomenon Microsoft has observed worldwide, not just in China. Microsoft’s Work Trend Index study of more than 31,000 global workers found that 73 percent wanted more flexible remote work options, but at the same time, 67 percent also wanted more in-person collaboration post-pandemic. It’s a matter of “yes, and,” not “either/or.”
In countries where COVID-19 has eased—such as China, which enacted widespread testing and vaccination, regional lockdowns, and stringent border restrictions—Microsoft says most employees are free to continue working remotely up to 50 percent of the time.
But as countries reopen, their workforces are reacting differently. In May, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella noted that 81 percent of the company’s China-based employees were back at the work site three-plus days per week, while in Australia, in-person attendance was 19 percent of what it was pre-pandemic. And the situation is in flux: In June and July, much of Australia was in lockdown again amid an uptick in coronavirus cases.
In China, 81% of Microsoft employees were back at the worksite at least 3 days a week in May—far more than in Australia.
Managers should remember that a return to work sites will be “messy,” says Jane Sparrow, an author and hybrid work consultant based in the U.K. One multinational client had planned for in-person, off-site work, only to flip to fully remote with 24 hours’ notice. “Even day to day it changes,” Sparrow says. “Those who’ve got the right ethos should have a test-and-learn approach to return to work.”
In Sydney, where people returned to their offices and then went back into lockdown, “there’s been joy in coming back, followed by an emotional frustration,” Sparrow says. “We must realize that it’s not linear and always have a Plan B.”
Learn and explore new ways of working
In China, once Microsoft employees were fully immersed in hybrid mode, new patterns and best practices began to emerge.
Embrace new rhythms: Workers are allowing themselves more flexibility in their office arrival and departure times than they did pre-COVID. “Now people know they can still continue their work at home,” says Yun Wang, a Beijing-based Microsoft researcher who installed a new monitor and desk in her home workspace. “People become more flexible not only with which days, but also what period of time they’re in the office.”
Clarify your whereabouts: Don’t go MIA. Communicating locations is key in hybrid work. Otherwise “there’s confusion about where to meet,” says Haidong Zhang, a Beijing-based Microsoft researcher who studies human-computer interaction. “Should I walk over to someone’s cubicle? Or do we connect online?”
The desire for face-to-face time was clear: Nearly half of survey respondents in China reported that they were synchronizing days in the office with colleagues.
Forge hybrid connections: Morale and togetherness should be a focus when part of a team is remote while others are in-person. Liu says some teams in Beijing found that playing mobile games together helps bridge the divide.
Level the playing field: Leaders should be inclusive of employees who join hybrid meetings from home. Microsoft has been developing office meeting spaces to put workers on an equal footing regardless of their location—for example, by ensuring that remote participants appear life-size on the video screen and at eye level with those in the room. More generally, as cultures are reformulated, managers should be cautious not to create hierarchies favoring those in the office.
Above all, show empathy. Everyone adapts to hybrid work at different speeds, and confidence about safety is built up over time, the China researchers noticed. “Wait for people to develop their new patterns,” Wang says. “It will be a process.” A process that will go much more smoothly for leaders who forge a cohesive, efficient, and happy environment for hybrid work.