From team lunches to off-sites , desk-side chats to happy hours, the pandemic put an end to the informal opportunities to connect that teams used to take for granted—and many have felt the strain.
Throughout the past year, Microsoft’s head of people analytics, Dawn Klinghoffer, and her team have studied the impact of remote work on Microsoft’s more than 150,000 employees, and daily survey results quantify this challenge all too clearly.
But the results also point to a remedy: To improve team connection, especially during the uncertainties of the shift to hybrid work, managers matter more than ever . “We found that when managers stepped in to help teams prioritize, feel productive, and maintain work life balance, employees felt more connected to one another,” Klinghoffer says.
These findings are the latest addition to Microsoft’s ongoing Work Trend Index research. The 2021 report, released earlier this month , broadly examined how work has changed during the past year of unprecedented disruption.
For this first 2021 Pulse Report, we looked at how team connections changed for Microsoft employees over the past year in the hope of offering insight into managing the transition to hybrid work that will define the year to come. The findings reveal a consistent pattern: When managers proactively provide support, team members feel closer to one another and their work.
The secret to a connected team
As the pandemic set in, Klinghoffer and her team paid close attention to the company’s Daily Pulse survey, adding new questions so they could measure how this unique time was affecting employees. A trend stood out: The shift to remote work was slowly eroding team connection. After about two months in lockdown (April 2020), 91 percent of employees reported feeling connected to their team. Heading into the holidays, this number dipped to 75 percent in November , its lowest point. While that figure increased slightly to 79 percent in December , the trend didn’t truly level off until close to the one-year mark of lockdown.
“At the beginning of COVID, people were really focused on staying connected in new ways,” Klinghoffer says. But as time went on, those team connections grew harder to maintain.
April 2020: Staying close
As the pandemic takes hold, teams are checking in with each other and working together to adjust to the sudden change of widespread remote work.
September 2020: Strained connections
By the end of summer, the proportion of employees who report feeling connected has dropped by more than 10 percent.
November 2020: Bottoming out
Around the Thanksgiving holiday, only 75 percent of employees report feeling connected - the lowest point in the Pulse surveys.
March 2021: Settling in
As we approach one year of remote work, the figures show feelings of connection have started to stabilize.
Infographic by Valerio Pellegrini
Her team uncovered three decisive factors that impacted employees’ feelings of team connection: receiving prioritization support from managers, feeling productive, and maintaining work-life balance—all of which managers heavily influence.
The findings suggest that while bonding activities like virtual happy hours certainly play a role, the secret to connection lies in the basics of a highly functioning team. When managers create a supportive work environment where their people love the work and feel they have work-life balance, the natural byproduct is that teams feel more connected.
The most basic thing managers can do to foster that kind of environment? Help their teams understand what work is most important—in a word, help them prioritize.
“Employees are feeling more and more like the weight of the world is on their shoulders. There’s so much coming at them,” Klinghoffer says. When managers step in to help set priorities, they create a climate not only conducive to wellbeing, but a more connected team.
Onboarding in a digital world
More than 25,000 employees joined Microsoft during the pandemic. With none of them able to enjoy the once-typical welcome of the in-person onboarding experience, Klinghoffer’s team was keen to understand how new hires were doing. After surveys at their 90-day point, her team found that reliance on managers over peers had increased substantially compared with before the pandemic. Specifically, when employees were asked who has provided the most support in their onboarding experience, the team found that:
New hires' reliance on their managers for onboarding support increased nearly 20 percent compared to before the pandemic.
Reliance on peers for this support dropped 15 percent.
“The hypothesis we had was that the onboarding experience was going to take a hit during this time,” Klinghoffer says. But that’s not what happened.
The findings show that’s because managers stepped up in such a big way.
Klinghoffer’s team also found that new hires whose managers did play an active role were not only 3.5 times more likely to say they were satisfied with their onboarding experience , but they were also 1.2 times more likely to feel that they were contributing to their teams’ success.
New hires are leaning on their managers even more for remote onboarding
Compared to pre-pandemic, new employees at Microsoft reported they are relying much more on their managers for onboarding support.
“Our data show that new hires who are clear about what’s expected of them had a better onboarding experience. Less was left on the table,” Klinghoffer says. “What we saw was that the experience our new employees were having was sometimes even better than before COVID.”
This suggests many managers strived to meet the company’s best practices for onboarding. They helped set clear and manageable goals. They offered guidance for how the job may have changed between the hire date and the first day at work—especially important in a world like the one we’re living in right now where so much is changing so fast. They made priorities clear. Knowing what you need to do, the findings suggest, reduces uncertainty for new hires, which in turn improves their onboarding experience and connection to the team. Managers hold the dial that brings everything into focus, especially in a time of hybrid work. In short, managers matter more than ever.
Takeaways for a hybrid world
Findings from our annual Work Trend Index—a global external study—suggest team connection, work-life balance, and feelings of engagement and excitement about work have become harder to maintain in a more digital world, especially for people new in their careers. These elements will only become more important as the world enters the next phase of work: a hybrid workplace where employees will be scattered across remote and in-person roles. Companies should consider taking these three key actions to strengthen bonds among team members.
Focus on the fundamentals. To foster team connection, managers should avoid being too narrowly focused on social events like happy hours and off-sites. The fundamentals—prioritization, productivity, work-life balance, a supportive team culture, and love of the work—impact team connection at the core. Managers should work to nurture these essentials first.
Boost manager support for onboarding. Make sure employee onboarding systems do not rely solely on onboarding buddies and other peer support. Position managers as the first line of support for those who are new to the company.
Empower managers with insights. Knowledge is power. A solid system for listening to employees will help leaders tap into the evolving needs of their workforce. Equip managers with these insights and ensure that they understand their heightened role in maintaining team connection in a more digital world. Support them with resources and training to make sure they are in a place to offer the increased care employees need in remote and hybrid work environments.
The research showcases anonymous insights gleaned from Microsoft’s Daily Pulse survey that goes out to a random sampling of Microsoft employees around the world each day. The analysis was done by Microsoft’s head of people analytics, Dawn Klinghoffer, as well as her team.