Harvard Business review

Hybrid Tanked Work-Life Balance. Here’s How Microsoft Is Trying to Fix It.

If there was a word that has defined the year 2021, it would be “overwhelmed.” After a year and a half into the pandemic, with overflowing inboxes and back-to-back meetings, people are tired. People are also searching for an answer to this digital exhaustion — including me. As the head of Microsoft’s people analytics function, I spend a lot of time exploring this problem by looking at the data.

When my colleagues studied the anonymous productivity trends of millions of Microsoft customers around the world, they saw that one year into the pandemic, weekly time spent in Teams meetings more than doubled and the average person sent 42% more chats after hours. While initially this seemed like the best way for teams to stay connected, we’ve since realized that these non-stop video calls, emails, and chats have turned into digital overload, and we see the well-being impacts in our Microsoft employee surveys. Between April and November 2020, employees’ satisfaction with work-life balance dropped by 13 percentage points.

So, my team and I set out to uncover the reasons behind the drop and identify data-based actions managers and employees could take to turn the numbers around in this hybrid work environment.

We asked ourselves, what can we learn from our employees’ activity patterns, vacation time taken, and surveys? And what can managers do to create a culture where work-life balance exists and employees thrive? One where finishing your to-do list or avoiding after hours work doesn’t require superhuman effort and unrealistic self-discipline?

The Virtual Work Practices that Affect Employee Well-Being

To answer these questions, we studied the aggregate and de-identified collaboration activity and survey data of thousands of Microsoft employees over the course of many months — the majority of whom were working from home due to the pandemic. Overall, we discovered that over-collaborating, lack of uninterrupted focus, and skipping time off were major drivers of the decreased work-life balance we were investigating.

As collaboration time increased, well-being decreased.

The first bit of our analysis, based on April 2020 work activity and sentiment data, confirmed what we thought to be true: Employees who spend the most time collaborating — attending meetings, writing emails, and sending chats — rate lower satisfaction with work-life balance than colleagues with fewer hours of collaboration time.

Employees satisfied with their work-life balance attend 25% fewer meetings and spend on average 6 fewer hours per week collaborating compared to those employees with neutral or unfavorable work-life balance sentiment. In addition, those employees satisfied with their work-life balance tend to send 29% fewer emails in general and 36% fewer emails after working hours.

As people set aside more focused time, well-being improved.

On the flip side, we saw that employees satisfied with their work-life balance had 1.3 times the number of focus hours and 1.3 times the number of two-hour focus blocks compared to employees less satisfied with their work-life balance.

As vacation time increased, so did well-being.

Next, we looked at patterns in vacation time taken. We found that early in the pandemic, many Microsoft employees stopped taking their vacations altogether as they sheltered in place, avoided travel, and stayed home. In fact, we saw that the average amount of vacation time recorded by Microsoft’s U.S. employees dropped by up to 83%.

That drop caused a ripple effect, and we could see in the numbers that taking vacation — or not — has a real impact on employees’ perception of work-life balance. Based on our research, we saw that employees in the U.S. who were able to take time off to recharge during March or April 2020 had, on average, an 8 percentage point-higher perception of work-life balance in the month of May than those employees who did not take time off during those months.

So, if part of the secret to well-being lies in fewer meetings, more focus time, and taking time off to recharge, how do we do that exactly? Here are four strategies different teams at Microsoft have started rolling out.

Prioritize

Our data shows that one of the most important things a manager can do to improve work-life balance is to help their team prioritize. In particular, employees who do not receive prioritization support from their managers are much less satisfied with their work-life balance. In fact, data collected between Oct and Nov of 2020 shows that 81% of them are dissatisfied, and 42% are not feeling as productive as they were prior to the pandemic.

As a manager myself, I know we will never get it all done. So, I’ve had to have tough conversations with partners and other teams, to say “Okay, we can do this…but it means we might not be able to do these other three things. What’s most important here?” To truly combat this overload and keep workloads sustainable, we can’t always say “and” — it comes down to “either/or.”

My team still jokes that prioritization might as well be called “getting in touch with your inner Klinghoffer” since I’ve said it so much. But it’s become my mantra for a reason.

Prioritization is how we create stability even in the face of chaos. It is the fundamental platform of work-life balance because it empowers your team to take control, to speak up, to say “no” to things that aren’t mission critical — which in the end means fewer meetings, more focus time, and most importantly, the freedom to take time off.

Reevaluate Meetings

Once the work is properly prioritized, the next step is reevaluating team meetings. Here are some strategies that have worked for us.

Build in breaks.

A small breather between collaboration sessions is a chance for employees to grab a glass of water, get ready for their next call, or mentally transition to a new topic. When we shift our focus from maximizing meeting time to maximizing meeting effectiveness, Microsoft’s brain research shows that meetings with just a five- to 10-minute buffer between them not only reduce stress levels for your employees but also enable better focus and engagement. In Outlook or other email platform, organizations can set a company-wide default for these breaks, or individual employees and teams can change their own settings.

Avoid bookending the week.

Like breaks between meetings, time at the beginning and end of each week helps employees transition. For example, Monday morning meetings can pressure employees to prep over the weekend, contributing to even greater feelings of being overwhelmed. Instead, designate Monday mornings for focus and preparation to set the team up to successfully collaborate throughout the week. We’ve also seen many teams at Microsoft embrace no-meeting Fridays as dedicated time to wrap up key work and fully unplug before the weekend.

Press pause.

A recent study out of Microsoft Research shows that multi-tasking in meetings increases significantly in longer and larger meetings. In the study, people also frequently mentioned that they multitask during meetings they find irrelevant or have lack of interest or engagement in.

So, take the time to step back and reevaluate the effectiveness of meetings for your team by asking for your team members’ perspectives. Also ask yourself, do you own meetings with low engagement and lots of multi-tasking? Could some meetings be shorter? Less frequent? Who truly needs to be there? Should they be recurring or only scheduled as needed? Do they need to be meetings at all?

Protect Time to Focus and Set Boundaries

With work prioritized and meetings narrowed, encourage your team to prioritize the time they spend on focused work and to set boundaries to protect it.

Encourage focus time.

Suggest that your team proactively set aside blocks of time for focused work each week to tackle key priorities. Carving out this time allows employees to engage in deep work and dive into projects without distractions or interruptions. More focus time means more progress, which means less overwhelm. It also means less work spilling into after hours.

Use tech to respect quiet hours.

Hybrid work goes beyond the “where” we work — it’s also about the “when.” For example, balancing my job with my personal schedule sometimes means that going through my inbox in the evening when I can truly focus is the best way for me to get work done. On the other hand, our research shows that one after-hours email from a manager can have a ripple effect of after-hours work for the team.

Technology can help your team empower everyone to work in the way that’s best for them while still avoiding that “always on” mentality. When I’m working in the evening — which is how I work best as an individual — I take advantage of “delay send” features to make sure my flexible working hours don’t become someone else’s late-night stressor.

I’ve also encouraged my team to mute notifications in order to remove the pressure to check emails and chats when it’s time for them to step away from work. We’ve also established team norms about when responses are expected, so no one feels like they’re constantly on call.

Encourage Time Away

Finally, actively discuss ways to make it easier for employees to take their well-earned vacation time.

Time away might not look like it used to.

The ability to unplug is key to work-life balance. Whether it’s vacation, staycation, mental health days, sick days, or observing religious holidays, resting and recharging can mean different things to different people. In late 2019, we redefined sick leave at Microsoft to include mental health days; little did we realize how important that would become a few months later when the pandemic hit. We also offered five well-being days globally in addition to their regularly allotted vacation to encourage employees to take more time off.

Broadly, help your team understand that there are many reasons to take time away that don’t hinge on travel or trips and that their well-being is a priority is worth taking time for.

Make it easier to take vacation time.

Employees will find it tough to step away if they don’t feel like they have the coverage or support. As their manager, proactively offer to help cover when they are gone. You can also create a buddy system that gives each employee someone to oversee their work while away. You might even facilitate consensus days when members of your team agree to take time away collectively to minimize the email and other accumulated work they’ll come back to.

. . .

Times of major transition and change are an opportunity to step back and rethink. As the world changes, the way we work can too. The most powerful thing I’ve learned from our study of work-life balance is that we as managers have an opportunity to challenge the status quo and say, “this can be better.”

By focusing on the tactics above, managers can create a world where responsibility for work-life balance doesn’t rest solely on an individual’s shoulders. It’s about establishing team norms and an environment that empowers everyone to focus on impact, not activity. By creating clarity and identifying the important, managers enable their employees to do their best work and thrive in a hybrid environment.

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