Ongoing remote work could have negative effects on a company’s productivity and capacity for innovation, Microsoft has warned in a new research paper.

Microsoft last week published a study in scientific journal Nature which drew on data gathered from its more than 61,000 US employees.

Called ‘the effects of remote work on collaboration among information workers’, the study examines how communication within the organisation has shifted dramatically during company-wide remote work policies forced by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The paper has a pessimistic outlook on the ongoing effects of work-from-home, noting that the conditions observed within Microsoft point to an overall diminished collaborative capacity which the researchers expect “will impact productivity and, in the long-term, innovation”.

“Our results suggest that shifting to firm-wide remote work caused the collaboration network to become more heavily siloed […] and that those silos became more densely connected,” the paper says.

“Furthermore, the network became more static, with fewer ties added and deleted per month.

“Previous research suggests that these changes in collaboration patterns may impede the transfer of knowledge and reduce the quality of workers’ output.”

Microsoft’s researchers based these claims on data gathered through its Workplace Analytics tool which tracks employee activity on Outlook and Teams.

Each worker was classified as ‘node’ in the network of 61,182 Microsoft employees and a ‘tie’ between two nodes is determined by what the researchers called a ‘meaningful interaction’ between the two, coming in the form of either an email, instant message (IM), scheduled meeting, or unscheduled video/audio call.

This methodology allowed Microsoft to track changes in its human network from pre-pandemic (December 2019) through the first few months of COVID-19 (June 2020).

It found that, despite the number of ties – interactions with other workers – remaining stable throughout, the likelihood of employees interacting with new people began to decrease.

A key indicator here is ‘bridging ties’, or interactions with someone who may help a person from one part of the network start communicating with a person from another part of the network.

The result is a reduction in the ability for workers “to access new information in other parts of the network” along with a workplace where information sharing becomes static – pointing to a strong a silo effect where work teams are engaging inwardly more than they are with other parts of the business.

Microsoft's journal article isn't the first piece of research pointing toward decreasing productivity and innovation among remote staff.

An April survey from software company Achievers found 35 per cent of Australian employers felt less engaged while working remotely, while 50 per cent of remote workers in Singapore felt the same way.

Less synchronous, more time

Another data point Microsoft looked at was how different communication media within the company changed with the shift to remote work.

Remote naturally work put an end to face-to-face meetings or chance office encounters, and Microsoft noticed an overall decrease in video and audio calls – what it calls synchronous communication.

Workers instead migrated to more asynchronous forms of communication, namely email and IM, which Microsoft said is useful for conveying information but doesn’t convey meaning in the same way as synchronous communication.

“These changes in communication media may have made it more difficult for workers to convey and process complex information,” Microsoft noted.

“We expect that the effects we observe on workers’ collaboration and communication patters will impact productivity and, in the long-term, innovation.”

While the tech giant noted limitations of its study – that it’s based on just one technology company in the US – its paper suggests there could be empirical reasoning behind organisations’ choice to not enact permanent work-from-home policies and Microsoft has called for more research into the space.

The company last week decided to can its planned October return to office date for US staff, citing uncertainty around the pandemic.

“We’ve decided against attempting to forecast a new date for a full reopening of our US work sites in favour of opening US work sites as soon as we’re able to do so safely based on public health guidance,” said Microsoft VP of modern work, Jared Sparato.