COVID-19 and distributed work - leaders out of touch, workforce exhausted and Gen-Z at risk

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez April 6, 2021
The latest Microsoft Work Trend Index highlights that there have been clear positives to distributed work during COVID-19, but the negatives frame a discussion for the future.

Image of a person working from home on the sofa
(Image by Pexels from Pixabay )

As we all know, the world of work has changed dramatically over the past year or so with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Distributed work, digital teams and online collaboration has become the norm for many. And as we begin to see light at the end of the tunnel, businesses everywhere are beginning to ask the question - which bits do we keep and which bits do we get rid of? 

Organizations are starting to unveil their future workplace strategies, with most opting for office closures and a hybrid/flexible approach. Work from anywhere is now a reality, with employees having proven that they can get most of their job done outside of the four walls of an office. 

We have noted time and time again that there are huge benefits to this and that whilst COVID-19 has been dreadful, the shift towards putting trust in distributed environments has been welcome. But it's not all positive news. And in order to frame a thoughtful discussion of what the future should look like, we need to take stock of the negative consequences of the past 12 months too. 

This week Microsoft provides some useful data to help us do exactly that. It's latest Work Trend Index, which outlines findings from a study of more than 30,000 people in 21 countries, and analyses trillions of productivity and labor signals across Microsoft 365 and LinkedIn, gives us some useful insight into the impact of persistent distributed work during COVID-19. 

Some of the findings are obvious and we won't dwell on those too much, such as flexible work is here to stay and talent is now globally accessible. However, the data does a good job of highlighting some workforce concerns that should be immediately considered by business leaders over the coming months, as strategies are formed. 

Leaders are out of touch

Microsoft notes that most business leaders are faring better with the current working conditions than their employees. Some 61% of leaders say they're "thriving" right now, which is a whopping 23% higher than those without decision making authority. Leaders also reported stronger relationships with colleagues (+11%) and a higher likelihood of taking all or more than their allotted vacation days (+12%). 

The report also highlights that business leaders were more likely to be Millennials or Gen-X, male, information workers, and further along in their careers. Those struggling over the past year were typically Gen-Z, women, frontline workers and those new to their careers. 

An incredible 37% of the global workforce says that their companies are asking too much of them at a time like this. Commenting on the findings, Jared Spataro, CVP at Microsoft 365, says: 

Those impromptu encounters at the office help keep leaders honest. With remote work, there are fewer chances to ask employees, "Hey, how are you?" and then pick up on important cues as they respond. But the data is clear: our people are struggling. And we need to find new ways to help them.

An exhausted workforce

Prior to COVID-19, the key question about distributed teams was whether or not productivity would remain the same. According to the Microsoft data, self-assessed productivity is reported to be the same, if not higher. However, it has come at a cost. 

Microsoft finds that nearly one in five workers say their employers don't care about their work-life balance and 54% say that they feel overworked. Some 39% report feeling exhausted and according to the trillions of productivity signals from Microsoft 365, suggest the feeling is justified. 

The digital intensity of workers' days has increased substantially, according to the data, with the average number of meetings and chats steadily rising since last year. Comparing collaboration trends in Microsoft 365 between February 2020 and February 2021, the data shows: 

  • Time spent in Microsoft Teams meetings has more than doubled (2.5X) globally and, aside from a holiday dip in December, continues to climb.

  • The average Teams meeting is 10 minutes longer, up from 35 to 45 minutes year-over-year.

  • The average Teams user is sending 45% more chats per week and 42% more chats per person after hours, with chats per week still on the rise.

  • There was a 66% increase in the number of people working on documents

In addition, the report notes that companies are struggling to organize their collaboration efforts. It states:

This barrage of communications is unstructured and mostly unplanned, with 62% of calls and meetings unscheduled or conducted ad hoc. And workers are feeling the pressure to keep up. Despite meeting and chat overload, 50% of people respond to Teams chats within five minutes or less, a response time that has not changed year-over-year. This proves the intensity of our workday, and that what is expected of employees during this time, has increased significantly.

Gen-Z is at risk

I recently reported on how the system of work for Gen-Z is somewhat broken and that a comprehensive system change is needed. The data from Microsoft appears to support this assumption and suggests that it is an overlooked demographic that is suffering right now. 

Some 60% of this generation - those aged between 18 to 25 - say they are merely surviving or flat-out struggling right now. Hannah McConnaughey, Product Marketing Manager at Microsoft, notes: 

Networking as someone early in their career has gotten so much more daunting since the move to fully remote work - especially since switching to a totally different team during the pandemic. Without hallway conversations, chance encounters, and small talk over coffee, it's hard to feel connected even to my immediate team, much less build meaningful connections across the company.

Survey respondents say that they were more likely to struggle balancing work with life (+8%) and to feel exhausted after a typical day at work (+8%) when compared to older generations. Gen-Z also report difficulties feeling engaged or excited about working, contributing in meetings, and bringing new ideas to the table. 

This is coupled with the likelihood that the younger generation may lack the financial means to create proper workplaces at home. Microsoft says that Gen-Z can't be left as a lost generation, given what they could contribute to the workplace. The report states: 

New generations offer fresh perspectives and challenge the status quo. Their contributions are critical, and as the first generation to start their jobs in a completely remote environment on such a widespread basis, their experience will set expectations and attitudes toward work moving forward. Ensuring that Gen Z feels a sense of purpose and wellbeing is an urgent imperative in the shift to hybrid.

My take

As noted above, whilst it's undeniable that there are a huge number of positives to remote and distributed work that need to be embraced, we can't ignore the negative consequences if we truly want a productive *and* happy workforce going forward. 

Microsoft offers some solutions that are worth assessing - including offering people extreme flexibility, investing in space and technology to bridge the gap between physical and digital worlds, as well as digital exhaustion being a priority for leaders. 

However, the key takeaway for me is that leaders need to actually ask questions and listen to their employees. If your workforce isn't happy you're on a quick route to failure. The past year has been, dare I say it, unprecedented - and as things begin to calm down, people will take stock of what is and isn't working for them. In addition to this, you need to have trust in your workforce. If the structures of a traditional workplace no longer exist, then we need to replace those physical structures with a trust-based system that allows people to work in a way that works for them. 

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