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Leading like a scientist: Microsoft’s Jaime Teevan on the new mindset for the future of work

Success as a leader in the new era of work requires not just empathy but also a willingness to experiment. In other words, it requires a scientist’s mindset.

That was the message from Jaime Teevan, Microsoft chief scientist and technical fellow, during her talk Oct. 6 at the GeekWire Summit, drawing from Microsoft research into issues including the impact of remote work on productivity, and the disconnect between leaders and employees in the transition to hybrid work.

A former technical advisor to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, Teevan leads Microsoft’s Future of Work initiative, which brings together researchers from Microsoft, LinkedIn, and GitHub to study how the pandemic has changed work.

Continue reading for key takeaways, edited and condensed from her talk.

There are still differing opinions on in-person vs. virtual work. We see, across different groups, pretty significant variation. There’s not a lot of consistency. I disagree with myself, day by day. This readjustment of what it means to do things in person, as well as remote, is pretty much a universal feeling right now.

Disruption was an opportunity for innovation. One way that companies deal with ambiguity and hard times is actually to lean into innovation. These past couple of years, we’ve really seen an amazing amount of innovation in these core products. I’ve never seen research transfer into products this quickly.

Research showed that remote work boosted productivity overall. Pretty much across all the different ways that we studied how productivity was changing, we can tell the shift to remote work, didn’t negatively impact and sometimes even helped with those sorts of measures of productivity.

Employers learned to appreciate remote work. The surprising thing was that leaders leaned into that and got excited about remote work. Literally a month before the pandemic, not a single leader would have said, ‘Sure all my people can go work from home.’ And afterwards, people were saying, ‘Yes, this is working,’ and reimagining the ways that they were setting things up.

But now there’s a disconnect between employers and employees. As we’re starting to transition to hybrid work, we see a really interesting switch starting to happen. Employees and leaders are at odds about what constitutes productivity now, and it’s something that we’re calling productivity paranoia: 87% of employees think they’re being productive. On the other hand, 85% of leaders don’t have confidence that their people remain productive.1

Nobody questions that we’re working more. We see a huge increase in the meetings that people attend. Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve seen a 153% increase in meetings 2 and a 46% increase in overlapping meetings. Even with all this activity, and meetings and emails, stuff that people are doing, leaders aren’t convinced that their employees are working on the stuff that matters.

However, activity isn’t productivity. It’s the outcomes, the output of what we’re doing, that matters. This productivity paranoia is causing weird responses. And when we understand that it’s not activity but outcomes that matter, we can start to figure out how to manage those responses.

This is one reason workplace surveillance isn’t a good idea. We fundamentally don’t believe that technology should be used to spy on people. And we don’t build our products that way. But more than that, it’s dumb science. Tracking activity doesn’t benefit employees, and it doesn’t benefit organizations. Instead, leaders who are concerned about productivity need to pivot their focus away from how much people are working, and instead focus on outcomes.

We’ve been witnessing the emergence of the ‘triple-peak workday.’ Before the pandemic, there was this double-peak workday, where you go into the office … you’re productive in the morning, you take a break for lunch, you ramp it back up, and then you have another productivity peak in the middle of the day. When people were starting to work from home and work remotely, you actually see the emergence of a third peak around 10 p.m. 3

There’s risk and opportunity when work is not bound by temporal or spatial boundaries. The end of the traditional workday could mean people are working all the time. But it doesn’t have to. If we can figure out how to prioritize well and do the right things, it actually becomes an opportunity. It’s extreme temporal flexibility, in the same way that we have extreme spatial flexibility. People can take more time off during the day. But to make this not “always on,” it requires deep prioritization.

Deep prioritization correlates with job satisfaction and employee retention. We found that people who feel clear about their priorities, and aligned with their priorities, are four times more likely to stay at a company for two years, and seven times less likely to look for a new job.

The opportunity ahead is to bring space back into the equation as people return to the office. We see that the reason people are going into the office is to connect with other people. We’re going to have to balance this interest in being co-located and spending time together with this new flexibility that we’ve discovered.

Success as a leader will require thinking like a scientist. Nobody knows what hybrid work is going to look like. It’s going to take experimentation. It’s going to take building on the literature, building on what we know works for in-person work, how space is used with technology to connect to people, and everything that we’ve learned from the past couple of years. We need to learn a whole new mindset. We need a scientist’s mindset. If we can do that successfully, we have this opportunity to completely reimagine work, and hopefully create a new and better future of work.

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