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Microsoft 365

April 29, 2020

The human side of business continuity

Erik Anderson

Editor’s Note: COVID-19 has impacted people around the world, challenging us to adapt to travel restrictions, school closures, and the removal of barriers between work and life—all at once. So, what does a cross-functional team of engineers, data scientists, analysts, and marketers that lives in the space between workplace culture and data do when presented with the world’s largest work-from-home shift? It, well, does its homework. In this blog series, we’ll share real-time learnings as we measure the impact of this unprecedented shift on how one group of employees works, connects, and balances our lives. We hope these insights will teach us something about how work is changing and help us all get through this, together.

Chances are high you’ve heard the phrase “Business Continuity” over the last several weeks as all of us have tried to manage our personal and professional lives through the impacts of stay-at-home orders, remote working, closed businesses, and more. Many of us might have traditionally associated business continuity with planning against threats such as data loss, cyberattacks, or natural disasters—all things that can impact the physical and technical infrastructure of a business. In fact, a study on the IT impacts of the recent remote-work shift, found that 78 percent of companies had invoked such business continuity measures.

If you’ve been following along in our previous blog posts, you have learned how our Modern Workplace Transformation team at Microsoft is analyzing data from collaboration tools to better understand how well we, as a 300-person team, are maintaining our business continuity. And what you’ve likely noticed is that we’re looking at continuity through the lens of human infrastructure, not physical infrastructure. Our ability to measure the changes in how people are working has revealed:

The most senior managers are most affected by this change.

Senior managers are re-focusing inward to clear space for new priorities and workdays that look significantly different; carving out time to stay connected with employees; and collaborating an additional 8+ hours more per week than they had before the remote-work shift. Not surprisingly, managers have less time now to focus on external customers.

Work-life balance has shifted to work-life integration.

The dip in collaboration we used to see midday—when people would press pause on work to grab lunch and reset—has disappeared, and employees are “on” an average of 4 more hours a week.

Culturally, we’ve done a good job maintaining our relationships.

In our group, 9 in 10 employees have been able to maintain a meaningful level of connection with their team.

Manager check-ins are an area where we can improve.

While regular manager check-ins increased to tackle blockers, set expectations, and ensure the well-being of their direct reports and teams, 1 in 4 employees are still not having regular check-ins with their manager. This data point, and the possible negative impacts, have prompted us to dive deeper and we plan to explore the topic in an upcoming post.

Protecting the human infrastructure—our people—is critical in any disruption we are likely to encounter as an organization. For this reason, understanding how our workforce is adapting to this change is the single most important aspect of maintaining business continuity. In a long-term study of 2,000 organizations, McKinsey analyzed 5 million data points around how work gets done to find that companies with the highest organizational health scores had up to three times the returns of those with the lowest scores. In other words, the way people work is a key driver of overall success.

But you can’t maintain what you don’t measure. And at the same time, data is most powerful when it drives action. Our team realized that if we failed to act on the insights around how people are working within this major shift, we could end up in a position that would be hard to recover from—facing disengagement, attrition, loss of productivity, or negative customer satisfaction.

If a tree falls in a forest, does it make a sound?

The learnings we have generated from analysis have been insightful, a kind of health check for our ecosystem. But we needed to make them visible to our business leaders so they weren’t caught by surprise, and more importantly, so they could respond quickly and even act proactively. At the same time, we heard a call for help from customers across many industries and geographies who needed a framework to evaluate the continuity of their own human infrastructures in ways they previously couldn’t. They were looking for a way to take the pulse of their organization, so they could find and focus on what matters most and quickly adapt as the situation evolved.

Using what we’ve learned from customers and our own experiences and measurements of remote work at Microsoft, we devised a framework to guide leaders to the most critical insights that would enable them to rapidly respond with actions to maintain business continuity. This framework, which we’ve also translated into the creation of a dashboard, is based on the following four principles to guide leaders:

1. Measure what matters:

Mindshare is limited, especially in the current state of work, so we needed to shine a spotlight on the most relevant insights. Using inputs from our team, customers, and past learnings, we zeroed in on aspects of collaboration to answer the following questions:

How is “business as usual” changing over time?
Most knowledge workers’ days are spent interacting with their colleagues through a variety of collaboration tools. We suspected how, when, and how much people connected with each other might change significantly, perhaps permanently, in response to the new business disruptions. By measuring the shifts in collaboration patterns, we can quantify the size of the impact, understand how it is trending over time, and identify the right path to a “new normal.”

How are employees adapting?
Our colleagues are navigating many different personal challenges during this time, and we’re employing creative solutions to get us through our days—from shifting our schedules so that we can take care of kids at home, to fitting exercise time into new hours of the day. Our dashboard shows us how people are adapting across the hours of the day and week.

Are we still maintaining relationships with our customers?
To evaluate business continuity, we knew we had to get a clear picture of how customer relationships were holding up. A simple view of customer collaboration through connectivity points such as email and meetings allows leaders to track the organization’s connection to customers through the workforce shift and respond when relationships are at risk.

Are we fostering a sense of engagement and community?
We know that employees rely on a sense of community and belonging to help them feel engaged at work, and that strong relationships with colleagues help employees stay connected to their teams. Managers play a key role in promoting this sense of belonging, and manager 1:1s are a key indicator of how healthy that connective tissue is. Leaders can take a quick pulse of these touchpoints, alongside data about small-group interactions, in the dashboard.

2. Understand more than averages:

From our experience with behavioral data, we know people’s responses to things like work and environmental changes can vary widely, and there isn’t always an answer of what “good” looks like. That means looking only at averages and medians can obscure a lot of interesting findings and insights. In fact, sometimes the most actionable insights are around the groups experiencing the most extreme disruption, or around the bright spots—things working well that can be replicated. The dashboard empowers leaders to not only see broad patterns across an organization but to zoom in on outlying groups that need attention or can reveal solutions.

Dashboard of business continuity showing how employees are adapting to disruption

3. Show changes over time:

The picture of how we work today is quite different than just weeks ago and continues to change each week. This continuingly evolving landscape makes it critical to monitor trends over time and compare them against a baseline time period. Near-real-time data ensures the ability to respond to problems quickly to keep the organization on track.

4. Connect data with the lived experiences of people:

This is, in part, carried out by the combination of the principles above, but also by bringing data together that is complementary and contextualizing it with organizational attributes, research, and previous learnings. Data presented in this storytelling form helps leaders connect the data with what matters most and make quick and meaningful decisions.

You can’t control what you don’t measure

Based on this set of principles, we stood up our Business Continuity dashboard for our 300-person team a few weeks ago and are monitoring the metrics that reveal what’s happening inside our own organization as time goes on so that we can react accordingly. We’ve also helped some of our customers do the same, which has enabled them to examine their organizations in ways they weren’t able to before. We are interested to see what more we can learn from ourselves, and to see how our customers are leveraging the tool to respond and adapt quickly, such as one customer who shared:

The Business Continuity dashboard allowed us to examine the effect of closing our offices on [organizational] working patterns, in a flexible and simple manner. The hourly analysis of collaboration by medium was particularly useful.

We also know there is another shift coming in the future when some of us start to move back to the office. When that happens, we anticipate the ability to quickly get a pulse on what is changing, and what isn’t, will be just as useful to continue ensuring the continuity of our organization’s human infrastructure.

Methodology: To help us chronicle the journey of our 300-person organization, we draw on data from Workplace Analytics to help quantify the impact on collaboration, networks and focus, explore the lived experiences of our teammates through surveys and interviews, and tap into the knowledge of experts where it helps our understanding.

Research Lead: Kevin Sherman
Series Editor: Natalie Singer-Velush


Workplace Analytics
Portrait of Erik Anderson

Erik Anderson

Erik Anderson is a Director on Microsoft’s Workplace Intelligence team. He has spent his career building teams and methods for data-driven problem solving and transformation, and currently leads a team at Microsoft helping customers harness the power of their collaboration data to drive business value. Erik lives in Seattle where he and his wife spend most of their time outdoors chasing their two kids, preferably on skis or mountain bikes.