Microsoft’s Data-driven Decisions that Drive Flexible Work

The Next Practices Weekly call series has become a well-attended and wide-ranging discussion for HR leaders each Thursday at 11am ET / 8am PT. On this week's call, i4cp' s CEO and Co-founder, Kevin Oakes, and Senior Research Analyst Tom Stone facilitated a conversation with special guest Rachel Russell, Director, Flexible Work at Microsoft. Here are some highlights from the call:

  • Russell became focused on flexible work a full year before the pandemic, in early 2019, when she was tasked with researching how Microsoft could increase employee and workplace flexibility. This research led to a 5-10 year plan, which of course was helpful for Microsoft to have when the pandemic arose in 2020.
  • After the initial shift to remote work, the new flexible work strategy was rolled out at Microsoft in October 2020. Since offices did not fully re-open for over a year beyond that, they had plenty of time to socialize and get feedback on the approach.
  • Going back to 2019 and before, leaders at Microsoft saw flexible work as a strategic decision, not a perk. This is similar to how forward-looking leaders are starting to see it strategically, not as a concession to employee demands.
  • Microsoft's philosophy is to provide "as much flexibility as possible." What that means will vary from role to role, team to team, etc. But on average the baseline is around 50% of time (per week) working remotely, with manager approval needed for more than that.
  • Microsoft's approach is not "one size fits all," and managers are encouraged to find a way to "get to yes" when employee's make the case for more remote time. The key is to balance the needs of the individual with those of the team(s) they are on, and the overall needs of the business and its culture.
  • Russell noted that the nature of work today means that team needs have become increasingly important, and that this includes your primary (hierarchical) team, as well as the many -- often virtual -- project- and role-based teams that each employee is a part of (some of which are temporary and will change over time).
  • On that point, Russell noted they ask managers to have team agreements to make explicit how members will collaborate, communicate, etc., both in-person and virtually.
  • This approach also aligns with the movements in some countries that have pending legislation around formalizing flexible work expectations.
  • At Microsoft, "hybrid" involves three dimensions: work site, work location (geo region), and work hours. Much attention has been spent on the first two, with more consideration now being spent on the time aspect.
  • Russell noted that their approach is "hybrid by design," but that doesn't always mean "hybrid first." She noted the case of hybrid training, where synchronous training events with some people gathered in-person and some online can be very challenging and so often might not be the best approach. In some cases they might instead run the training completely in-person or completely online instead of "hybrid".
  • Microsoft's philosophy when it comes to decision making is "data over dogma." This has been followed in developing their flexible work policies, with extensive employee listening that includes daily pulses of a subset of employees to get quick input. Open-answer questions are also leveraged so that nuances can be detected on questions such as, Do you feel that Microsoft values flexible work, or Are you productive in how you are working now?
  • They also conduct research on just when in-person work matters the most. They have found that mandating Tuesday/Wednesday/Thursday as in-office days is not the best approach, and that a focus on the purpose for being in the office brings better results. Two findings include that in-person time is more important for employees who are new to Microsoft or new to a particular team; and that setting, where possible, an in-person gathering for a crucial project milestone can be beneficial.

Links to resources shared on the call: