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

Jaime Teevan, Chief Scientist & Technical Fellow at Microsoft, speaks during Day 1 of the GeekWire Summit at Block 41 in Seattle, Thursday, October 6, 2022. (GeekWire Photo/ Dan DeLong

To be a successful leader in this new age of work, you need to have empathy and be open to learning. In other words, it requires a scientist’s mindset.

This was Jaime Teevan’s message as chief scientist at Microsoft and technical fellow during her Oct. 6 talk at the GeekWire Summit. She used Microsoft research to discuss issues such as the effect of remote work on productivity and how leaders and employees can be disconnected in the move 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.

Keep reading to find key points, as well as a summary of her speech.

There is still a wide range of opinions about virtual and in-person work. There is a lot of variation across groups. There’s not a lot of consistency. Every day I find myself disagreeing with myself. This is an almost universal feeling at the moment.

Innovation was possible through disruption. Leaning into innovation is a way for companies to deal with uncertainty and difficult times. 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.

Researchers found that remote work can increase overall productivity. 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.

Learn from employers how to appreciate remote work. It was amazing to discover that the leaders got so excited about remote working. 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.

teevan 1 1
Source: Microsoft Work Trend Index Pulse Report (September 2022).

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. The number of people attending meetings has increased dramatically. Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve seen a 153% increase in meetings 2 A 46% increase in overlap 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. The productivity paranoia can cause strange reactions. 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. Leaders who care about productivity should shift their attention away from the amount of people working and focus instead on what they can do to improve it.

third peak
Source: The Rise of the Triple Peak Day; research by Microsoft Research’s Mary Czerwinski and colleagues.

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. As people began to work remotely or from home, you can actually notice a third peak emerging around 10:15 p.m. 3

There’s risk and opportunity when work is not bound by temporal or spatial boundaries. It could also mean that people work all day, as the traditional working week is over. But it doesn’t have to. We can solve it. how to If you prioritize and take the time to do the right thing, this can be a great opportunity. It’s extreme temporal flexibility, in the same way that we have extreme spatial flexibility. It’s possible to take longer breaks during the day. But to make this not “always on,” it requires deep prioritization.

Source: Microsoft Work Trend Index Pulse Report (September 2022).

A deep prioritization is associated with employee retention and job satisfaction. People who are clear and focused on their goals and feel aligned to them for their career and their personal priorities were four times more likely than others to remain with a company for at least two years. They also had seven times lower chances of looking for new jobs.

As people return to work, there is a chance to create more space. It is clear that people go to work because they want to meet 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.

reconnecting 1
Source: Microsoft Work Trend Index Pulse Report (September 2022).

To be a successful leader, you must think like a scientist. No one knows how hybrid work will look. 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. It is necessary to develop a new mentality. We need a scientist’s mindset. We have the opportunity to reimagine and create new futures of work if we are able to do this successfully.

  1. Microsoft Work Trend Index Pulse Report September 2022
  2. Ibid.
  3. The Rise of the Triple Peak Day in November 2021

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