Main image of article Microsoft Shifts to Flexible Work, Following Google and Other Firms

Microsoft plans on letting more of its employees work from home, even after the COVID-19 pandemic ends. However, those employees who opt for a flexible work schedule will need to make some concessions.

Microsoft’s move is a little startling in light of CEO Satya Nadella’s public dislike of remote work. Back in May, he told The New York Times that he believed in-office work was better for employees’ mental health—and for teams’ collaboration. “What I miss is when you walk into a physical meeting, you are talking to the person that is next to you, you’re able to connect with them for the two minutes before and after,” he said.

Nadella is still trying to figure out the optimal balance between in-office and remote work, as he explained at the virtual Oct. 6 Wall Street Journal summit, where he also talked about the future of workplaces and what percentage of Microsoft employees might actually come back to the office in a few years. His segment starts at 42:00:

He's onboard with flexibility, and not adhering too tightly to any particular “dogma” when it comes to schedules. According to Microsoft’s new guidelines, employees who want flexible work will have the option to work from home for less than 50 percent of their week. Those who want to work remotely full-time will need to clear it with their manager, and, if approved, give up their in-office space.

In contrast to companies such as Facebook, which will require employees who move to a place with a lower cost of living to take a pay cut, Microsoft is leaving decisions around remote workers’ compensation up to lower-level managers: “The guidance is there for managers and employees to discuss and address considerations such as role requirements, personal tax, salary, expenses, etc.”

Flexibility about the particulars (and pay) of remote work could give Microsoft an advantage when it comes to hiring and retaining remote workers, especially since firms such as Google have recently embraced similar policies. But that’s only part of the equation; once Microsoft (and other companies) settle into this new paradigm of remote and flexible work, they’ll need to pay close attention to employees’ mental health and work-life balance.

This summer, Dice’s COVID-19 Sentiment Survey found that, although technologists are largely getting used to remote work, roughly one-third are dealing with a significantly increased workload. Meanwhile, fears over job security and the state of the world are also weighing on technologists, according to a recent survey by Blind. That’s a potential recipe for burnout.

Good mental health in the context of remote and flexible work, in other words, hinges on constant monitoring of employee workloads, along with tight communication loops and managers’ “temperature taking” of employees (metaphorical, not literal). Companies should build these check-ins into the schedule, if possible, but technologists may also need to be proactive and reach out to their manager about setting these up.  

For those employees who move to a different time-zone, it’s also important to firmly establish your schedule (and to respect the schedules of team members living in other time-zones). If you’re a team leader or project manager, it’s important to establish when everyone is “open” and “closed for business”—and have the rest of the team stick to those timetables.