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Are your remote workers less engaged?

December 15, 2022   by Jason Contant

Worker gesturing during remote meeting

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Executives’ fears that remote workers are becoming less engaged and spontaneous when working online than they are while in the office may be unfounded, new research has determined.

One of executives’ biggest worries about remote work is the reduction in spontaneous meetings and conversations with employees. As such, a major driving argument for bringing employees back to the workplace is that remote workers are becoming less engaged over time, resulting in less frequent and spontaneous interactions with colleagues that are vital for both organizational performance and innovation, two authors wrote in a Harvard Business Review blog.

“But is this worry justified? New research on meetings show that it might not be,” Andrew Brodsky and Mike Tolliver wrote in the Dec. 6 blog, No, Remote Employees Aren’t Becoming Less Engaged.

“It turns out that employees have more short, one-on-one meetings compared to 2020, and those meetings are increasingly spontaneous (meaning they weren’t set up in advance on the calendar). While there are limitations to this data, it does suggest that employees are finding new ways to connect with each other — and that there are steps organizations can take to encourage them to continue to do so.”

Brodsky, assistant professor of management at McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin, partnered with Tolliver, director of product management at Vyopta, a software company that provides remote meeting and collaboration analytics for large organizations.

The two researched employee engagement and how the frequency of remote meetings have changed since the start of COVID-19 (Remote meetings were defined as those using remote video/audio conferencing software, meaning that at least one person was remote from others in attendance).

“Given the anecdotal evidence of workers recently disengaging or quiet quitting, we had originally predicted that one of the easiest ways to observe this effect would be a continual decrease in the number of times remote or hybrid coworkers were engaging — or meeting — with each other. However, we found quite the opposite.”

Group of businesspeople having a meeting in a boardroom

Brodsky and Tolliver gathered metadata from Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Webex meetings from 10 large global organizations (seven of which are Fortune 500 firms) spanning a variety of fields, including technology, healthcare, energy and financial services. They compared six-week snapshots of raw meeting counts from April through mid-May 2020 following COVID-19 lockdowns, and the same set of six weeks in 2021 and 2022.

The dataset included more than 48 million meetings for more than half a million employees. The data analysis uncovered some major ways remote meetings have changed since the pandemic first forced employees to work remotely:

  • Remote meetings have become more frequent — There were 60% more remote meetings per employee in 2022 as compared to 2020 (a change of an average of five to eight meetings per week per employee)
  • Meetings have become shorter — Since 2020, remote meetings have decreased in length by 25% from an average of 43 minutes per meeting in 2020 to 33 minutes in 2022
  • Meetings have become smaller — The average number of participants per meeting dropped by half from an average of 20 per meeting in 2020 to 10 in 2022. This change was driven predominantly by the increase in the proportion of one-on-one meetings rather than a decrease in the size of group meetings
  • Meetings have become more spontaneous — The blog authors were able to tell which meetings were scheduled via calendar invites and which were spontaneous. In 2020, only 17% of one-on-one meetings were unscheduled, but in 2022, 66% of such meetings were unscheduled.

“The combination of these findings presents an interesting picture: not that remote workers seem to be becoming less engaged, but rather — at least with respect to meetings — they are becoming more engaged with their colleagues,” Brodsky and Tolliver wrote in the blog. “This data also suggests that remote interactions are shifting to more closely mirror in-person interactions.”

“Whereas there have been substantial concerns that employees are missing out on the casual and spontaneous rich interactions that happen in-person, these findings indicate that remote employees may be beginning to compensate for the loss of those interactions by increasingly having impromptu meetings remotely.”

The authors acknowledged there are limitations to the data and that much more data is needed to fully understand all the implications of remote work.

“However, [the findings] do challenge the idea of what may be ‘lost’ about the in-office experience,” the blog said. “In fact, employees seem to have adapted over time with regard to remote meetings — they are increasingly efficient (shorter), more frequent, and more spontaneous. This suggests that remote workers seem to be compensating for losses due to working outside the office and are engaging in behaviors that are more and more similar to office work.”


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