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When everyone works remotely, communication and collaboration suffer – study

Working from home causes workers to become more siloed in how they communicate, engage in fewer real-time conversations, and spend fewer hours in meetings.

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As companies debate the impact of large-scale remote work, a new study of over 61,000 Microsoft employees found that working from home causes workers to become more siloed in how they communicate, engage in fewer real-time conversations, and spend fewer hours in meetings.

The study, published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour and co-authored by Berkeley Haas Asst. Prof. David Holtz, made use of data from before and after Microsoft imposed a company-wide work-from-home mandate in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The findings suggest that a full-time remote workforce may have a harder time acquiring and sharing new information—which could have implications for productivity and innovation among information workers down the road.

“Measuring the causal effects of remote work has historically been difficult, because only certain types of workers were allowed to work away from the office. That changed during the pandemic, when almost everyone who could work from home was required to do so,” said Holtz, who conducted the research as an MIT Sloan doctoral intern at Microsoft, and co-wrote the paper with Microsoft colleagues Longqi Yang, Sonia Jaffe, Siddharth Suri, and seven others. “The work-from-home mandate created a unique opportunity to identify the effects of company-wide remote work on how information workers communicate and collaborate.” 

The analysis was based on anonymized data describing the emails, instant messages, calls, meetings, and working hours—all stripped of their content and identifying information—of the overwhelming majority of Microsoft’s U.S. employees. 

Holtz, a faculty affiliate at the Berkeley Institute for Data Science and research affiliate at the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, said that while the pandemic offered a rare opportunity to study the impact of firm-wide remote work, significant effort was required to understand the extent to which changes in behavior were caused by remote work in particular rather than the upheaval of the pandemic itself. After all, workers suddenly found themselves navigating shelter-in-place orders and supply shortages, caring for children home from school or vulnerable relatives, and coping with general stress and anxiety.

Microsoft, where 18% of employees were working remotely before the company issued its work-from-home mandate, offered the opportunity for comparison. The authors separated out the effects of remote work from other effects of the pandemic by using a statistical technique to compare those Microsoft employees who were already working from home with those who abruptly shifted online during the pandemic.

The researchers had access to anonymized data on employees’ roles, managerial status, business group, length of tenure at the company, and what share of their co-workers were remote prior to the pandemic; they matched groups of workers with similar observable characteristics. They also used aggregated weekly summaries of the amount of time workers spent in scheduled and unscheduled meetings and calls, the number of emails and instant messages they sent, and the length of their workweeks, as well as monthly summaries of workers’ collaboration networks.

Among their key findings:  

  • Company-wide remote work caused workers’ collaboration networks to become less interconnected and more siloed. They communicated less frequently with people in other formal and informal business groups.
  • Remote work caused workers to spend about 25% less of their time collaborating with colleagues across groups, compared to pre-pandemic levels. Remote work also caused workers to add new collaborators more slowly.
  • Conversely, remote work led workers to communicate more frequently with people in their inner network, and to build more connections within that inner network.
  • Remote work caused workers to spend more time using asynchronous forms of communication, such as email and message platforms, and less time having synchronous conversations in person, by phone, or by video conference.
  • Remote work also caused the number of hours people spent in meetings to decrease by about 5%, suggesting that the increase in meetings many experienced during the pandemic was not due to remote work, but due to other pandemic-related factors.  

Holtz said that the team was also able to separate the effects of company-wide remote work into two separate components: how your own collaboration patterns are affected when you work remotely, and how your collaboration patterns are affected when your collaborators are working remotely. They concluded that both are important.

“The fact that your colleagues’ remote work status affects your own work habits has major implications for companies that are considering hybrid or mixed-mode work policies,” he said. For example, having one’s teammates and collaborators in the office at the same time improves communication and information flow for both those in and out of the office. “It’s important to be thoughtful about how these policies are implemented.”

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Remote work doesn’t negatively affect productivity, study suggests

Employee and company resiliency may be enhanced through the opportunity for employees to work remotely during natural disasters and other events that cause workplace displacement.

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Photo by Avi Richards from Unsplash.com

A research team from the Texas A&M University School of Public Health found that employee and company resiliency may be enhanced through the opportunity for employees to work remotely during natural disasters and other events that cause workplace displacement.

The team, which was comprised of Kamrie Sarnosky, Mark Benden, Garett Sansom, Leslie Cizmas and Annette Regan, worked with a large oil and gas company in Houston, Texas, to analyze ergonomic software data from 264 employees. During the study period, the company was forced to close its offices because of flooding from Hurricane Harvey, which required employees to work remotely for an extended period.

The researchers looked at employee technology data before, during and after Hurricane Harvey. They found that although total computer use declined during the hurricane, employees’ work behaviors during the seven-month period of working remotely returned to pre-hurricane levels. This finding suggests that remote work does not negatively impact workplace productivity.

This study, which was published in IOS Press in February, offers important insights into information workers who have become increasingly used to and interested in working remotely as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In the future, there will be a greater percentage of the workforce who is involved in some sort of office-style technology work activities,” said Benden, who is director of the school’s Ergonomics Center. “Almost all of the study’s employees were right back up to the same level of output as they were doing before Hurricane Harvey. This is a huge message right now for employers because we’re having national debates about whether or not employees should be able to work remotely or in a hybrid schedule.”

This study is part of a large effort by the Ergonomics Center that is looking at the health of information workers. Although seemingly less taxing than blue-collar work, information workers are prone to injury such as carpal tunnel syndrome. “The research says that if you work a certain way at a certain pace over a certain duration, you’re more likely to become injured from that work,” Benden said. “But if you work a little less or a little less often or break up the duration or have certain other character traits — like posture — then you’re less likely to develop a problem from doing your office work.”

The Texas A&M researchers believe this information can be used to promote healthy behaviors for employees, including those working remotely, and to inform corporate policies. They also will be looking at tracking the ergonomic environment in employees’ home offices. The team believes that tracking this type of data can help companies address remote employee health issues, including stress, depression and substance abuse.

“The question was whether we could track people and rather than letting them stay in a bad place, a bad habit or bad behavior, could we give them a healthful nudge over the computer to remind them that it was time to take a walk or a break,” Benden said. “We as humans are not very good at keeping track of time, especially when we’re in the zone. In order to keep us from physically hurting our bodies, we need to have nudges and reminders, which people respond to, and which work really well.”

Benden noted that taking breaks does not hinder employees’ quality of work.

“The people who took the recommended breaks were more productive overall. They got more done,” he said. “We need to learn this about people, we need to teach people about it, and then we need to help people actually do it.”

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Loud and clear: High-energy ads keep viewers tuned in, study shows

“By matching the energy level of ad content with consumers’ state of mind, we believe advertisers can expect higher levels of acceptance and effectiveness of their messages.”

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Photo by @theblowup from Unsplash.com

TV advertising has become not only high-volume, but increasingly high-energy — a trend noticed by academics and practitioners.

A new study from the University of Notre Dame confirms the shift and shows that advertisers should pay attention to components of ad content other than loudness, which has been regulated by law.

More energetic commercials are likely to be tuned in more or avoided less by viewers, according to “High-Energy Ad Content: A Large-Scale Investigation of TV Commercials,” forthcoming in the Journal of Marketing Research from Joonhyuk Yang, assistant professor of marketing at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business.

After examining more than 27,000 TV commercials on major U.S. networks from 2015 to 2018 and almost all Super Bowl ads from 1969 to 2020, the researchers noted that, overall, more energetic commercials hold viewers’ attention.

The study measures the energy levels in commercials based on Spotify’s measure of energy in song tracks. Spotify defines energy as “a perceptual measure of intensity and powerful activity released throughout the track. Typical energetic tracks feel fast, loud, and noisy.” The paper’s measure of energy levels in commercials is highly correlated with people’s psychological state of “arousal,” or “the subjective experience of energy mobilization, which can be conceptualized as an affective dimension ranging from sleepy to frantic excitement.”

The top five keywords mentioned by the paper’s survey participants regarding high-energy commercials were “fast,” “music,” “movement,” “upbeat” and “exciting.”

The team first presented a framework to algorithmically measure the energy level in ad content from the video of ads. They then compared this measure with human-perceived energy levels, showing they’re related to the level of arousal stimulated by ad content.

“The positive association between energy levels in ad content and ad-tuning is statistically significant after controlling for placement and other aspects of commercials,” Yang said.

The study also finds the association varies across product categories and program genres.

“High-energy food and beverage commercials are likely to be viewed longer when placed within entertainment and news programs, but not in sports programs,” Yang said, “while energetic health and beauty commercials are viewed for shorter periods of time when placed in sports programs.”

Targeted advertising has typically focused on who audiences are, as well as their locations and behaviors. This study suggests adding another dimension — the emotional or psychological state of the audience.

“By matching the energy level of ad content with consumers’ state of mind, we believe advertisers can expect higher levels of acceptance and effectiveness of their messages,” Yang said. “For instance, advertisers might want to vary the energy level of their ad content between day and night.”

Relatedly, advertisers and television networks boost the audio of ads, making the volume much louder than the programs in which they are aired, assuming this draws attention to the ads and makes people less likely to ignore or avoid them.

This practice became so prevalent that it raised concerns about the health effects of loudness on viewing audiences, leading to regulatory limitations on how much louder ads can be than the programs in which they are placed. The resulting CALM (Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation) Act passed in 2010 limits the average loudness of an ad to no more than the average loudness of the program in which it is aired.

Advertisers and networks, therefore, cannot continue to rely on loudness as a means of attracting attention to reduce ad avoidance. This forces advertisers to figure out ways to be creative in using audio to attract and retain audience attention.

Yang recommends advertisers conduct A/B tests with multiple designs of ad creatives. A/B testing splits an audience to test a number of variations to determine which performs better — for example, showing version A to one half of an audience and version B to the other; or alternating A and B across time.

“Recall that the effect varies across product markets and likely across media outlets, including digital advertising,” Yang said. “I hope this study motivates the initiation of such testing as well as for providing initial guidelines on designing such studies. Also, we want to showcase the importance of careful feature engineering of ad content when relating it to consumer behavior. I would be more than happy to help practitioners who are interested in moving forward.”

Co-authors of the study include Yingkang Xie and Lakshman Krishnamurthi from Northwestern University and Purushottam Papatla from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

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Can bad reviews be good for business? New research says yes

When negative comments come from a socially distant source, a negative review actually increases purchase intentions – and that is a game changer.

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Negative online reviews and low-star ratings are generally known to be bad for brands, so much that there are entire businesses devoted to reversing the damage. But a new study from the UBC Sauder School of Business found that this isn’t always the case.

UBC Sauder Associate Professor Dr. Lisa Cavanaugh (she/her) and her research team have found that negative online comments have little effect in cases where brand relationships are strong and consumers personally identify with a brand’s products. In some instances, they found negative reviews can actually have positive effects for brands.

“When consumers personally identify with a brand, they see facets of themselves in that brand,” Dr. Cavanaugh said. “When a reviewer leaves a disparaging comment about an identity-relevant brand, consumers feel compelled to protect the brand, and by extension themselves, by scrutinizing the source of the negative review.”

Photo by Karsten Winegeart from Unsplash.coom

Social proximity matters when it comes to reviews

The researchers found that the social proximity (e.g., demographic or geographic location) of a negative reviewer plays a critical role in how consumers respond to a negative review.

For the study, researchers conducted sixteen different experiments using identity-relevant brands, which are companies that consumers tend to feel strongly about and personally identify with, such as Apple, Tim Hortons, Roots, and NFL football.

In one experiment, researchers surveyed NFL fans, asking them about their reactions to negative or positive online reviews of an NFL-branded sweatshirt. They found that if the reviewer’s profile reflected a different social demographic, or a distant location, a negative review could actually boost the participant’s interest in buying the sweatshirt even more than a positive review did.

A similar case was also observed where a negative review from a person in distant social proximity increased the likelihood participants would buy an Apple watch.  And in another experiment involving President’s Choice packaged coffee, participants who read a negative review by a socially distant reviewer demonstrated a 6 to 12 per cent boost in their interest in purchasing the product.

“Marketers have generally assumed that when people say positive things, purchase interest increases, and when people say negative things, purchase interest decreases,” says Dr. Cavanaugh, who co-authored the study with Boston College’s Dr. Nailya Ordabayeva, and UBC Sauder Professor Dr. Darren Dahl. “But when negative comments come from a socially distant source, a negative review actually increases purchase intentions – and that is a game changer.” 

Dr. Cavanaugh explains that when we read negative reviews coming from someone we perceive as socially closer (e.g., maybe they share a national identity, they are a fellow student, or they like the same music) we tend to listen and accept what they have to say, causing us to downgrade our assessment of the product, as well as our willingness to purchase it.

“But when that negative review comes from a socially distant person, it is an entirely different story. You will scrutinize the source of the review and look for reasons not to believe it, specifically when it’s an identity-relevant brand, “she said. 

Bad reviews are still bad for lesser-known brands

Businesses shouldn’t get too comfortable with poor reviews, however.

Researchers observed that if consumers don’t personally identify with the product or brand — if it’s a toilet brush as opposed to an Apple computer or Timbits, for example — they won’t be driven to defend it, so poor reviews will still pack a punch.

Dr. Cavanaugh says the research reinforces the importance of forging strong brand relationships with customers, and cultivating that coveted connection to people’s identities.

In terms of managing online reviews, she also points to the importance of displaying reviewers’ profiles and review histories so readers can more easily assess their social proximity and any pattern of negative reviews. And advises that, sometimes, doing nothing (i.e., allowing those negative reviews to be seen) is better when it comes to negative reviews of identity-relevant brands.

This study was published in the Journal of Marketing.

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