Managing software engineers remotely at Microsoft: Recommendations for bridging the remote work chasm
Casey Borovsky, Cami Katz, Sophia Solé, Sidney Wilson
Faculty Mentor: Riitta Katila
Since its founding in 1975, Microsoft has retained its position as a leader in the computer hardware, consumer electronics, software development, and cloud computing industries. They operate across five different segments (Windows & Windows Live, Server & Tools, Online Services, Microsoft Business Division, Entertainment & Devices) with over 163,000 employees. Their employees are spread across offices in the United States, India, China, Canada, Australia, Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom. 54,000 employees are based in their Washington headquarters, 96,000 are located in U.S. offices (including those based in Washington) and 67,000 employees are distributed globally across their seven international offices. Prior to March 2020, Microsoft employees worked almost exclusively in person with limited remote work experience. Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, Microsoft announced that they would be moving to a fully remote workforce. In October 2020, Microsoft announced its adoption of a post pandemic “hybrid model” in which employees can choose to work remotely with approval from their manager. This policy remains dependent on employees’ roles.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues and organizations consider the benefits of hybrid policies, there is growing concern at Microsoft over how to address the challenges associated with remote work. These include distinguishing between the role of a manager and the role of a leader in a remote context, changes to learning, unprecedented challenges with regard to collaboration and communication, and lack of connectedness among team members.
Solutions and methods used
We used two methods—literature review (+20 sources) and interviews with Microsoft employees —to answer the question of how to best manage in a remote context. We interviewed 15 individuals in total—8 managers and 7 engineers. Of the managers we interviewed, the majority had been at Microsoft for 10 years or more and managed a team composed of 5 individuals. Our interviews were 30 minutes each, during which we followed a predetermined set of questions which encouraged interviewees to share specific stories and personal experiences which provided us insight into their feelings about remote work, including its benefits and challenges.
- Presentation to Microsoft’s Engineering Systems Unit senior leadership
- 20 page report for Microsoft leaderships outlining current situation and recommendations for growth
- 2 practitioner oriented articles
Solutions and recommendations
Based on our findings we recommend that organizations keep the three C’s in mind moving forward:
- Setting “no-meeting” time blocks.
- Ending a meeting early if there is nothing left to say.
- Setting meeting expectations in the invite, including rules and questions to think about prior to attending.
- Prioritizing meetings based on the goal of the meeting and how they can contribute to achieving that goal.
- Starting meetings 5 minutes after the hour and ending 5 minutes before the end of the hour to give people time to go to the bathroom, stretch, socialize, etc. This provides individuals more time to context switch and process what occurred in the previous meeting. This practice can be challenging with 30-minute meetings (as it eliminates 10 minutes from an already short meeting), so the time can be shortened to 2-3 minutes to still allow for a quick break.
- Picking up on signals other than body language (such as randomly missing and being late to meetings, turning off the camera feature, forgetting to do the easy things, speaking with a low energy tone, and not actively participating in meetings) to determine when team members are struggling
- Adopting the practice of writing up one-page documents (in OneNote or Word) in response to team members’ ideas. Teams have used this method to brainstorm, give suggestions, and to share findings. Some teams have found that this formal documentation has improved their ability to edit and build upon ideas later on.
- Utilizing shared document repositories such as OneDrive to eliminate the need for direct communication. This reduces the time spent on video calls.
- Recording conversations and brainstorming sessions in order to more easily revisit them.
- Adopting the practice of pinging team members to ask for five minutes to chat about a question. Work to maintain the “hallway chat” feel by ensuring these conversations remain informal and as natural as possible.
- Setting weekly times to collaborate and brainstorm. One manager we interviewed noted the effectiveness of their two-hour weekly meetings with a peer to discuss team health, strategic matters, successful practices, and areas for growth.
- Leaning into the experience of working from home. This helps employees develop a sense of camaraderie and feel that they are “in it together.”
- Acknowledging that the experience of working from home during a pandemic is different and includes many additional challenges than just those of just working remotely.
- Allowing teammates to see background distractions including families, kids, and pets. This can serve as a window into co-workers personal lives, leading to enhanced social connectedness.
- Scheduling social events into the work day. Employees want to disconnect from their screen after work.