Making Sense of the Virtual Environment: The Power of People Analytics for Reflecting on the Pandemic

I have a soft spot for questions about remote work, so when I saw this article about Microsoft analyzing the effect of remote work on its employees, I was hooked: a team saw the past year of virtual as an incredible opportunity to learn about work and let their curiosity run wild! None of the findings in this study – the workday lengthened, managers are susceptible to burnout, and the boundaries between work and life have vanished, for example – are earth-shattering; they are, however, quantifiable and believable with the help of people analytics. One upshot of our “virtual experiment” is that we might have a better view of how we work – most, if not all, work communication passed through some semblance of email, Teams, Slack, or Zoom As a result, the network maps of our teams are more reliable – the default for sharing information has been through channels that capture our “digital exhaust.” Privacy concerns aside, we have a consistent setting to evaluate everything from job functions to company culture; rather than virtual being the “treatment,” it’s a control!


This article highlights the value of people analytics: structure for answering questions, giving employees a stronger voice, and just exploring data. Making strong statements such as “remote work is better/worse than in-person work” feels good – but we have limited data. Our own experiences (which are incredibly heterogeneous because our personal situations are different), the people in our network, and whatever we read to inform our thinking are helpful but could be fraught with bias. People analytics intervenes in this debate by reframing the question: instead of “which is better?” we can ask, “in what contexts does virtual fare better? What is the most effective use of in-person time?” The fact that Microsoft’s team published this article indicates that they understand that letting a team ask and answer questions such as remote work is valuable beyond refining our understanding of effective work.


People analytics also provides employees with a more robust channel for upward feedback. The switch to 30-minute meetings within Microsoft came from employees; using people analytics, this pivot was linked to sentiment surveys and then set as a norm. Employee data is literally the “voice of the people,” and as long as they use their power for good, people analytics can establish credibility quickly by reporting on employee trends and acting on straightforward recommendations (such as shorter meetings).


As you reflect on your experience in the “virtual environment” for the past year, apply some structure to your observations. Why did you like/dislike virtual classes or a virtual internship? What parts of work and school mapped well/poorly to this new format? How specific can you be in your observations? I am challenging myself to collect and preserve these reflections and hypotheses before I return to work – and I’d be happy to start a discussion with you about yours once we finish the semester! In my mind, these are the same questions that people analytics should ask on a larger scale, as Microsoft demonstrates. But, given how eagerly we are to emerge from the pandemic, it will be easy to eschew these activities for “business as usual” and deprioritize this type of analysis as “nice to have.” As “people analytics ambassadors,” we should encourage our teams and leaders take time to reflect and explore the treasure trove of data available for this unique episode with curiosity like Microsoft. The secrets to the future of work (or at least, working better) could be right in front of us – we just need to create the space to see.



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Student comments on Making Sense of the Virtual Environment: The Power of People Analytics for Reflecting on the Pandemic

  1. I think this is a timely topic, as it is useful to reflect on how the virtual year has affected our studies and internships, and the pros and cons of each. Indeed, as you said, if we reflect deeply on the pros and cons and more importantly on why such pros and cons, then we could incorporate best practices in people analytics to continue in the future. For example, Zoom has allowed some interns greater flexibility and confidence in speaking up and raising their hands, compared with regular in person meetings. So, a company could consider having both in-person and Zoom meetings on alternate weeks, once or twice a month, to suit the preferences of both extroverts and introverts. I wonder whether Zoom will be organizing such studies given that it seems to be one of the more popular platforms?

  2. Great post, Matt. The line that stuck out to me was, ” as long as they use their power for good” in relation to the voice of the people creating recommendations through analytics. In my slightly pessimistic view here, I’m curious about the bounds that an average employee would have once they realize how the system is being used to alter their future work environment. The shorter work meetings recommendation could easily be the precursor to recommending a shorter work day, more vacation, and less pressure in general. Companies will have to ask themselves whether or not the employees best interest is in the best interest of the company.

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