Microsoft CEO Not a Huge Fan of Remote Work During COVID-19

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella isn’t as big on remote work as some of his executive peers, according to a short interview with The New York Times.

Other large tech companies have wholeheartedly embraced the new paradigm of working from home. At Twitter, for example, CEO Jack Dorsey has said that remote work will become permanent for all but essential employees, even after COVID-19 fades away; at Google and Facebook, meanwhile, there are no plans to usher many employees back into the office before the beginning of 2021, at least. 

Nadella, however, seems concerned that remote work robs employees of participating in a full-fledged community, and might have deep psychological consequences. “What does burnout look like?” He rhetorically asked the Times. “What does mental health look like? What does that connectivity and the community building look like? One of the things I feel is, hey, maybe we are burning some of the social capital we built up in this phase where we are all working remote. What’s the measure for that?”

Nadella also seems big on spontaneous get-togethers between employees: “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.”

Back in the pre-COVID era, many tech companies designed office spaces in order to encourage random run-ins between employees; in theory, that would lead to increased communication and collaboration. Whether or not such cooperation actually happened is a big question, especially given many tech employees’ distrust of open-office concepts. In any case, it seems like Nadella was a fan of in-person interaction—and he seems unlikely to request that the bulk of Microsoft employees work from home even after the COVID crisis passes.

His point about the burnout and mental-health consequences of extended work-from-home, though, speaks to an issue impacting the entire tech industry at the moment as it figures out remote work policies. Dice’s ongoing COVID-19 Sentiment Survey has found that, although technologists are largely getting used to remote work, roughly one-third are dealing with a significantly increased workload, which in turn can quickly lead to burnout. 

Fortunately, that means a majority of technologists have either experienced no increase in workload, or just a somewhat moderate increase. But workload isn’t the sole cause of burnout; fears over job security, and a perception of lack of control, were also prominent factors in a recent survey by Blind, which has been anonymously polling technologists about their responses to COVID-19. 

The key to solid mental health during an extended work-from-home situation, in other words, hinges on constant monitoring of employee workloads—as well as solid communication and “temperature taking.” Build these check-ins into the schedule, if possible; sometimes, an employee may need to be proactive and reach out to their manager about setting these up.  

For geographically dispersed employees working in multiple time-zones, an intense awareness of everyone’s schedule is also key; it’s very easy for a worker to end up working far too many hours in order to accommodate everyone’s wildly divergent schedules. 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.   

Visit our COVID-19 Resource Center, which aims to provide the tech community with the best, most up-to-date information on the novel coronavirus. 

13 Responses to “Microsoft CEO Not a Huge Fan of Remote Work During COVID-19”

  1. RonnieD

    Microsoft has been killing it lately, and this man is a big part of their success and strategy. MAYBE, he has a point!
    ‘observe due measure; moderation is best in all things’,
    There is a concept of “Total Cost of Ownership” = and we are not far enough into this to know the ‘true’ cost associated with always working at home?

    • Hassan

      “not far enough into this” ?? Lots of people (myself included) have been happily working remote for much longer than the last couple of months. But discussing the “true” cost of WFH assumes you’ve calculated the “true” cost of office work including commuting (time/money/health risks), clothing/laundry, food, and how those costs are split between employer and employee.

      And it would be hard to compare mental health aspects of WFH vs office when we’re in the middle of a pandemic forcing parents to be full-time caregivers/homeschoolers, limiting access to recreation, coworking facilities, etc. etc. It’s not just “oh, we do meetings by Zoom now” 🙂

      • Evan L Kalbach

        I find working working from home more productive than working in office due to fewer interruptions. Staying in touch and keeping tack of other users and status of project is also not an issues. We use Webex Teams but there are many solutions for Team Collab. There are some managers/bosses that do not like this approach and most of those are due to micro-managing. Big swing to working from home after 9/11 that slowly reverted. Same will happen here but it can’t be denied that more work is accomplished at a reduced cost to the company. Providing an employee a seat (even if tiny) in an office is insanely expensive.

  2. CEOs might want to be in the office but I 90% guarantee you that the tech workers are more productive at home they’re saving money at home and have no reason to physically be in the office ever we can all do the same job from home that we can do by polluting the environment wasting a bunch of money by being in an office

  3. Just be HE likes to chat after a meeting with his colleagues doesn’t mean that others do. I hightail it out of meetings to get back to my cube so I can do real work.

    For him to project his feelings on others and assuming that we all love chit chatting in the office is really short sighted and I can’t believe he became a CEO by being such.

  4. I mean he does have a point. Before covid all / many companies wanted employees back on site and limit WFH. Humans work together best when physically co located training, collaborating work best this way, no denying it….. And yes I like WFH at times

    • I bet he works from wherever he wants whenever he wants. For techies who are required to be available 24 hours a day and login from anywhere to keep things running and then have a policy that requires you to be in office is ridiculous. If people have mental fallout from WFH then they had issues before.

  5. Wy Skur

    This is a smoke screen. It is more about distrust of employees and not being able to keep tabs on them than it is about their mental health. While some people might need personal interaction, there are many tools that people can use to collaborate and still feel connected. The benefits of work from home are being ignored. For example, the quiet that allows people to concentrate instead of the noise in open cube farms. The savings to companies who don’t have to pay for large offices. The reduced stress of not having to fight traffic. The reduced health care costs because of that stress. The time that employees get back and can spend with their families or doing things to relax. The reduced carbon footprint that is so badly needed when it comes to global warming. The lack of disease spread when the next pandemic happens. His myopic view dismisses all of the benefits all because some employees want in person interaction.

  6. Mansoor

    I bet he is in office everyday, right? Most of these CEOs are on the road (remote meetings, meetings, meetiung board members off location, etc.), so why would he care what others think or feel about? Plus, it is not as if we currently have a choice and mental health over possible demise, you decide which is the top priority here!

  7. Robert Brady

    There is a lot that can be said for team collaboration and innovation in a tight office setting but under current realities the rush to get assembly lines and slaughter houses running again have met with setbacks and re-closures when people are tightly packed together. Fortunately, IT people are in a particularly good position to exploit technologies that enhance virtual teamwork while maintaining social distancing. Success, as always, involves good communication, managing the process and solid infrastructure. I have been interacting with global teams for the past two decades — the vast majority I have never met — so when COVID-19 hit we were able to adapt, hit the ground running and in many cases innovate new ways to work in teams without risking downtime due to illness. Is it nice to meet everybody, shake hands and get together for lunch? Sure. Does it make sense now? No. Until science catches up with the disease, it’s best we focus on winning the war by being productive and mastering new collaborative technologies.

  8. John Smith

    I’m willing to bet this is also about payscale. As folks in Seattle live in an expensive area, they are compensated more. With remote working, you can be anywhere making that money. Microsoft and other tech companies it’s only want to pay you based on where you are, not what you are worth. Facebook just announced they are going to cut pay for those who have been remote working outside of the Bay Area.