Employers were so impressed with how smoothly their employees handled remote work during the dramatic lockdowns in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic that many are going permanently remote, ditching expensive office leases and allowing employees to communicate by email and Zoom.
Now, a new study of hundreds of billions of emails between workers at thousands of organizations globally in 2019 and 2020 reveals an unintended side-effect of remote operations: Many companies around the world became more siloed during the emergency work-at-home measures of 2020, with employees digitally splitting off into more isolated and well-defined communication networks, according to research by Harvard Business School Professor Tiona Zuzul.
The authors of the working paper stress that this shift is not necessarily negative, noting that communication within siloed groups intensified. Besides, these silos seem to have become the new norm. “Leaders have to understand that the medium of communication—a shift from in-person to online—can actually change who communicates with whom,” says Zuzul. “These changes occurred across organizations in 2020, even in areas long after work-at-home orders were lifted.”
Zuzul teamed up with 11 other researchers—including network scholars, theoretical statisticians, and computer scientists at the University of Washington, John Hopkins University, and Microsoft—to author the 2021 working paper, Dynamic Silos: Increased Modularity in Intra-organizational Communication Networks during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Zuzul is an assistant professor in the Strategy Unit at HBS and specializes in how leaders and organizations navigate new industries and periods of dramatic change.
Working with Microsoft data, researchers analyzed about 360 billion Outlook emails sent among 1.4 billion email accounts at 4,361 organizations over 24 months in 2019, the year before the pandemic, and 2020, the year the pandemic spread across the globe. They also analyzed changes in communication within Microsoft, including shifts in employees’ scheduled meetings and Teams chats. The researchers were not given access to the contents of the emails, meetings, and chats, only their frequency rates within organizations and the communication patterns they revealed.
The sheer size and scope of the project is remarkable, Zuzul notes; just processing and sorting the data took 55,000 computer hours. “It’s an astounding amount of data,” she says.
In an initial analysis, the researchers found that the total number of global emails spiked after lockdowns and work-at-home orders were issued in early 2020. Their next goal was to determine the modularity of networks—or the degree to which a network is divided into “communities,” or silos—before and after lockdowns were imposed in early 2020.
Using models and so-called “network maps” to plot communication patterns, the authors uncovered increased modularity, or siloing, both within organizations across the globe and within Microsoft, as employees broke off into subgroups that largely conversed among themselves from home. Within these insular groups, the authors found that communication often intensified.
As an example, employees at Microsoft saw a significant increase in siloing in their scheduled meetings, email communication, and Teams messages once a company-wide work-at-home order was issued in early 2020, the paper says.
Researchers also analyzed the rate of churn, or the coming and going of members within silos, to measure the stability of communities within organizations. The authors saw an increase in turnover within communities, meaning silos were less stable after employees began working more regularly from home.
“The observed changes suggest that serendipitous, in-person interactions with those outside one’s community may not be replaced by digital communication,” the authors write. “Instead, employees might reduce communication with people outside their well-defined work groups once they no longer interact in-person.”
That begs the question: Are silos a problem? The authors’ firm response: “The increased siloing we observe need not be feared,” according to the paper.
Zuzul says the research team actually contemplated not using the word “silo,” since it “has such a negative connotation, even though there are proven benefits to siloing.” They ultimately decided “silo” was such a ubiquitous term that it couldn’t be avoided. Clearly, siloing existed before the pandemic and differed between firms and even countries, the authors note.
To Zuzul, the more important question companies should ask as they contemplate the future of work is: What pros and cons should they weigh when making decisions about remote work?
While previous studies have revealed that spontaneous in-person interactions, including classic “watercooler” conversations, can lead to better cross-departmental sharing of ideas, the increased siloing that comes with remote work may also have positive outcomes, Zuzul says. For example, it may allow like-minded people to spend less time commuting to and from work and more time discussing innovative new ideas with one another.
Plus, she notes, other studies have shown that remote work can actually increase productivity, employee morale, and even innovation.
“There are tradeoffs,” says Zuzul. “Leaders have to understand this. The major lesson for employers is there’s been a shift in our communication networks as a result of the pandemic, and that this shift has to shape future decisions about organizational design.”
[Image: Unsplash/Mick Haupt]