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In the midst of numerous and difficult circumstances brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve made important observations about the future of work, and how and where our employees know they work best. What we’re learning and understanding has led us to use this period in time to grow and evolve our hybrid workplace, building additional capabilities to help our employees, customers and businesses continue to thrive.

In March last year, I sent an email to our employees worldwide, indicating we were instituting a mandatory work-from-home policy for our global work sites, excepting essential on-site workers. As of today, after over a year in which most Microsoft employees have worked remotely, several of our work sites around the globe have reached a stage that meets or exceeds government requirements to accommodate more workers, while many other employees will continue to work remotely. Currently, Microsoft work sites in 21 countries have been able to accommodate additional workers in our facilities – representing around 20% of our global employee population. On March 29, Microsoft will also start making this shift at our Redmond, Washington, headquarters and nearby campuses.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, our No. 1 priority has been the well-being and safety of our people. We have never stopped monitoring local health data and tracking government requirements to determine when our campuses could safely accommodate additional workers onsite. As some employees return to our global work sites and others prefer or need to work remotely, we are finding additional ways of putting our hybrid workplace into practice. At each of our global work sites, the hybrid workplace model strikes a balance, providing limited additional services on campus for those who choose to return, while supporting those who need to work remotely or feel more comfortable doing so. Our goal is to give employees further flexibility, allowing people to work where they feel most productive and comfortable, while also encouraging employees to work from home as the virus and related variants remain concerning.

Taking the example of our Redmond campus, we’ve been closely monitoring local health data for months and have determined that the campus can safely accommodate more employees on-site while staying aligned to Washington state capacity limits. As we watch for progress against the virus in the region and continue to evaluate our guidance, employees who work at Redmond work sites or nearby campuses have the choice to return to those facilities or to continue working remotely, and also have the flexibility to do a mixture of both.

Although we cannot predict everything the coming months have in store, we are prepared to face them with a growth mindset – learning, reevaluating and updating our response as needed.

The road to our evolved hybrid workplace

Flashing back one year, we were quickly learning that the virus and its impact were too complex to predict. While we initially tried to provide guidance anchored to specific timelines and the phases through which the pandemic would likely progress, we did not understand it well enough to accurately predict when each of those phases would occur. We soon discovered that we needed to develop a return-to-work site strategy that could account for constantly changing public health conditions and government guidance in order to keep our employees and communities safe. We also needed to drive a consistent approach across geographies, creating a unified COVID-19 response effort within the company.

With this in mind, we developed a Hybrid Workplace Dial that anchors to six defined stages – rather than specific timelines – and allows us to quickly adjust our work sites depending on health conditions, while also staying data-driven in our decision-making. The dial helps us assign a stage to each of our work sites depending on the current local health data and government guidance. The dial can go in both directions – moving a work site forward when local disease burden improves, and also dialing back when we observe declines in progress. Each stage is defined by a set of data-driven criteria (e.g. trends in cases and deaths and government guidelines) as well as site readiness assessments, and carries with it a set of prescribed policies and actions.

For example, while Stages 4 and 5 offer limited or augmented options for workers who choose to be on-site, employees are encouraged to work remotely while their site remains in Stages 1-5 and should not feel they need to return. In Stage 6, COVID-19 is no longer a significant burden on the local community and presents itself more like an endemic virus such as the seasonal flu. In this final stage of the dial, most pandemic-specific work site requirements and prevention measures are removed, enabling nearly all campus services to return. In the case of the Redmond campus, the shift planned for March 29 will represent a move on the dial from Stage 3 to Stage 4.

Six stages of the COVID-19 hybrid workplace

As some of our campuses around the world are able to accommodate more employees based on meeting or exceeding local public health requirements, we are taking necessary precautions to create a safe experience, and personal accountability will be vital to maintaining it. At each of our campuses that are in Stages 1-5, we are taking a cautious approach that includes social distancing of workspaces, face coverings, extensive cleaning procedures, daily health attestations, attendance strategies and more.

The changes to our workplace as a result of these shifts are substantial, but we believe in the concept and power of this return-to-work site strategy that aligns to our core principles:

  • Physical, mental and emotional well-being are our top priority.
  • We support employee needs and offer flexibility to work remotely and at the Microsoft workplace, as conditions allow.
  • We continue to serve our customers and continue critical business operations.
  • We meet or exceed regulations, such as local, government and/or public health guidance.

Taking a pulse of thousands of employees who have returned to Microsoft work sites in some capacity, we’re observing employees are embracing the flexibility to split their time between a Microsoft office and home. Based on the data, we see that 54% of survey respondents who have chosen to return in Stage 4 are spending less than 25% of their time at one of our work sites. Furthermore, 69% are spending 50% or less time on-site. We understand these responses are based on the current landscape where many employees are not yet vaccinated and many schools remain closed. We’ll continue to listen and incorporate employee feedback as conditions and circumstances evolve.

Work site changes to keep employees safe

Each of us recognizes the workplace isn’t the same place now as when we left it. Since most of us started working off-site last year, our teams have implemented a variety of health and safety measures to ensure we’re meeting, and in many cases, exceeding requirements set by local public health officials. This effort translates to numerous protective actions to align to our No. 1 priority of protecting the well-being of our employees:

  • We have assessed all Microsoft work sites to understand what adjustments are needed to enable social distancing and meet local health standards and will provide all employees and external staff personal supplies such as disinfectant wipes and face coverings to use while on-site.
  • To meet local capacity guidelines and social distancing requirements, we have implemented attendance strategies for team-based or open/shared spaces, physical space adjustments when needed, or a combination of both based on organizational needs.
  • We have adjusted our facilities and a number of on-site service offerings. For example, we have limited capacity in conference rooms and Microsoft transportation services, posted signage in common areas and cafeterias to ensure social distancing, and provided hand sanitizers throughout our buildings.
  • We have established similar, consistent standards that apply to our employees when they travel to our other work sites and for customers and partners when they visit our sites.

While vaccination rates continue to rise and are critical to easing the disease burden in our communities, the current rates do not lessen our on-site precautions or expectations at most of our work sites. We continue to monitor the impact of the vaccine as well as public health guidance to advise on any changes to our workplace, as needed.

Moving forward in a hybrid, modern workplace

Looking ahead, we know that hybrid work requires a new operating model and strategy that encompasses flexible work policy, inclusive space design and innovative technology solutions. The modern workplace requires companies to meet new employee expectations, connect a more distributed workforce, and provide tools to create, innovate and work together to solve business problems. As a way to share workplace insights observed in the past year and what we can expect in the future, earlier today we released the 2021 Work Trend Index which includes new data, deep research and expert insights leaders should consider as the era of hybrid work unfolds.

We believe in the value of bringing people together in the workplace. Having facilities around the globe enriches our culture with new ideas, fresh perspectives and unique local viewpoints that help us continue learning from each other. From innovation labs to briefing centers, being near our customers and having more touchpoints helps us better understand customer and partner needs, adding value to the great work we’re doing together.

We remain committed to delivering spaces that anticipate the different ways teams need to work together while providing the flexibility and agility we now require. We take a thoughtful, research-driven approach to designing our workplaces and feel confident that we can still enable a collaborative, healthy and safe environment with minimal changes required to our foundational design strategy of inclusivity. Microsoft standardizes inclusive design at our global work sites and we draw on the full range of human diversity to ensure every office space we create benefits people universally. Whether employees are working from home, at the workplace or utilizing many of the outdoor collaboration spaces we have at our work sites, our approach seeks to create a sense of belonging and helps teams stay connected however they choose to work.

Additionally, we’ve pulled together a group of Microsoft researchers, engineers and real estate and facilities experts to prototype hybrid meeting spaces at our Redmond, Washington, and U.K. campuses. The group is investigating different meeting configurations and technologies like multiple screens, cameras and mixed reality scenarios to understand the most effective, inclusive set-up for hybrid work. It’s still early days, but we’ve explored solutions that range from simply reconfiguring existing technologies to designing exciting new Microsoft Teams innovations for hybrid work.

Empowering remote productivity remains a requirement that will involve new collaboration tools, robust cloud infrastructure and a new way of thinking about network security. We also recognize that hybrid work presents new challenges like making sure everyone feels included and engaged regardless of role or location. It is important that we are intentional about creating space for inclusive conversations and define new ways of working together. To that end, we’re supporting the hybrid work evolution through innovations within our technology tools to help people navigate both remote and hybrid work environments (e.g. Together Mode, Microsoft Whiteboard in Teams and Microsoft Teams rooms with features like intelligent capture).

Though we don’t know how far off a new normal is, we are adapting to a new way of working with an expanded understanding of flexibility. We know there are thousands of ways of working – in the last year our employees have shown what is possible – and we believe that flexibility is essential to maintaining work-life balance.

Frequent and transparent communication with our employees has become more critical than ever, establishing a meaningful feedback loop that allows us all to learn and iterate. Based on employee feedback, we know that some are looking forward to returning to the work site while others prefer or need to continue working off-site. Our goal is to give employees additional flexibility to support individual work styles, balance business needs and ensure we live our culture. We also understand that some jobs require employees to be on-site, such as roles that support critical infrastructure, while other jobs are performed just as well remotely. Once we reach a point where COVID-19 no longer presents a significant burden on our communities, and as our sites move to the open stage of the dial, we view working from home part of the time (less than 50%) as standard for most roles – assuming manager and team alignment. Now and in the future, we have an opportunity to reexamine traditional notions of aligning particular jobs to particular settings.

With our hybrid workplace model, we will provide employees an exceptional place to work, create greater collaboration and community for over 160,000 people who work at Microsoft, and showcase an example of the modern workplace that is both flexible and hybrid.

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