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Microsoft is bringing more employees back to the offices, but it continues to learn key lessons on how to increase the productivity of hybrid and remote work in the Covid era. That slipped.

The latest survey of more than 150,000 Microsoft employees by the tech company’s HR analyst Dawn Klinghoffer and her team revealed a significant drop in team sentiment over home connections since the start of the mass pandemic. Microsoft reported that 91% of employees in April 2020 reported feeling connected, if not in a straight line. This was the basis for this data point as it was not recorded prior to Covid. The bond dropped to 75% by November 2020. was 79% in December 2020; and then fell to 71% in February of this year.

“The switch to remote work has slowly undermined the team connection,” said Klinghoffer in a report on Tuesday. “When Covid started, people were really focused on staying connected in new ways,” she says. “But over time it became more and more difficult to maintain these team connections.”

What didn’t work (note: virtual happy hour)

So what didn’t get the job done? One ineffective method, according to Kathleen Hogan, Microsoft’s chief people officer, was to attempt to lead by restoring team experiences in a virtual environment – from lunch to off-sites, to desk chats and happy hours.

“Our data shows us that our employees need to focus on the basics like work-life balance and prioritization first,” said Hogan, who spoke at the CNBC @ Work Summit on Tuesday, in an email to CNBC about the latest data with their appearance. “Only then can a spectrum of formal and informal points of contact such as moral events in the team help to strengthen team bonds.”

Hogan didn’t say that the virtual cocktail hour has no place in virtual work. Some teams may like it, while other teams make a living from virtual chat. “But the most important thing to me is that the basics must first be in place before these things can take effect,” Hogan wrote.

Microsoft executives who made this distinction have teams that continued to perform well during the pandemic compared to teams that suffer from collective fatigue. Managers who have taken on a larger role in helping individual employees prioritize tasks and balance work and family have kept team morale higher, according to the company’s survey data.

At Microsoft, managers with this focus often have weekly “1: 1” in which they can help employees set priorities and overcome challenges. But it’s not just “scheduled time” that pays off, says Hogan. Microsoft teams have also started allocating time for check-in at the start of meetings. “When work is busy it is easy to focus on work, but when managers take the time to show that they care about the whole person it strengthens the connection and morale of the whole team,” she explained.

Hybrid is the new permanent state

If it seems intuitive that managers are important to teams, that’s because it is.

“Managers have always been important,” says Hogan.

In fact, Microsoft manager programs and best practices were in place pre-pandemic rather than taking effect based on pandemic work dates. However, data from Microsoft suggests that helping managers be even more important in a digital world.

Microsoft is betting that the permanent status will be a hybrid work organization for many companies. This means that this emerging role of managers is critical to understanding and assisting with training and resources.

The 91% survey score on Team Connection that Microsoft tracked in April 2020 was a data point “that made us feel pretty good about it,” Hogan wrote to CNBC.

Getting back to that level is the goal of the hybrid era.

“As we adjust to the hybrid work, our job is to find ways to bring these levels back up to date,” she wrote.

During her comments at the CNBC @ Work Summit on Tuesday, Hogan added, “When we think about hybrid, it’s about empowering managers, empowering employees.”

For a company with employees in 190 countries, it is difficult to have one policy for everyone, especially in a work environment that is going through unprecedented change. Hybrid and remote work decisions are ongoing. According to Microsoft, the majority of employees can spend up to 50% of the time they work from home without the consent of the manager. However, other issues such as relocation policy remain less clear and “ultimately it’s the dialogue with the manager and the employee,” she said at the CNBC event.

One focus of helping managers regain highs in team morale: new hires.

Onboarding 25,000 new employees during Covid

Microsoft hired 25,000 people during the pandemic, and the Klinghoffer team found that managers were far more important than colleagues at the 90-day time to new hires.

The data showed that, compared to pre-pandemic Microsoft, new hires reported that reliance on managers for support during the onboarding process increased by nearly 20%, while reliance on colleagues for initial support decreased by 15% .

That focus quickly paid off in the mood of new hires. Microsoft new hires said managers played an active role, 3.5 times more likely to be happy with their onboarding experience and 1.2 times more likely to feel like they were making important contributions to the team.

Microsoft’s findings echo other recent research into the role of managers in the advancement of remote work. A study conducted by Professors at Harvard Business School, Raj Choudhury, Iavor Bojinov, and Jacqueline Lane, looking at remote interns enrolled in a large company’s flagship summer internship program, found that the interns encountered random opportunities had to interact synchronously and informally with executives, significantly more were likely to have received an offer for full-time employment, had higher weekly performance ratings, and were more positive about their distance internship.

Findings on managers shouldn’t be taken to mean that other relationships are less important, Hogan said.

For new hires in particular, onboarding buddies – someone who recently went through the onboarding process themselves – should be a source of support. “They’re great for questions like what an acronym means or finding tools and resources across the company,” she says. Peers are key to acquiring institutional knowledge and understanding team culture and expectations of the team.

“Each of these support areas are critical to a great onboarding experience,” said Hogan. “The managers just have to try a little harder to row the team in the right direction.”