A lesson from Microsoft - IT managers need to do one thing differently

Updated: Oct 5, 2021

This might be valuable if you want to keep your developers' work-life balance in shape and rotation low.



Microsoft is a huge corporation. For one of their divisions - Surface and Xbox device development - the beginning of the year 2018 was looking bright. Market share got bigger and high marks from critics came pouring in. But Brett Ostrum, who was in charge of this division, was worried. His business unit scored above average in Microsoft's inner surveys, except one. Work-life balance. They felt sad and their boss took this serious.


Instead of a usual approach - giving the division of 700 employees another survey (which, of course, are self-reported) - Mr. Ostrum asked some help to Microsoft’s organizational analytics team. They looked at the ways how employees spent their time; mainly using their emails and calendars.


They compare the units metadata with others in Microsoft corporation and came to a bit surprising conclusions. One would suppose that Mr. Ostrum division is unsatisfied because they worked longer hours, had to fly distant places or had to do a lot of tasks at odd times (like calling to China when it’s early morning or already late night in Seattle). But data showed otherwise.

Citing Neil Irwin from The New York Times. "People who had taken jobs requiring that sort of commitment seemed to accept these things as part of the deal."


One thing that differed Surface and Xbox device development division from others was time spent in meetings - an impressive 27 hours a week on average. To be honest - a typical Microsoft team would spend about the same amount of time in gatherings. But this was not the brainstorming with three or four people, but meetings with 10 or 20 people arrayed around the table. Overcrowded meetings reduced the available time for tasks that asked for more focused concentration. This was especially true for engineers and developers, as they required thinking deeply to solve the problems.


For managers its essential to do an honest audit - which meetings are essential and which could be stripped out of employee's schedule. And that was the message Mr. Ostrum gave to his managers. On the other hand, employees - mostly developers, and engineers - were encouraged to reserve time on their calendars for the kind of work that demanded concentration and was being pushed into late nights and weekends by all the meetings.


Ultimately the work-life balance reports rebounded and device unity didn't suffer from the outflow of talent. Microsoft still makes gains in the hardware market.


From a managerial perspective, the key is to listen (and interpret) what data has to say. A lot of times exactly that allows some companies to stay ahead before others in the changing business environment. On a different note - How much time in your organization is spent in extensive meetings and coordinating plans?


Read more In The New York Times' Upshot section, writer Neil Irwin:

<https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/15/upshot/how-to-win-neil-irwin.html>