“Because in some sense, trying to be too dogmatic based on six months of constrained work, and to think that we have somehow come upon what is a long-term stable way of doing things is probably not right.”

He said Microsoft would study as much data as it could to see things that had worked best during lockdown, but that his initial assessment was that flexibility had been shown to be the most important organisational trait.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, top left, meets with member of the Australian Ballet, who have been training via Microsoft Teams. 

He said that while physical human separation had been a defining trait of the current pandemic, a future major disruption would likely have different characteristics and present organisations with new unique challenges.

“I think we will probably learn a lot better how to transcend some of the space and time issues … And more importantly I think we will come out of this with more of an appreciation for why flexibility in how we do things is going to be the most important capability any organisation can have to be resilient to tail events,” Mr Nadella said.

In addition to appearing at the Financial Review’s Reshaping Australian Dialogues event, Mr Nadella conducted numerous engagements with local staff, customers and met with government agency heads.

These customer meetings included a virtual visit to a BHP mine site in the Pilbara, meetings with chief executives including CSIRO boss Larry Marshall and a video call with members of the Australian Ballet, which has been connecting its dancers via Microsoft Teams for daily lessons and practice sessions from home.

Mr Nadella’s peers, including VMWare CEO Pat Gelsinger, say they beleive the COVID-19 era will lead to a big reduction in executives flying around the world for meetings that could feasibly be conducted by video call. While he agrees that there are many benefits to such arrangements, Mr Nadella says organisations should resist the temptation to only assess the efficiencies they are now achieving.

“One thing that I like about all this, is it forces us to do things without accepting the constraints, and [with the Australian visit] I got a chance to meet more of a cross-section of people across cities than I ever would have, so it is probably one of the most effective use of a few hours,” he said.

“But one of the big concerns I have, even for myself, is the loss of those transitions in a day. I never thought I would say this, but rituals like a commute are missing, nobody thought they like their commute, except it is one of those times when you switch off, and those transitions matter.”

As well as introducing a so-called “together mode” in its Teams video calling software, which places all meeting participants into one virtual space to try and make meetings feel more natural, it will also add a “commute” function at the start of 2021.

Microsoft’s Research department recently said it had worked out that the reflection about the day ahead or past conducted during a commute can increase a workers productivity by 12 to 15 per cent, so Teams users will be able to schedule a meeting-free commute period on the platform.

“I think you have to pick up some new habits where it will allow you to have those transitions, because mental fatigue or meeting fatigue is real,” Mr Nadella said.

“We’ve now done studies with brain imaging, and the concentration with which I am watching someone on a video call is pretty immense.

“So I think we do need to think about wellness as part of the broader picture. One of my worries is we focus on productivity and burn people out, without thinking through the completeness of wellness as part of productivity.”


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