New tools can help boost wellbeing and soothe unexpected stresses of working from home

Six months into the pandemic, working at home has become routine for many people — but at a cost. For Kamal Janardhan, it’s a loss of afternoon tea breaks when she used to chat with co-workers. For Shamsi Iqbal, it’s a lack of time to focus between endless video calls and parental duties. For Charles Morris, it’s the blurring of boundaries among work, home and family.

The three Microsoft employees — an engineering leader, researcher and HR leader — feel lucky they’ve been able to work remotely. As experts in workplace wellbeing, they’re also addressing the universal stress it can cause. Collectively, they’re teaching mindfulness, researching productivity and learning surprising insights, like the fact that many people’s pre-pandemic, traffic-clogged commutes were actually beneficial.

At Microsoft Ignite this week, the company is announcing new features in Microsoft Teams and Outlook to help people around the world with their wellbeing and productivity. The features include a virtual commute experience for better work- and home-life transitions and integration with Headspace, a global leader in mindfulness and meditation.

They will also include tools to help people connect more easily with colleagues, schedule time for focused work and breaks, and see insights and patterns personalized for individuals, managers and leaders.

“Technology has not only played a key role in helping people work remotely and stay productive, it is also proving to be a key part of preserving and creating wellbeing,” says Janardhan, general manager of MyAnalytics and Workplace Analytics, the platforms for data-driven insights behind the new features.

“We have an accountability at Microsoft to help enterprises foster wellbeing and mindfulness for their employees so that they’re woven into their day and not an afterthought. When you focus on wellbeing and bringing in mindfulness at all levels, it can change the whole business. It can change business outcomes and how every employee feels.”

The features were designed to help people overcome remote work challenges detailed in several Microsoft studies. One study found that people are working after hours and on weekends more frequently at home than they did in the office. Another study found that remote work is leading to more stress and mental fatigue from video meetings, isolation and a feeling of always being “on.”

Man smiles in portrait against backdrop of green plants

Charles Morris (photo courtesy of Morris)

“We’re in this mode where the boundaries between work and home are dissolved and it’s all one big soup, which can lead to a constant state of part working, part taking care of personal life, part taking care of ourselves. And we tend not to do a good job at anything when we’re multitasking,” says Morris, a human resources director at Microsoft who teaches courses on mindfulness and meditation.

The virtual commute experience in Teams will help create boundaries and structure that physical commutes once provided. Scheduling a “commute” for the beginning of a workday means setting aside time to prepare for work, whether it’s going for a walk or planning tasks with a cup of coffee. End-of-the-day commutes can be customized with prompts to reflect emotionally, celebrate accomplishments, add tasks to a to-do list for later and meditate with Headspace to fully disconnect.

The feature draws inspiration from research by Iqbal and her colleagues, who have studied the importance of work breaks and “workplace detachment and reattachment” as part of the Microsoft Research group. Commutes provide blocks of uninterrupted time for mentally transitioning to and from work, an important aspect of wellbeing and productivity, says Iqbal, a principal researcher in Microsoft Research AI.

“People will say, ‘I’m happy I don’t have to commute anymore. I’m saving time,’” she says. But without a routine for ramping up for work and then winding down, “they’re emotionally exhausted at the end of the day.”

“There’s a notion of emotional homeostasis that suggests that people can’t work at a heightened focus for long periods of time,” says Iqbal, who specializes in helping people manage attention while multitasking.

“To have sustained productivity, you need to disengage and replenish your energy, which is why disengagement is super important to prevent burnout.”

The virtual commute experience will roll out in the first half of 2021.

Portrait of Megan Jones Bell

Megan Jones Bell (photo courtesy of Headspace)

Integration with Headspace will also launch in 2021, when people will be able to schedule recurring time to meditate from Teams during their scheduled virtual commute or anytime during their workday, such as before a big meeting or to focus before starting an important project.

“We’re thrilled to work with Microsoft to bring more mindfulness into people’s days all over the world,” says Megan Jones Bell, chief strategy and science officer of Headspace, whose app and online content are used by more than 65 million people in 190 countries. “We hope that by meeting people where they work, we can encourage prioritizing wellbeing and integrate mental health routines into all 24 hours of the day.”

Headspace meditations have been clinically validated to reduce stress, improve focus and increase resilience. Sessions can be as short as 10 minutes a day for people to reap the benefits of bringing awareness to the present.

“Mindfulness is a helpful way to step away from the anxious inner chatter we might feel as a result of stressful situations,” Jones Bell says. “It’s essentially an inner pause button that allows us to step out of the busyness trap and check in with ourselves.”

Microsoft, which gives its employees discounts and reimbursements to use Headspace as one of many mindfulness and meditation programs, will be “customer zero” for the new Headspace and virtual commute experiences in Teams.

Starting in October, people will see personal productivity insights in Teams with new Stay Connected and Protect Time experiences that help strengthen bonds and schedule time for focused work and breaks. Briefing emails from Cortana, delivered in Outlook at the top of the day, will also be available with similar productivity insights and recommended actions.

Stay Connected will intelligently display top collaborators who may need follow-up and include related documents and emails. It will also make it easy to schedule meetings related to work, fun or wellbeing — or all three.

Woman walks near trees and grass park while talking on the phone

Kamal Janardhan makes a Teams call while walking through a neighborhood park in Redmond, Washington. (Photo by Dan DeLong)

“One of the biggest losses with remote work is those human connections at the beginning of meetings, coffee breaks and having lunch together,” says Janardhan.

Her team used to joke that they better have jackets and sturdy shoes in the office for her rugged, one-on-one walking meetings that happened in all kinds of weather.

“We miss each other now and started thinking we should do walking meetings together, where we walk separately, but together,” she says. “From there, we thought, what if we did meditations together? Or stretched together?”

Protect Time will help users set aside time for focused work, breaks and personal commitments — before the calendar fills up with meetings. It’s based on MyAnalytics insights, which Iqbal recently started using to block “focus time” after a particularly tiring day of meetings.

“It was amazing,” she says. “I really needed to protect my calendar to get my work done.”

She and her team are now studying the impact of different kinds of breaks, a practice she does at home to have lunch with her two energetic boys, help them with school, ride bikes with them — and get her work done.

Woman smiles and tries to work on her laptop while her young son plays behind her.

Shamsi Iqbal and her son Nehaan at Microsoft’s campus in Redmond, Washington, in 2017. Iqbal now works at home due to the pandemic. (Photo by Dan DeLong)

“Essentially, you are designing your day so it is not only work,” Iqbal says. “You are adding variety by going on a walk, listening to music, checking social media or spending time with family. You’re making those work periods more efficient, because you know you have dedicated time to look forward to in terms of a break.”

Employee wellbeing requires organizational support and understanding, which is why Microsoft is also bringing insights for managers and leaders into Teams. Beginning to roll out in October, the aggregated view will help them know if teams and employees could be at risk of burnout from working long hours, if they’re maintaining important connections with each other and customers, and if they’re thriving at work.

The dashboard will provide recommended actions based on research to help managers and leaders facilitate wellbeing. Installing the new Insights app in Teams will allow people to see the new features.

“There’s a recognition that employee wellbeing is important and a catalyst for productivity,” says Barbie Stafford, marketing director of Microsoft 365.

“Wellbeing has to permeate across all levels of an organization, so it’s important to bring insights not only to individuals, but to managers and leaders who will propel us through this new way of work.”

Lead image: Kamal Janardhan starts her workday mindfully at a neighborhood park in Redmond, Washington. (Photo by Dan DeLong)