Friday, July 22, 2022

Thriving at work & work-life balance: Those with the best of both worlds had five fewer hours in their workweek span, five fewer collaboration hours, three more focus hours, and 17 fewer employees in their internal network size

Why Microsoft Measures Employee Thriving, Not Engagement. Dawn Klinghoffer and Elizabeth McCune. Harvard Business Review Home. June 24, 2022.

Summary.   As the pandemic continues and many people work hybrid schedules, people analytics researchers at Microsoft realized they needed to move from measuring employee engagement to measuring employee thriving. Defined as “to be energized and...more

One thing is clear: None of us are the same people today as we were prior to 2020. So, as our employees change, the ways we can best empower them need to evolve, too.

At Microsoft, where we work on the People Analytics team, that means learning what the data can tell us about how our employees aspire to live their lives meaningfully. In particular, we landed on a new way of measuring thriving, at both work and outside of it, that goes beyond engagement only.

In this article, we share how and why we came to this measurement — and how your own company can learn from our experiences.

Why Thriving Is the New North Star

Prior to this year, we conducted one lengthy, annual survey that tracked employee engagement. It often took months to digest and plan actions around. Yet, we consistently encountered challenges in building a shared definition of engagement across the company. And often, despite employee engagement scores that would seem to indicate that things were going well, it became clear that employees were struggling when we dived deeper into the responses. To us, this was a reflection that we hadn’t yet set a high enough bar for the employee experience, and it motivated us to do better in measuring what matters.

So, we started asking employees for feedback through a shorter yet more focused survey every six months, for which we partnered with employee success platform Glint. This new approach is helping us stay closer to employees’ feedback and take clearer and more immediate action in response.

We also sought to define a new, higher bar that went beyond engagement only, drawing inspiration from many sources. One was what Our Chief People Officer, Kathleen Hogan, calls “The 5 P’s.” Similar to Maslow’s Hierarchy, it breaks down employee fulfillment into five key, successive components: pay, perks, people, pride, and purpose. In a time that has prompted many to reflect on the role of work and career in their lives, it felt critical to recalibrate our listening systems to measure our progress towards that end goal — a sense of purpose. We were also inspired by Ross School of Business’s Gretchen Spreitzer and colleagues’ research on thriving as the antidote to languishing. As we moved beyond employee engagement, we decided to focus on our own version of employee thriving.

At Microsoft, we define thriving as “to be energized and empowered to do meaningful work.” This is the new core aspiration we have for our employees, one that challenges us to push ourselves every day so every employee can feel they’re pursuing that sense of purpose. Our focus on thriving isn’t just about recovering from the impact of the pandemic or matching pre-Covid employee sentiment scores. It’s about coming out the other side and doing even better.

What It Looks Like to Thrive

When our first employee survey data came back earlier this year, we began benchmarking our thriving for the first time. We looked at not just how many people reported they were thriving, but calculated company-wide averages based on responses from a five-point scale — if an employee selected “strongly disagree,” that translated to an individual score of zero, and “strongly agree” would be the equivalent of a 100. This ensured our insights took into account all positive, negative, and neutral sentiment.

After analyzing the results, we found that thriving averaged a 77 across the company — a number we see as strong, but one we can still work on. When we broke down thriving into its three components, we saw that meaningful work (79) and empowerment (79) both scored higher among employees than energized (73).

To understand the employee experiences behind the numbers, we dove into the open-ended survey responses. Three key themes stood out.

Culture matters.

What we saw was that employees who were thriving and not thriving were both talking about culture, but in vastly different ways.

Thriving employees talked about a collaborative environment and teamwork with colleagues, an inclusive culture with autonomy and flexibility, and well-being support. These comments reference examples such as being able to have honest, non-judgmental conversations on difficult topics, with a focus on finding solutions.

Employees who weren’t thriving talked about experiencing siloes, bureaucracy, and a lack of collaboration. In these comments we hear a lack of agency and a sense for being a cog in a machine. In other words, the opposite of being empowered and energized to do meaningful work.

Thriving takes a village.

Diving deeper into the numbers, it’s clear that everyone has a role to play. At Microsoft, we’ve long studied importance of managers, and we know their role has been more crucial than ever as they helped their teams navigate through uncertainty. It’s heartening to see our managers shine during such a difficult time. “My manager treats me with dignity and respect” scored a 93, meaning almost every employee selected “strongly agree” — but this also means we still need to ensure that’s the experience for every single employee. We also saw high scores in confidence in manager’s effectiveness (87) and managers’ support for careers (85), showing strong sentiment that managers are helping their teams succeed at the company.

While we see these scores as strengths, they’re strengths we want to keep building to ensure a positive lived experience for all employees.

Thriving and work-life balance are not the same thing.

As we think about how to support thriving, it’s important to distinguish it from work-life balance. While thriving is focused on being energized and empowered to do meaningful work in your role, work-life balance reflects employees’ personal lives, too. Employees rated their satisfaction with work-life balance as a 71, and while it’s encouraging to see work-life balance improving, it hasn’t fully recovered yet to pre-Covid levels. And there are times when thriving and work-life balance can move in different directions.

For example, an early-in-career employee who feels underutilized in their role may have great work-life balance from a perspective of hours and workload, but not feel energized while they’re at work or inspired by the meaning and impact of what they’re working on. On the other hand, there are times when people can thrive and feel so fulfilled by the hard work it takes to make progress on a big project that they can make a short-term tradeoff on work-life balance.

We know that work-life balance may ebb and flow, but wanted to learn from employees who both rated their work-life balance highly and said they were thriving in that work-focused portion of their life. So, we compared the 56% of our employees who said they were thriving and reported higher work-life balance to the 16% who were thriving but had lower work-life balance scores.

By combining sentiment data with de-identified calendar and email metadata, we found that those with the best of both worlds had five fewer hours in their workweek span, five fewer collaboration hours, three more focus hours, and 17 fewer employees in their internal network size. This reinforces what we know from earlier work-life balance research and network size analysis, which showed us that increased collaboration does have a negative impact on employees’ perception of work-life balance. It also confirms that collaboration is not inherently bad — for many employees, those times of close teamwork and striving toward a common goal can fuel thriving. However, it is important to be mindful of how intense collaboration can impact work-life balance, and leaders and employees alike should guard against that intensity becoming 24/7.

Challenges for Thriving on the Road Ahead

As more and more companies look closely at how they listen to and help their employees, it’s important to spend time understanding what your north star is — and to make sure it’s connected to the outcomes you are trying to drive as an organization. This new era of hybrid work won’t work for employees if you’re not listening — or if what you’re listening for doesn’t evolve along with them and how they do their jobs. There isn’t a singular one-size-fits-all solution out there, but paying close attention to how your employees thrive is one path forward.

We know this is just the beginning of our journey to understand this in our own organization. Looking holistically at the written responses from those who weren’t thriving offers more clues about where else we can improve for our employees. For example, while employees scored “I feel included in my team” highly at 86, by far the most common thread among those who were not thriving was a feeling of exclusion — from a lack of collaboration to feeling left out of decisions to struggling with politics and bureaucracy. We’ll continue to focus on ensuring inclusion is felt as part of our culture across all teams and orgs.

Ultimately, every score, whether high or low, gives us a baseline to keep listening, learning, improving, and adapting to new changes that still undoubtedly lie ahead. As we enter the hybrid work era, we’re excited to keep studying the numbers even more deeply to understand how thriving can be unlocked across different work locations, professions, and ways of working.

Dawn Klinghoffer is the head of people analytics at Microsoft. Elizabeth McCune is the director of employee listening systems and culture measurement at Microsoft.

Autistic people outperform neurotypicals in a cartoon version of the Reading the Mind in the Eyes

Autistic people outperform neurotypicals in a cartoon version of the Reading the Mind in the Eyes. Liam Cross, Andrea Piovesan, Gray Atherton. Autism Research, July 20 2022.

Abstract: Prior research suggests that while autistic people may demonstrate poorer facial emotion recognition when stimuli are human, these differences lessen when stimuli are anthropomorphic. To investigate this further, this work explores emotion recognition in autistic and neurotypical adults (n = 196). Groups were compared on a standard and a cartoon version of the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test. Results indicated that autistic individuals were not significantly different from neurotypicals on the standard version. However, autistic people outperformed neurotypicals on the cartoon version. The implications for these findings regarding emotion recognition deficits and the social motivation account of autism are discussed and support the view of socio-cognitive differences rather than deficits in this population.

Lay Summary: The Reading the Mind in the Eyes test and a cartoon version were tested on autistic and neurotypical adults. Autistic adults were not significantly different on the original test compared to neurotypicals, but they outperformed neurotypical adults on the cartoon version.


Results showed that autistic people did not perform significantly worse on the RME than NTs. While this was not as hypothesized, it may be that the high proportion of female participants boosted ASC performance. Previous work, for instance, has shown that autistic females do not perform differently to NT females (Holt et al., 2014) and that there is a female advantage in the RME (Kirkland et al., 2013). Additionally, this may be explained by adding definitions to the RME to remove variance associated with vocabulary differences. In line with our predictions, individuals with ASC outperformed NTs on the cartoon version of the task. These results suggest that autistic individuals may lack a human-specific specialization in this domain seen in NTs. For instance, NTs performed better on the RME than the C-RME, while this was not the case for autistic individuals, whose performance on the two versions did not significantly differ. This is the first study to find that autistic people outperform NTs on the RME.1 Our results suggest that NT people have more difficulty than autistic people when the agent being evaluated is anthropomorphic. Our findings also suggest that autistic people are perhaps not experiencing the same processing deficits as NTs when taking the C-RME. Why might this be?

We speculated that this could be driven by either a reduced motivation for actual human agents or an increased motivation to evaluate cartoon agents. The descriptive statistics in the present study suggest that the interaction seen in the present study was likely driven not by autistic individuals over performing on the C-RME but by NTs underperforming on the C-RME. Additionally, descriptive statistics relating to the measure of difficulty suggested that the autistic individuals found both tasks more difficult than NTs on average. However, this difference was not significant at the 0.05 level.

If NTs were to be used as a ‘benchmark’ for FER development, it would appear that there is a specialization for the human in typical development. As a result, anthropomorphic FER is more difficult for NTs. Considering that autistic people do not see a reduced performance on such measures, they may not experience the same specialized interest or aptitude for human FER. Interestingly, this does not lead to the deterioration of anthropomorphic FER. Specifically, autistic performance was not lower across both conditions, and it did not follow the same pattern as NTs. As such, it may be that autistic people also have an enhanced ability to perform anthropomorphic FER. This ability may develop through protracted engagement with anthropomorphic agents, as is suggested through research on restricted interests. The enhanced development of anthropomorphic FER in autistic people would contrast with research suggesting that FER deficits only increase as autistic people age (Lozier et al., 2014). Instead, perhaps autistic people, and those with high autistic traits, continue to develop anthropomorphic FER and ToM which allows them to eventually surpass NTs. This continued development may explain why studies on very young autistic children show impaired performance in both human and nonhuman face recognition (Chawarska & Volkmar, 2007), while studies on older autistic children, adolescents and adults show an intact or even relatively enhanced ability for nonhuman performance (for a review, see Atherton & Cross, 2018).

Autism research is rife with studies showing that autistic people enjoy engaging with the nonhuman and may be doing so increasingly throughout development, whether it be through animation (Holmgaard et al., 2013), contact with pets (Atherton et al., 2022), animal-assisted therapy (O'Haire, 2013), or even embodying the nonhuman during online game-play (Stendal & Balandin, 2015) (for a review, see Atherton & Cross, 2018). This type of engagement may allow autistic people to develop social expertise and derive social pleasure in ways that do not rely on human specialization, which may function as an extension of how autistic people begin to see themselves as more than human (Davidson & Smith, 2009). Future research should look to better understand autistic people's motivations for interacting with anthropomorphic agents. Cross et al. (2019) and Carter et al. (2016) suggest that using anthropomorphic agents in therapeutic contexts may also improve social understanding and connection. Including such agents in virtual settings and observing changes in responsiveness would be a valuable avenue for future research.