Some colleagues have also started social video meetings, like logging on while eating lunch to chat. Fridays have been designated no-meeting days, for people to focus on a project or recharge.
Another challenge Microsoft discovered: When there’s no office to leave, the lines between work and life blur. The team saw a 52 percent increase in online chats between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m.
For some people, shifting hours is helpful, because they can take time during the day for things like exercise or child care. But managers also wanted to encourage work-life boundaries. One solution was to use a tool that allows people to write messages to colleagues that aren’t sent until the next workday. Another was more one-on-one meetings between managers and employees — people who had those got their work done more quickly, probably because they were clearer on their priorities, Ms. Williams said.
Companies much smaller than Microsoft — like the Key, a public relations firm in San Francisco with 16 employees — have landed on similar strategies. Because its work is in client services and tied to the news, the Key can easily fall into a round-the-clock schedule, said Martha Shaughnessy, its founder, especially when work and home are the same place.
At first they tried letting people pick their hours, allowing afternoons or entire days off, but found it was too hard to collaborate. Now, they’re restricting internal meetings to 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. That period accommodates people on both coasts and gives everyone mornings for focused work and the ability to schedule time for child care and other needs.
They’re also trying to break the pattern of employees believing they always need to be available. It’s particularly difficult for senior leadership to do, she said. To force it, for each week in August a quarter of the company will take a mandatory week off. When employees return, they will start four-day workweeks. On Fridays, Slack will be banned and people will take turns handling client requests.
“Most things aren’t as urgent as you think; they just happen to be in your inbox,” Ms. Shaughnessy said. “We’ll practice passing the ball entirely from person to person, as opposed to all of us being on all the time.”