Microsoft’s Future Productivity Vision

At long last, I am able to share our work on the future of productivity. Video storytelling is a way of envisioning the future without the constraints of actually building all the prototypes. These conceptual prototypes cover a few important themes. Look for:

  • The end of the full-time job
  • Inter-generational care work, via distance
  • Online reputation management
  • Networked production of several enterprises and individuals
  • Just-in-time work spaces and places
  • Mobile productivity and seamless integration with traditional computing systems
  • Visualizing production through social network analysi


What we know about gender and performance reviews

Update December 22, 2016: I have updated these findings with new research, and added insights about ethnicity, race, and performance reviews.

The evidence is mounting that our existing feedback systems have inherent biases that penalize women. I have a personal commitment to help improve this, and in this post, I make specific recommendations on how to do so. But first, what do we know about gender and performance reviews?

  • Women receive more criticisms of their personalities in performance reviews: A linguist did study on performance reviews. Men and women provided positive performance reviews. She found that in 83 performance reviews, men received personality feedback in only 2 cases. In 94 critical reviews, women received personality criticisms 71 times. [1] Words like “abrasive” and “strident” were present in these performance reviews.
  • Women receive less helpful feedback than men. In a study of 200 performance reviews in a tech company, researchers found that women were more likely to receive vague praise than were men (57% and 43%, respectively), which included unhelpful comments like “You had a great year.” Men were more likely to receive developmental feedback, and linked specifically to business outcomes. When women did receive developmental feedback, it tended to relate to their personalities rather than to their performance [2]
  • The “glass ceiling” is the result of many tiny obstacles. Researchers at Harvard Business School found that there is no specific point where women face a “ceiling,” but many small instances of discrimination lead to their careers stalling over time. [4] This may be why after only 2 years with a company, women’s aspirations for career advancement fall an astounding 60%, while men’s aspirations fall negligibly.
  • Ostensibly “meritocratic” reward systems favor men over women, and whites over minorities. Researchers experimentally tested whether managers would reward people differently when explicitly creating a system of “merit.” Over 3 experiments and 445 participants, they found men were rewarded with more money than women in this supposed “meritocratic” system. They also found that ethnic minorities and non-American born people were given lower raises, even when using the same evaluative criteria. [5] In another experiment, researchers switched male and female professors of an online course in the middle of the term. Students consistently rated the male professor higher, even though they actually had a female professor without knowing it. [6]
  • Women are penalized for asking for raises: Researchers found that people judge women more harshly when they ask for a raise; women don’t ask for raises because they realistically assess the social cost of asking. [7]
  • Men are rated more highly for helping colleagues, and women are rated more negatively for not helping. In a series of experiments, researchers asked participants to rate the performance of men and women who either agreed to stay late to help colleagues, or refused to stay late and help. Men who offered to stay were rated 14% more positively (women’s rating remained the same). Women who refused to stay were rated 12% more negatively (men were not rated more negatively). [8]
  • Women pay a penalty for motherhood, while men reap a bonus for fatherhood: Researchers have found women who become mothers pay a minimum penalty of 4% decline in income. [9] The penalty is larger for more educated women. [5] By contrast, fathers reap a bonus [11]. This is not due to a lack of commitment by women, by biased perceptions of their commitment. [10]  In other words, the cost of being a parent depends on your gender, not your performance.
  • Men are penalized when they ask for family accommodation. In a study of a management consultancy, one researcher found that men who ask for flexibility to care for their families are punished in performance reviews. [12] Men who did not openly ask but made private, covert arrangements got better performance reviews.
  • Keeping track improves fairness. Just keeping track of how people get rewarded, broken down by race and gender, was enough to reduce inequality over 5 years in a single company. So know your data! How are people doing relative to each other? [5]
  • Just pointing out bias actually increases its incidence! Other research has found that pointing out bias actually increases its negative consequences. [13] This effect disappeared when researchers noted that discrimination is not desirable.
  • Training managers on potential work/life conflicts decreases employee stress. Researchers trained a single company’s managers on how to deal with work/life conflict. They found reduced employee stress, and no increase in employee hours. [14]


Opportunities for Improvement

  1. Examine the words you use in your performance feedback. Is it related to personality or performance? Are the words very gendered, such as “bossy”? Consider what words you might have used to describe the opposite gender.
  2. Is your feedback helpful and specific? Did you provide vague praise like “Great job this year” or did you say, “Your work on the launch plan led to greater sales”? Make sure you link the feedback to specific business goals.
  3. Did you reward fairly? Is there a systematic difference between the genders? Could this be unconscious bias?
  4. Is this a “tiny obstacle”? How many barriers has your direct report experienced in her career? Is this performance review a chance to create a “tiny ladder” through the glass ceiling?
  5. Do you expect women to be more altruistic? Reward men and women equally for the same behaviors. Consider if you expect women to be more giving of their time than men.
  6. Do you expect men to be less family-oriented? Recognize that men have families too. Are you penalizing a man for being a caring father?
  7. Is your direct report asking for something…and are you evaluating that ask fairly? Consider what kinds of requests your direct report has made. Are you judging those requests fairly, or are you penalizing the person for speaking up?
  8. Unconscious bias is wrong. Make sure you point out that bias is wrong, not just that it exists. Norms are powerful, especially for senior leaders.
  9. Keeping track improves fairness. Just keeping track of how people get rewarded, broken down by race and gender, was enough to reduce inequality over 5 years in a single company. So know your data! How are people doing relative to each other? [5]





[1]       K. Snyder, “The Abrasiveness Trap: High Achieving Men and Women Are Described Differently in Reviews,” Fortune, New York, Aug-2014.

[2]       S. Correll and C. Simard, “Vague Feedback Is Holding Women Back,” Harvard Business Review, no. April, 2016.

[3]       A. Grant, “Rocking the Boat but Keeping It Steady: The Role of Emotion Regulation in Employee Voice,” Academy of Management Journal, vol. 56, no. 6, 2013.

[4]       A. Eagly and L. Carli, “Women and the labyrinth of leadership,” Harvard Business Review, no. September, pp. 62–71, 2007.

[5]       E. J. Castilla and S. Benard, “The Paradox of Meritocracy in Organizations,” Administrative Science Quarterly, vol. 55, no. 4, pp. 543–576, Dec. 2010.

[6]       L. MacNell, A. Driscoll, and A. N. Hunt, “What’s in a Name: Exposing Gender Bias in Student Ratings of Teaching,” Innovative Higher Education, vol. 40, no. 4, pp. 291–303, 2015.

[7]       H. R. Bowles, L. Babcock, and L. Lai, “Social incentives for gender differences in the propensity to initiate negotiations: Sometimes it does hurt to ask,” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, vol. 103, no. 1, pp. 84–103, May 2007.

[8]       M. Heilman and J. Chen, “Same Behavior, Different Consequences: Reactions to Men’s and Women’s Altruistic Citizenship Behavior,” Journal of Applied Psychology, vol. 90, no. 3, pp. 431–441, 2005.

[9]       T. Street, A. Arbor, and P. O. Box, “Has the Price of Motherhood Declined Over Time ? A Cross-Cohort Comparison of the Motherhood Wage Penalty,” Journal of Marriage and Family, vol. 65, no. August, pp. 597–607, 2003.

[10]     J. a. Kmec, “Are motherhood penalties and fatherhood bonuses warranted? Comparing pro-work behaviors and conditions of mothers, fathers, and non-parents,” Social Science Research, vol. 40, no. 2, pp. 444–459, Mar. 2011.

[11]     G. Hundley, “Male/Female Earnings Differences in Self-Employment: The Effects of Marriage, Children, and The Household Division of Labor,” Labor Relations Review, pp. 95–114, 2000.

[12]     E. Reid, “Embracing, Passing, Revealing, and the Ideal Worker Image: How People Navigate Expected and Experienced Professional Identities,” Organization Science, vol. 0, no. 0, p. null.

[13]     M. Duguid and M. Thomas-Hunt, “Condoning Stereotyping?: How Awareness of Stereotyping Prevalence Impacts Expression of Stereotypes,” Journal of Applied Psychology, no. October, 2014.

[14]     E. L. Kelly, P. Moen, J. M. Oakes, W. Fan, C. Okechukwu, K. D. Davis, L. B. Hammer, E. E. Kossek, R. B. King, G. C. Hanson, F. Mierzwa, and L. M. Casper, “Changing Work and Work-Family Conflict: Evidence from the Work, Family, and Health Network,” American Sociological Review, vol. 79, no. 3, pp. 485–516, May 2014.





Mobile productivity: it ain’t about doing more

The primary unmet need for mobile productivity is managing the torrential onslaught of constant communication. Apps and tools that aim to help users “do more” are likely to be self-defeating. On the contrary, we need tools to help us do less.

In my last post, I pointed out that the real problem in productivity technology today is that users need ways to seamlessly share information across their cross-discipline teams.I noted that our collaboration tools ironically create more work. Likewise, many mobile productivity tools actually amplify this problem, by reaching users with the most useless notifications from the most tangential acquaintances, at any time of the day. We need to get smarter about what we deliver to mobile users, by properly managing push notifications, intelligently reading user priorities, and helping mobile workers stay focused on what’s important.

First a little context.

Smartphones are ubiquitous and deeply disruptive

Smartphones are now the majority of cell phones in the developed world. 58% of Americans , 55% of Canadians, and over 50% of people in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the UK, and the Netherlands have smartphones. At first glance, we might be tempted to see this shift as just another type of phone. This shift from feature phones to smartphones represents a qualitatively different business landscape and a different set of behaviors.

The transition from cellphones to smartphones is not trivial; today’s smartphone has the same computing power as a laptop manufactured as recently as 2006.[*]  Smartphones are little computers, while feature phones are simply communication devices. This has clear business implications — as Mary Meeker’s famous operating systems chart shows us.


Smartphone Behavior Change

Smartphone growth also has deep implications for everyday behavior. We have rapidly become a society in which the majority of people have tiny computers with them at all times. The majority of people are now constantly receiving email, social media notifications, in addition to phone calls and texts. This means the average smartphone user is now reachable not just to his intimate friends and family, but to even the most casual acquaintance. With feature phones, a typical user could expect to be reachable by her partner, and potentially her boss, or her babysitter. Now she is reachable by an old work colleague, a high school friend, or even someone she has never met but who shares her interest in golf. Having dinner, driving home, or working out at the gym were once private affairs. They are now all susceptible to interruptions.

To see how far our communication practices have changed, consider the eeriness of BlackBerry messages emerging, just as the Twin Towers fell. The New York Times interviewed corporate lawyer Lynn Federman, as she recalled sending frantic messages to her husband as she escaped from the World Trade Center:

“I had my cellphone in one hand, and it was useless, and my BlackBerry in the other, and it was my lifeline that day,” Ms. Federman recalled.

At the time, only about 1 million BlackBerrys were in use, worldwide.

Imagine if the same event were to happen today. Millions of tweets would emerge within moments. By way of comparison, the 2014 World Cup final game alone generated 280 million Facebook interactions, and 618,725 tweet PER MINUTE during the game. Clearly mobile technology has already arrived in the workplace — what is this shift doing to productivity?

Granted, smartphone users can turn off notifications, but we have good evidence to suggest they don’t. 4 out of 5 smartphone users check their phones within 15 minutes of waking. The average person checks their smartphone 150 times a day. Researchers have found all that checking is usually related to “information rewards.” 

The transformation at work

Many of these people use their smartphones for work, regardless of where they are. Technology research company IDC estimates that 900 million workers, 35% of the global workforce, is a “mobile worker,” meaning that they use mobile technologies such as laptops, tablets, or smartphones, for work purposes at least occasionally. In the U.S., at least 72% of workers are mobile.  An estimated 174 million people use their smartphones for work purposes. 43% of executives report that they allow employees to work anywhere, on any device they choose and 44% are actively investing in mobile collaborative tools for their employees.

These new streams of information are shifting existing productivity practices. Consider the changes to email alone, which is now 40 years old. In 1997, a prominent scientist told famed “flow” researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi that email was getting in the way of her productivity:

“On bad days, I have seventeen or twenty-four email messages.”

See how much has changed, looking at email alone. Users are clearly overwhelmed:

  • Morgan Stanley’s average employee receives 625 emails a week. Intel employees spend 20 hours per week just managing email [1]
  • Part of the problem with email is “waiting to hear back” [2]
  • Email doesn’t help people organize across multiple social “streams” [3]
  • Email has increased the size of the network of people that can communicate with a user, but to a point where ordinary users have a hard time keeping up [4]
  • Email may be “addicting” [5]
  • Email usage dropped by 5% from 69% of all users to 64% from 2007 to 2011 [6]

Clearly, productivity is changing, but we have very little insight into how and in what ways.

What is mobile productivity?

Mobile technology makes workers available, wherever and whenever. Researchers have found consistently that mobile technology makes people more available to workplace demands. Research on managers found that they are available to work demands on average 72 hours per week.   My own research has shown repeatedly that when workplaces have no policies around expected availability, “always available” becomes the norm. I found that among design workers, 44% reported being available to work demands, during the night while they slept!

Rethinking mobile productivity needs

So is “being available” really the most unmet need for mobile workers? Clearly, mobile productivity today means being able to manage the constant torrent of workplace, personal, and news information. Mixing all these streams together onto a single device makes it difficult for users to discern the importance of any one news item. It also trains workers to expect a constant flow of information, instead of taking regular breaks from the news vortex and actually spending time thinking.

At least one new app has found this need and is trying to solve for it. Appfluence attempts to help users separate the “important” from the merely urgent by keeping users focused on their self-defined priorities. Critically, Appfluence isn’t just an app, but integrates into the desktop and mobile spaces equally.

We need other tools that synthesize, minimize, and simplify our working lives. We need tools to help us adroitly opt out of availability demands. We need tools to surface only the  most significant, and to delete the useless. In short, mobile productivity is not about doing more, but consistently doing less.

[*] The BlackBerry Bold 9900, released in 2011, has a 1.2 gHz processor, which would have been the processor speed of the Dell Latitude D420, which was released in 2006. The iPhone 4S has an estimated speed of 800 mHz. Granted, processor speed is not the only measure of computing power. In particular, smartphones are hampered by a lack of reliable network access or slow network speeds. However, the BlackBerry Bold’s processor, given good network access and battery life, can perform as quickly as the Dell Latitude D420 on mundane tasks, such as checking one’s email – a central function we examine in this paper.


[1]       L. Conrow, “Developing a Taxonomy for Office Email : A Case Study,” Rochester Institute of Technology, 2010.

[2]       M. Dredze, J. Blitzer, and F. Pereira, “Reply Expectation Prediction for Email Management,” in 2nd Conference on Email and Anti-Spam, 2005, pp. 2–3.

[3]       F. K. Ozenc and S. D. Farnham, “Life ‘ Modes ’ in Social Media,” in CHI 2011, 2011, pp. 561–570.

[4]       M. Madden and S. Jones, “Networked Workers,” vol. 2008, no. 24 September. Pew Internet Project, Washington, DC, 2008.

[5]       O. Turel and A. Serenko, “Is mobile email addiction overlooked?,” Commun. ACM, vol. 53, no. 5, pp. 41–43, 2010.

[6]       Comscore Inc., “Emal Usage,” New York, N.Y., 2011.

Productivity: it ain’t about being faster

If you tell people you build productivity technology, they often think of assembly lines, conveyor belts, and stopwatches. Productivity means building things faster, right? Wrong. That view is so 20th century. Today, the real problem workers have is finding collaborative spaces to share information. Right now, our productivity tools often make even more work. Instead, we should build tools that emulate face-to-face interactions instead of assembly lines.




Doing things faster was indeed a problem for early industrial times. Production was slow, inconsistent, and riddled with errors. Engineer F. W. Taylor’s “scientific management” emerged as a solution to this problem. Taylor, a probable obsessive compulsive, devoted his life to finding “one best way” to do everything. He also gave managers everywhere an excuse to control workers more tightly.

But today, we already have high-quality production. Systems like six sigma and lean production have standardized and stripped down production processes to the leanest, and most consistent elements. Innovation isn’t about “being faster,” but helping workers collaborate and share.

Why does collaboration matter more than ever?

Today’s products are complex. Rarely can only a single discipline design, build, and market a product. You need designers, engineers, and marketers to be truly successful. But this means they have to coordinate schedules, share information, and share their expertise. They need tools to store information, to build trust, to smooth cultural divides, and to protect heads-down time.

The Collaboration Penalty

Collaboration means working together, but also it ironically makes more work.

  1. Managing workflow: Who will do what, and when? This is especially difficult in heterogeneous, disparate, or physically distributed teams. Typical tasks include scheduling and task allocation.
  1. Creating shared information spaces: Creating, sharing, distributing, maintaining, and finding shared artifacts. Typical tasks include sharing via email or dropbox.
  1. Moving work products between collaborative spaces and individual spaces: Removing artifacts from shared spaces to complete an individual task, and replacing them into shared spaces. Typical tasks include checking in or out documents or code.

These three large buckets can overlap. For example, allocating tasks in a co-located team may mean simply writing down assignments on a white board. But in teams distributed by time or space will need to create a shared, digital artifact that summarizes these task allocations.

The irony is that as teams collaborate more, they create ever more shared digital artifacts, which increases the need for shared information spaces, and increases the cognitive load of evaluating whether a work product is ready to share.



Strategies for the Collaboration Penalty

Our typical approaches for dealing with the collab penalty are no longer working. We have tried structured ontologies, or taxonomies. But it’s always so much faster to just talk with a person directly. That doesn’t scale. Informal ways are more powerful, and make less work.

Formal Ways to Pay Collaboration Penalty Informal Ways to Pay Collaboration Penalty
Standardization of procedures or inputsFormalized roles or responsibilitiesConceptual schema, such as taxonomies, ontologies, or other standard concepts “Bodywork” or physical proximityInformal communicationHigh-fidelity shared objects, like posters, prototypes, and whiteboardsIM, Skype, or real-time tech communication

Instead we should use things like handwritten notes — in digital form — to give more fidelity to our messages.

Human practices are far swifter and culturally adept than most technologies. This is the primary reason why work teams choose face-to-face strategies, even if they seem duplicative; informal strategies are higher in fidelity than structures or standardization.