In June, Microsoft announced a substantial update to Microsoft Teams, which included support for up to 49 people in the gallery view, virtual backgrounds, support for 300 participants, instant channel meetings and more in the IT Admin suite for management and security.
But today we got more. Microsoft launched “Together Mode” for Teams. This new view turns the meeting participants into avatars who can have some level of interactions like a wave, tap on the shoulder or high-five and can be used in settings like a coffee shop or an auditorium depending on the number of participants.
Other features include a dynamic view to share content more dynamically, video filters that help with lighting and camera focus, live reactions with emojis, live captions with speaker attribution, suggested replies and the integration of Cortana.
There is a lot there to unpack, but what is particularly interesting about today’s announcements is the focus on people and on making video meetings more an integral part of collaboration rather than an island that has a beginning and an end when we turn the camera on and off. Meetings are born from work that happens before people come together and continues after people leave.
I have always thought about meetings as part of my daily workflow. During quarantine, the growth we saw in the number of meetings made this realization even more critical as it has implications in the tools we are using as well as the features we see as most valuable.
In a study we, at Creative Strategies, conducted across 1000 US respondents working from home during the pandemic, daily meetings became a reality for 62% of the panelists up from 25% before the quarantine. As I discussed before, I do expect more flexible work and more remote working to remain in place once offices reopen. Thirty-one percent of our panelists said they would like to continue to work from home once the sheltering in place is lifted with another 22% who want the flexibility to do so a couple of days a week. Microsoft’s Work Trend Index Report published on the back of a recent study the company conducted supports our finding as 82% of managers they reached out to, said they expect to have more flexible work from home policies as the economy reopens.
It’s All About the People
So now we have established the long-term need to look at video meetings as an essential and integral part of our workflows. We have also clearly found that working from home is productive, but it has been interesting to see how video calls have impacted the way we feel about our colleagues. Microsoft said that 62% of people surveyed said they feel more empathetic towards their colleagues because they feel they made more of a connection with their personal lives by being in their home. My own set up has undoubtedly offered a glimpse into how demanding my cats are, how much my dogs sleep and how well trained my kid is at not just walking into my home office!
While people might have a better appreciation for their colleagues, they do not necessarily feel more connected to them. Sixty percent of the people Microsoft surveyed said they feel less connected to their colleagues and yet 52% of people surveyed feel more valued or included as a remote contributor. As a long time, remote worker, this last point hit me very early on this quarantine phase. It was apparent to me that everybody contributing remotely, in the same way, was democratizing the virtual meeting room table we were joining. The combination of the amount of time we spend in virtual meetings and how our brains process the visual and audio information it is receiving is having an impact on how tired and overwhelmed some people feel while working from home.
All these data points informed Microsoft’s decision to focus on tools that will make the video interaction more natural and more focused on the people. There is certainly a degree of maturity in how today’s features came about. I am not sure if there is a hype cycle of video meetings, but if there were, it would certainly show us edging from the slope of enlightenment to the plateau of productivity.
The new Together Mode might seem like a gimmick at first, but if you do not get too carried away with the high-fives, you can see there are benefits to it. First, there is a decrease in distractions as the focus shifts from what is going on around you to the people. It also draws participants more into the meeting, providing more body language cues. This is particularly useful in a lecture format, either in a business or education context. Other features help spotlight people like live captions with speaker attribution make it easier to follow along, especially when you are not familiar with the people in the meeting and the new filters that help improve the clarity of the picture so you can better read facial expressions.
The Meeting Lifecycle
I want to go back to the concept of the meeting lifecycle or, if you prefer, how you should think about the meeting as part of your daily workflow rather than an event in isolation. In a real-life context, it might be harder to see the flow but if you think about it for a second there is a flow. You would take your computer or a notebook into a room together with any documents or information you might need. During the meeting, you would take notes, brainstorm on a whiteboard, take pictures of the information and walk out of the meeting to pick up the next step over email or in future meetings.
When we come together virtually, however, the way the meeting blends with what happens before and after is much more obvious and the tools that will allow that blending to be as smooth as possible will drive more significant engagement and grow loyalty. This is why I believe video only or chat only solutions will find it harder to compete with solutions that have the ability to transcend what are becoming more unnecessary artificial boundaries between people, content and task at hand. Being able to have content and people engaged onto one platform will provide better data which in turn will provide solutions that will easily surface information at the right time, connect the right people in a timely fashion basically offer more and more value but taking care of the most frustrating aspects of collaboration.
There is no question that remote work, video meetings, in particular, will continue to see an array of developments for quite some time, including welcoming new entrants like the new collaboration app mmhmm to the space. On the one hand, this focus highlights how overlooked remote collaboration has been for so many years. On the other hand, it shows how much our current experience can be improved today by AI and software rather than having to wait for the proliferation of XR based solutions.