Having recently passed the six-month point since the COVID-19 pandemic started impacting workplace environments in a big way, and now headed into a fall and winter season that some fear could make things worse, there are a lot of organizations thinking and planning for the future of work.
At its recent Ignite customer event, Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) highlighted that it is clearly one of those companies thinking about the evolving work environment by unveiling several important new additions to its Teams collaboration platform. What’s most interesting about these developments isn’t the functionality they bring – though that’s certainly valuable – but how they reflect bigger picture issues about the evolution of the workplace.
At a basic level, some of the new Teams features are add-ons in the seemingly never-ending race to bring more flexibility to videoconferencing applications. As most of us do more and more videoconferences, it’s becoming painfully obvious that the initial novelty of being able to communicate digitally has worn off. People are now looking for the kinds of subtle, yet impactful, changes that can provide more variety and capability to these digital meetings.
For example, having evolved from “Brady Bunch” squares into something more interesting like Together Mode, Microsoft is now bringing additional Together Mode backgrounds into Teams, such as larger auditoriums for even bigger meetings, and coffee houses for smaller meetings. No, they’re not dramatic changes, but at least they’ll bring a bit of variety.
In addition, the company is evolving its background blurring technology to give people the ability to show up in front of their content, so that other meeting participants can see the gestures or other motions that people would typically make in front of a screen in a “normal” meeting.
Recognizing the role that digital meeting content can make for broadcasts and other video recordings, the company is also improving the ability to record and share video content from meetings. Specifically, it announced plans to add extensions for Teams that will allow it to more easily integrate with the NDI (Network Device Interface) standard for professional broadcasting, as well as providing a revised version of Microsoft Stream that makes it easier to share and find video content in file repositories like SharePoint.
Another important new development that has been bubbling up from the pandemic is the growing interest in and usage of low-code type application tools. Desperate times call for desperate measures, as they say, and the pandemic has created unique problems for organizations of all types that need to be quickly addressed. In particular, there’s been a real need to create solutions that impact how people share various information and data with their colleagues. Microsoft has been driving low code/no code efforts for some time with its Power Platform and Power BI, but at Ignite, the company also announced the ability to integrate more of these functions, including voice-controlled Power Virtual Agents, into Teams itself. As a result, Microsoft is making it easier for a wider range of employees to build simple apps and bots from templates and other automation-focused tools.
Certainly, the way in which people interact with co-workers and managers has also transformed during the pandemic, and Microsoft has provided tools to address these changes as well. For example, Teams now integrates capabilities to create more effective 1:1 meetings, including the ability to record them and then provide automatic transcriptions. The company has also started to integrate features to enable hybrid work environments into Teams and other tools, to accommodate a mixture of work-from-home employees and those who may have started returning to the office. This trend, in particular, could end up lasting for significantly longer than many people first anticipated, so it will be interesting to track.
Of course, another change in the workplace comes from the additional stress that we’re all feeling from a combination of non-stop energy-draining video calls, extended work hours that working-from-home has enabled, complete blurring of work and home life, and, frankly, just living through challenging times. To address this, Microsoft announced a number of intriguing options under the overall banner of wellbeing. Citrix (NASDAQ:CTXS) recently introduced a number of conceptually similar features for its Citrix Workspace offering, highlighting the importance both vendors and employers have started to place on mental health and other more personal concerns that most companies, quite honestly, have never given much thought to in the past.
In Microsoft’s case, the company plans to offer some simple tools that let employees share how they’re feeling, do meditation (in conjunction with partner Headspace), and even create a virtual commute to let people mentally ease themselves into and out of their workday.
All told, it’s an impressive set of capabilities that clearly demonstrate the strong focus on “employee experience” – the new mantra of the pandemic. Not all of it is going to make a significant difference for everyone – and honestly, if they aren’t done well, some of the new features could actually make things worse – but Microsoft’s head and (dare I say it?) heart seem to be in the right place.
Of course, one of the other realities of the new digital environments that tools like Teams can create is an incredible treasure trove of data on exactly how people really work. While Microsoft touts the value of the Graph that collects and allows people to analyze all this data, it could prove to be a bit too much monitoring for some people to stomach. The company has consistently highlighted its strong privacy stance and insisted that data in the Graph isn’t intended for Big Brother-style monitoring, but it’s a point they’re going to need to revisit and reclarify for some time to come.
The world of work, particularly office-focused work, has clearly been changed by the pandemic, and we’re all still learning how to adapt – including big tech vendors like Microsoft. The steps the company has taken with Teams, and many of its other tools, seem to reflect the needs that have arisen from our new work reality. How they ultimately work out remains to be seen – and how they continue to evolve will be even more interesting to watch – but for now, they look to be positive steps in the right direction.
Disclaimer: Some of the author’s clients are vendors in the tech industry
Editor’s Note: The summary bullets for this article were chosen by Seeking Alpha editors.