Microsoft is planning a series of major updates to Microsoft Teams to help smooth the transition to hybrid working patterns.
While some people have now returned to the office or are contemplating doing so in countries where Covid-19 is under control, many are likely to shift to a mixture of days spent working-from-home and days in the office. Microsoft recognizes that, and has been working on a series of new features to "put everyone on equal footing" wherever they're working.
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“To work effectively in hybrid and asynchronous models, people need a super-rich canvas that both creates and maintains context before, during, and after the meeting,” wrote Jared Spataro, corporate vice president for Microsoft 365 in a blog post explaining the upcoming changes.
One way of doing this is the introduction of dynamic widgets, which allow workers to create anything from tables to task lists within Teams, work on them together in real time, and then copy and paste to other chat threads or Outlook with the data still synchronized.
There are other smaller but extremely welcome changes coming, too. You’ll now be able to pin messages, ensuring that key information isn’t lost in a sea of background chatter. You’ll be able to quote messages you’re replying to, as well, meaning that the context of what you’re writing won’t be lost on other chat participants. And you’ll soon be able to co-author meeting notes and action lists, with the text automatically imported to OneNote after the catch-up ends.
The remote social divide
While these are sensible steps to ensure that remote workers aren’t left at a practical disadvantage when collaborating with their office-based teammates, Microsoft is also looking to deal with problems that are harder to pinpoint.
Unintentionally, remote workers can often be forgotten when they’re not physically present, and Microsoft is hoping that a change in layout to Teams Rooms will help reduce this problem.
The new design will see remote participants getting more screen space to give them “a greater sense of physical presence in the meeting room.” If said room has two screens, the remote workers will be spread across both, giving them an even greater presence.
Elsewhere, the Microsoft Viva Insights app for Teams is tackling one of the more elusive issues of remote working: isolation and its effect on mental health. Wellness software Headspace will be integrated into the app later this month, allowing employees to work through guided meditation and mindfulness exercises, helping them prepare for a big presentation or unwind and switch off before calling it a day. It also offers integration with Focus mode, where music and timers can help you work without getting distracted.
“Back-to-back meetings increase stress and make it harder to stay engaged and focused,” wrote Malavika Rewari, a senior product manager from the Microsoft 365 marketing team, noting that weekly meeting time had more than doubled in Teams since the start of the pandemic. “In just a few minutes a day, meditation and mindfulness with Headspace can help you reduce stress and improve focus.”
These improvements certainly sound beneficial, though it’s hard to know how many of the cultural changes to the way we work will stick once the virus is well and truly under control. Many businesses may want employees back in the office for better collaboration or simply because they want to keep a closer eye on their workforce. Others will jump at the opportunity to save on building and equipment costs by keeping workers remote.
With the changes to Teams, which will be rolled out over the course of 2021, Microsoft hopes to be the collaboration software of choice, no matter which way the wind ends up blowing.
But it faces plenty of competition on this front: Google is also rolling out updates to Meet and is eliminating the need to pay to access Google Workspace, as it also goes after the world's hybrid workers.
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