Microsoft’s key tool in connecting a distributed workforce is its Teams communication platform. At Microsoft Ignite, the company announced a slew of new features in Teams to reduce work-from-home stress and improve collaboration regardless of location.

Social distancing has accelerated the pace of remote work adoption to near light speed. Jared Spataro, corporate vice president for Microsoft 365, wrote in a blog post that Microsoft has navigated the equivalent of a year of digital transformation every month throughout 2020.

As more and more people transformed their living rooms, bedrooms, and kitchen into their new offices, remote work splintered into two opposite narratives. One crowd gladly embraced the change; according to a report From the Grossman Group, 48 per cent of employees want to continue working from home after the pandemic. Top tech companies, including Facebook, Twitter, Google and Microsoft all have prepared new policies centred around remote work.

But another crowd resented the change. Microsoft found that over 30 per cent of first-line and information workers were feeling more burned out at work. Remote workers listed the lack of separation between work and life and feeling disconnected from their peers as the top reason for the burnout.

Regardless of personal work preferences, almost everyone missed face-to-face interactions to some degree. Gone were the gossips at the watercooler, a stroll in the park during lunch, or after-work happy hours. Even in North America’s individualistic culture, complete isolation can prove too detrimental.

To transform the future workplace experience, Spataro broke down Microsoft’s strategy into seven key focuses.

  • Reimagine teamwork culture and social capital digitally.
  • Prioritize individual well-being.
  • Help people learn, reinvent and grow with the pace of change.
  • Unlock the data knowledge and expertise of the entire organization.
  • Automate processes and workflows to increase discontinuous innovation.
  • Include everyone in digital transformation.
  • Ensure a trusted, secure, modern experience.

Spataro stressed the importance for organizations to look beyond solely improving efficiency through advanced technology and focus on its workers’ mental and physical well-being. After all, it’s just common sense that healthy, happy employees are more productive.

“Machines don’t create value, people do,” Spataro said on stage. “And you can’t treat people like machines. Up to this point, technology has been focused on efficiency. And I think that’s a fallacy. Sustainable productivity for people isn’t just about efficiency. People need cycles of performance, and they need cycles of recovery.”

The feeling of isolation when working remotely has been lurked prior to the pandemic, and social distancing has amplified its outreach. Teams has new features to combat the stress from confinement, features like together view that places all video chat participants in one view instead of separate grid boxes. Later this year, Microsoft will be adding more scenes for together mode.

Additionally, presenters will be able to choose how to best display their content using custom layouts that transpose the video stream on top of the foreground. Participants will also be able to brainstorm in the new Breakout Room feature, which divides meeting participants into smaller, more intimate groups.

Microsoft Teams will receive well-being features and productivity insights powered by MyAnalytics and Workplace Analytics. They analyze an employee’s work and communication patterns to provide actionable insights into managing their role better. And because social distancing can adversely impact mental health, Teams will receive emotional check-in experience and integration with Headspace, a meditation guidance app, come next year. Finally, to alleviate the feeling of separation, Teams will make scheduling 1:1 meetings much easier. A new praise function lets team members share their appreciation for each other throughout a project.

One of the marquee benefits of working remotely is eliminating the drudgery of a long commute. While studies have shown that happiness can be impacted by the length of the commute, Microsoft says that it can increase productivity. It has found that self-reflection during a commute can boost productivity by 12-15 per cent. To mimic this effect, Microsoft Teams will get the Virtual Commute feature next year. The feature is centred around providing a structured start and window before and after a workday.

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