With tens of millions of new users now working from home thanks to COVID-19, Microsoft has been busy updating Teams, increasing the number of on-screen participants to 49, adding background noise suppression, and more.
Today it adds several more new features, including Together mode, which places video meeting participants in the same virtual room, and a new class of hardware device, the Microsoft Teams Display, to be manufactured by partners such as Lenovo and Yealink.
A new Dynamic mode, meanwhile, mostly catches up with Zoom features like highlighting the speaker window and prioritizing participants who are sharing video. New video filters let users adjust lighting and live emoji reactions and messages appear over your video as chat bubbles.
Exploring the Future of Work and Education
“When it comes to [digital] transformation, every month feels like the equivalent of a year. We’ve reached an inflection point, and the future of work and education is being shaped at this very moment,” says Jared Spataro, Microsoft’s corporate VP of Microsoft 365 and Microsoft Teams.
Microsoft has tapped its customers, its own research, and third-party researchers to learn the shape of this new paradigm. “Workspaces and work are becoming more fluid, changing when, where, and how we work,” Spataro says. The company found that interactions on Teams between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. and between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. have increased by 15 to 23 percent, and Teams chats on Saturday and Sunday increased by 200 percent.
As to where we work, “the pandemic has shown us that we can do more outside the office than we’d ever imagined.” Eighty-two percent of managers expected more flexible work-from-home policies post-pandemic, and 61 percent of schools expect to use a hybrid learning environment in the coming school year.
Working from home has made remote workers more empathetic with colleagues after seeing their home lives. On the downside, remote collaboration and video meetings are more stressful than their analog counterparts, increasing gamma and beta brainwaves that indicate overwork and fatigue. Sixty percent feel less connected to colleagues, as well.
Spataro says the trends aren’t going away: Even in countries that have largely conquered the pandemic—Singapore, South Korea, and New Zealand—Teams daily active users are up by over 100 percent. They’re also now twice as likely to turn on video than pre-pandemic.
Read Microsoft’s full findings in its Work Trend Index Report.
New Microsoft Teams Features
The new Teams features address three goals: making people feel more connected and reducing fatigue; making meetings more inclusive and engaging; and streamlining work to save time. In brief, here’s what’s new:
This new view mode uses AI segmentation technology to place participants in a shared background.
This helps prioritizes video participants and gives people more control over what content they see. It highlights the speaker, and lets you view chosen contacts side by side.
These let you adjust lighting and focus to customize your appearance.
Instead of hoping participants will open the chat panel, you can pop an emoji right on your own video window for all to see. Related to this are Chat bubbles, which appear on the main screen as opposed to in the separate chat pane.
Chat polling (Image: Microsoft)
Reflect messaging extension
This is a chat polling feature that gives team leaders a way to appraise members’ frame of mind.
PowerPoint Live integration
This presentation option lets viewers go back and forward in the slides at their own pace without affecting the main presentation.
Live Transcripts and Speaker attribution (Image: Microsoft)
Live Transcripts and Speaker attribution
Coming later this year, Live Transcripts will provide a way for participants to review what was said in a meeting. Eventually, translation will be available too. Speaker attribution means you’ll see who said what.
The Tasks button will let you view to-do items aggregated from Microsoft To Do, Planner, and Outlook.
Together Mode (Image: Microsoft)
This video mode is designed to make participants feel like they’re sitting in the same room as other attendees. The auditorium view is rolling out first, to be followed by classroom and conference room views. Though it looks artificial, it has the advantage of unifying the background to relieve the distraction of everyone’s varying home spaces behind them. It also is supposed to increase social connection by making eye gaze feel more natural and to facilitate taking turns to speak. If someone raises their hand in this view, it’s clear they want to speak. High-fiving in this view is also possible—and encouraged.
Cortana Is Back!
Cortana on the Teams mobile app (Image: Microsoft)
Microsoft signaled a move to a business focus for Cortana last year. Windows’ digital assistant uses AI and the Microsoft Graph (basically all your business data) can help you get in touch with people or find files, even while you’re out somewhere with your mobile phone. This version of Cortana is accessible from the microphone button in the mobile Teams app. You can ask what’s on your schedule, schedule a meeting, or send a message or document to other team members.
The tool is intelligent enough that you don’t need to say the exact name of a document or contact, for example. Cortana also sends a daily briefing email in the morning to catch you up and lets you designate Focus time, notifying your colleagues and quieting notifications. According to Microsoft, the Cortana features in Teams will implement “Microsoft 365 privacy, security, and compliance commitments.”
And More …
A slew of other enhancements and updates join these features; things like quick suggested replies in chat and PowerPoint Live integration and Microsoft Whiteboard updates. Up to 1,000 participant will be possible, and for broadcasts that number rises to 20,000.
The Microsoft Teams Display
Microsoft Teams Displays (Image: Microsoft)
This new device category will first be manufactured by partners such as Lenovo (with the ThinkSmart) and Yealink.
According to Karan Nigam, Microsoft Group Product Marketing Manager for Teams, the Teams Display is “an ambient touch screen as well as a hands-free experience powered by Cortana.” You can use it for chat, meetings, calls, calendar, and file viewing. The Display pairs with a laptop as a companion device, rather than working by itself. You can open a document on the PC from the device as well, join a meeting by voice, or even take actions like presenting a deck to the meeting team.
The device has hardware toggles for the webcam and mic for privacy. A mobile room remote app will be available to control the Teams Display. Microsoft’s Teams blog post states that the devices will have “the ability to wirelessly cast to any Teams Room, collaboration bar or Surface Hub device, enabling seamless ad-hoc in-person collaboration for people in a shared space.”