When the pandemic caused chaos across our working lives, Microsoft Teams, along with other collaboration tools, helped to keep the UK working. Nick Hedderman, Director, Modern Work & Security Business Group, Microsoft UK, spoke to Johanna Hamilton AMBCS about this new normal.

On 23 March 2020, Boris Johnson announced that everyone who could work from home, should work from home. Something of a dream come true for software companies who had been creating collaboration tools for some time. But was this really the dream ticket for Microsoft, or a scaling up nightmare?

Will we ever, physically, go ‘back to work’?

I don't think it will ever be the same and I think that's a good thing. We did a survey of UK employees last year and found that 72% of managers liked this new approach of working. But, interestingly, 62% of people said that they need some form of human connection and I think it’s really important to underline that some things are best done in person.

Our belief is that the ‘hybrid organisation’ is the future. I think the office will become a more purposeful space. A place where you come together very purposefully to have connection, to be creative, to meet with customers or partner communities.

A great time to transform

It's certainly been a positive time for digital transformation as a whole. I wouldn't just say specifically for Teams but, of course, Teams has become absolutely critical in that journey for many of our customers. Our CEO summed up perfectly back in April when he said, "We've seen two years of transformation in two months." 

We’re up to 115m daily active users for Teams worldwide, and in Microsoft 365 apps including Teams, Word, and Outlook, more than 30  billion collaboration minutes were generated in a single day between July to September last year. It's just incredible to think about the scale of the platform and how it's helping people to stay connected, to stay collaborative and stay working together.

‘I think a lot of organisations had digital transformation on their agenda but it has ultimately been sped up and I think that's really healthy for the UK economy long term. Although the circumstances in which it happened aren’t pleasant, organisations are now recovering and some are taking the opportunity to re-imagine how they think about their organisation and their operations.’

How did Microsoft manage that sudden skyrocket?

It's a great example of Azure in action. If you think back to the middle of March last year, especially in Europe, there was suddenly a day where everyone started working from home. We thought that that might happen, we were starting to get ready for it and we were able to scale incredibly quickly, without any major downtime.

‘There were a few customers that felt a few teething pains in the first few days and I think that that would always be expected. Anyone in the IT industry will understand that whenever you scale, you're always going to have a few niggles here and there - but how you ultimately respond is critical.’

Has Teams become a great leveller?

I would argue that a virtual meeting is actually a better platform for equality and inclusion than a face-to-face meeting. We can all think about those times where you've had to walk into a room: where do I sit? Do I leave a space for the most important or the senior person that's not here yet? How do you get your voice across in a physical environment, especially if you're perhaps a little more shy or introverted?

‘I think big meetings where people come together to review, to update, to make decisions is actually better done virtually.

‘Last year, we announced a new feature called Together mode, designed largely around the pandemic. It's a view that you can create in Teams that looks like a university auditorium, so you can see where everyone is “sat” in the room.

In a video grid, not everyone is in the same place on each screen, whereas in Together Mode, everyone's stays in the same “seat”, so you all know where to look. It also helps to know when a person is looking and it’s easier to pick up on people's body language cues. So, that’s creating a much more inclusive meeting environment.

Through research that measured brain activity when using Together mode we also discovered that the human brain exerts less effort when participating in a meeting that uses Together mode when compared to the traditional grid view. This suggested to us that Together mode may also help with reducing the feeling of meeting fatigue that we can all too often experience when remote working.

‘At our latest virtual Ignite conference in September 2020, we also announced several new features designed to support Teams’ role in equalising meeting experiences for customers. New scenes are now available in Together mode, and breakout rooms for webinars and new wellbeing experiences are now available, to help people decompress from the virtual day.’

Does Teams have accessibility modes?

‘So, we have a real focus on making sure that we we're bringing in a diverse group of people into our organisation. We also adhere to design principles to make it personal, keep it simple and also make it delightful.

‘Specifically in Teams, we have the ability to turn on subtitling, which uses our AI and language technology. You can now get a transcript. The whole recording can be shared so people can watch and re-watch, skip forwards and back and there's lots of nice metadata that you can use to help examine the video footage.

Do you feel this change has highlighted the lack of digital literacy in the UK?

There is certainly an issue that not everyone is connected because they don’t have access to a device or Wi-Fi. Whilst most people adapt quickly to the use of new software, not everyone knows how to use the programs.

Microsoft has made a major investment and announcement around digital skills. It's something we've always invested in but we've really supercharged that conversation since the pandemic and with so many people looking for new work.

Last October, we also announced a five-year campaign to help 1.5 million people build careers in technology and help 300,000 connect to tech job opportunities. Our Get On 2021 campaign builds on Microsoft’s one-year global skills initiative and will train people who are in education, those new to tech those who have had their jobs impacted by the crisis. With this, we’re advancing the skills of tech professionals, and helping leaders who need to embrace new business models and deploy technology to drive organisations forward.

Microsoft Learn is our new website, where anyone can go to retrain or learn. It’s a really critical area for us and we're investing heavily into it.

Have you seen any bad actors exploiting Teams?

Trust is critical to our organisation and so we invest a lot of time and effort into security. We've got thousands of engineers working on this all the time. Our digital detection response team phrase themselves as “the team you never want to meet”! But they're out there working hard to battle this space, push us forward and also help our customers to be more secure.

Now more than ever, workers need  the reassurance that their virtual conversations are private and secure. At Microsoft, neither are ever an afterthought. It’s our commitment to our customers and end users.

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Within Teams specifically, there are some things that we stand by as principles. Microsoft Teams protects your data, privacy and helps individuals and companies stay compliant. We don't serve ads. Data is deleted at the expiration of the subscription. We have we have a bunch of measures in place to ensure data is restricted and carefully defined, depending on government requirements, such as GDPR.

You can access your own customer data at any time for any reason, because it's your tenant, it's your data, it's your cloud. Everything is very transparent; we have the transparency hub where we share a lot of that information. It's a principle thing, much like accessibility, actually. It's a principle that impacts all of our products, not just Teams.’

We believe that data-driven insights are crucial to empowering people and organisations to achieve more. We also believe that privacy is a human right, and we’re deeply committed to the privacy of every person who uses our products.

What’s coming next for Teams? Are there more features you’re planning to roll out?

I think recognising the move towards hybrid work is critical and it's important to think about Teams as not just a way in which you virtually meet each other but also as a platform for collaboration, engagement and experience.

Interestingly, where we've seen the rise in users, most of them are doing more than just meeting, they're actually sharing documents and collaborating with each other. With Teams as a hub, Microsoft 365 brings the power of the cloud to every person, providing them with a secure, integrated experience designed for a new world of work. 

I also think you'll see much more when it comes to it being a platform for development and independent software vendors, whether that's publishing applications into our store that everyone can access and license for different scenarios or bespoke development for an organisation’s needs. I think creating richer meeting experiences will be an area in which we'll continue to invest.

I believe Together mode will come into its own. If you look at some of the science behind that, the new technology will create a deeper connection between the virtual and physical space. We will also be working with our OEM community, the likes of Logitech, HP, Poly and others to help make their hardware work really well to facilitate this virtual and physical coming together. We're constantly innovating and thinking about how we can include all of our partners.

What about AI?

I think AI will continue to play a critical role in augmenting employees’ experience. A principle of AI is to augment rather than replace. It's here to make employee decision making more powerful and insightful, and make things like designing PowerPoint slides much easier with features like the ideas generator which helps to improve design, using AI in the background.

Companies are sitting on a ton of data that is gathered in the Microsoft graph - we need to look at how that surfaces and how it can be used to help make better decisions.

In 2019, we announced Project Cortex - a Microsoft 365 initiative designed to equip people with expertise and knowledge in the apps they use daily using advanced AI. Last year, we decided to make these AI-powered capabilities available to customers, including SharePoint Syntex. We recently released other services that organise information into topics and deliver knowledge to enable a richer M365 experience for employees.’

With AI, you’ve got to make sure that the input is right. It’s about having a view of inclusion and equality in the way that the data is collected, in order to get the right outcome. That's a principle point for us - and one that needs to be discussed across the industry.

How is Microsoft making IT good for society?

‘Diversity and inclusion are at the heart of the way we think as an organisation. They're not just words on paper, we take action to support that.

‘If I think back to when Satya came in as the new CEO and the journey that he's taking us on culturally; we talk about having a growth mindset and we think about how we create a more diverse and inclusive workplace to support the culture we all want.

‘We find a lot of our customers are very interested in that story and, more often than not, I find when I'm talking to customers, I'm often sharing our cultural journey with them as much as our products. We share the lessons we've learned in our own journey. That helps our customers, in turn, to be able to legitimise and scale out their own aspirations. And equally, we learn from other companies, so it's a two-way thing.’