example of a team meeting in Microsoft Teams Together mode
PHOTO: Microsoft

Teams was already the fastest growing application in Microsoft's history before COVID-19, with its importance for the company steadily increasing over the past two years. However, since March it has become a flagship product for the company's brand, more than doubling its daily active users in just a few weeks to reach 75 million.

Like many of its competitors in the video conferencing space, Microsoft has dramatically accelerated its release cycle in recent weeks to meet growing demand from users who are now living in Teams all day every day. Recently released features include support for up to 49 videos in a single view, virtual backgrounds, pop-out chat and video windows, virtual breakout rooms and larger meeting sizes. Let's just say that Zoom's sudden popularity has certainly put the pressure on other players to deliver a certain user experience for video.

Microsoft Teams: New Features Aplenty

Last week, Microsoft announced yet another set of new features. While previous releases may have sometimes felt a little copycat in nature, we're now starting to see the strength of Microsoft's credentials in research and development — and its investment and commitment to the Teams strategy — coming through loud and clear.

The latest enhancements all focus on improving the user experience, particularly within the meetings area of the product. And yes, a few new features will be familiar to users of Zoom or Facebook Live, such as live reactions (hearts, applause, laughter and so on).

But Microsoft is now carving out its own path by thinking more about how we work in meetings and optimizing the experience, while also giving participants more control over what they see. A new Dynamic View automatically adjusts to prioritize video participants over audio-only in the view. It also allows users to pin one or more individual's videos alongside shared screen content, so you can see the presenter(s) clearly while also viewing the presentation, for example. New chat bubbles in meetings mean you don't have to have the chat panel open to see new messages, and live captions and transcripts now also include the speaker's name, making them much more valuable for tracking decision-making processes, for example.

Related Article: The State of Play With Microsoft Teams

Teams Together Mode: A Sign of What's to Come

However, although these are all valuable new features, it's the new Together mode in Teams that really stands out. At first glance, it seems like a bit of a gimmick: meeting participants are all superimposed on an auditorium-style virtual background. To be honest, there is a slight sense of Instagram filters to it — something that might be off-putting in a business context. However, there's a lot more to this feature than just gimmicky backgrounds, and it's worth digging a bit deeper into why Microsoft is heading in this direction.

Two things are particularly important to understand the significance of Together mode. Look a little closer, and you'll notice that your video — and everyone else's — is mirrored, which is unusual in video meeting tools. Secondly, everyone has their own "seat," and the seating plan appears the same for every participant, rather than switching around based on who is speaking.

Microsoft's research indicates that these two features, combined with abstracting participants from their backgrounds and placing them in a shared background, fundamentally change the experience of a video meeting, making it more natural, more interactive and less tiring. Given the number of video meetings many of us now participate in each day, and the expectation that remote work will remain our default mode for some time, this is a really important consideration.

Related Article: Why Technology Can Still Create Obstacles to Remote Working

Drawing on Virtual Reality Concepts

Microsoft's approach here draws on its developers' background in the virtual reality arena, and offers some interesting perspectives on how virtual meetings need to evolve. As well as touching on hot topics such as employee well-being and productivity, it also addresses the challenge faced by more and more businesses of how to recreate a sense of connectedness or togetherness among teams, and how to spark the energy that organizations rely on to drive innovation and creativity and maintain business momentum. These are areas where we expect to see a lot of activity in the technology market, and it's positive to see Microsoft taking a proactive role here.

We're entering a new era for collaboration and productivity tools. Where once these were nice-to-have applications, they're now fundamental to ensure businesses can continue to operate in any similar situation in the future. The sheer volume of usage that these tools are experiencing throughout this pandemic is inevitably driving new understanding and new expectations about their role in supporting day-to-day work and enabling organizational culture to be not just maintained, but to thrive and evolve.

This will soon be a hotbed of innovation, with many start-ups bringing new and alternative perspectives on how technology can transform the way we work. However, it's clear that Microsoft sees this as a territory it's determined to claim, and it will continue to be a formidable competitor.