line of pay phones on the wall
Microsoft added voice calling to Teams, bringing it one step closer to being its all in one collaboration solution PHOTO: Eduardo Sánchez

Microsoft announced it was throwing all its communications eggs into the Teams basket and folding Skype for Business into Teams back in September. Since then, the company has been adding capabilities and features at a brisk pace. Its goal — to make Teams the primary client for calling and meetings in Office 365. Among the additions it hinted at during the Ignite conference was the addition of Graph’s data and insights into Teams, as well as new calling and meeting capabilities.

Last week, Microsoft unveiled new calling features that mimic those found in Skype for Business, including call history, speed dial, transfer, forwarding, caller ID masking and a number of other features. According to Microsoft, the addition of calling makes Teams a streamlined communications and collaboration environment with a single repository for content, contacts and communications.

The problem for the Redmond, Wash.-based company is that even if Teams serves as a one-stop shop for communicating and collaborating in the workplace, most organizations still use a variety of tools to fulfill their collaboration needs, including Slack for chatting, Google docs for file sharing, or Zoho that not only offers productivity software, but also customer relationship management capabilities among other capabilities at budget-friendly prices.

Teams Gains Collaboration Momentum

Jordan Owens is VP of Americas with Pexip, a Norwegian developer of an interoperable visual communications platform that works with Skype for Business through its Fusion gateway platform.

He said that before now, communication and collaboration had always been a separate “thread,” which occurred outside of other points of collaboration between workers. This created a functional separation between the conversational element of collaboration and the content-based ways in which people collaborate. According to Owens, the creation of a single content repository for individual and group chat, document sharing, voice and video collaboration will close the gap between performance and collaboration.

The new communication capabilities, however, are not just about enhancing an already robust product. The new capabilities will help Microsoft dominate the collaboration space, according to Mark Sami, vice president of Microsoft and Cloud solutions at Chicago-based digital technology consultancy SPR: “Teams has been gaining momentum in organizations as a collaboration tool and the continued introduction of new features will further its proliferation in the enterprise .... Teams is also becoming a great ad-hoc collaboration tool by allowing end users to quickly spin up and add users to small collaboration groups to share files and persisted discussion threads.”

More to the point, the self-service nature of the tool allows end users to utilize an enterprise's existing collaboration platforms — such as SharePoint in Office 365 or Exchange Shared mailboxes — from a simple-to-use tool. IT gets the control it needs and end users get the tools they need to get work done.

One Step Closer to Unified Interface Dreams

John Peluso is CTO of Jersey, N.J.-based AvePoint's Public Sector business. He said the release of the calling services resolves one of the major irritations in Microsoft’s Skype. In the beginning, he said, Skype for Business was the access point for all unified communications, including voice, IM and video. When chat was introduced in Microsoft Teams, it meant users could initiate or respond to instant messages within the Teams interface.

The evolution of video calls and scheduled voice-video meetings in Teams helped keep users in the Teams interface for the majority of their internal communications. However for organizations that leveraged the cloud PBX capabilities of Office 365, users were forced back into the Skype for Business interface to initiate or respond to calls.

“By now bringing the voice calling experience into Teams, we’re one step closer to the goal of a single interface that can support all of my internal and external communications,’ he said. “However, this is just a step on the journey that Microsoft detailed in its roadmap for Teams just after the Ignite conference in September. There are a currently a few 'gotchas' that could impact your users in certain scenarios, so organizations should carefully research the current limitations of calling in Teams before enabling these features."

Business Reaction

The reaction to the Skype for Business into Teams merger has already been welcomed across the small-to-medium (SMB) sector, one of Microsoft’s principal targets. Peter Yang is co-founder of ResumeGo, which has close to 50 employees spread out across the U.S. Many of its employees work remotely using Teams to collaborate on projects.

“I have high hopes for the merger of Skype for Business with Microsoft Teams. We love using Microsoft Teams, although it is occasionally somewhat buggy for us and has a couple minor gaps such as tricky meeting setup and lack of a guest access feature,” Yang told CMSWire. “Microsoft has promised to use artificial intelligence, machine learning, and speech recognition to improve meeting quality and functionality after this software merger, and I am excited to see how our experience will be enhanced by this new technology.”

Walter Van Uyten, CEO of Awingu is happy with Microsoft’s strategy here and says the real advantages for businesses are the synergies created by merging the two products: “Integrating Skype for Business into Microsoft Teams helps Teams at facilitating and improving collaboration. Chat (one-on-one and group) and bots are one part of the puzzle. Real time communication via call, video, chat and conferencing are another. Putting both together will drive synergies for the end-user. They’ll have one single tool to communicate and manage information instead of two different and non-integrated worlds.”

Finally, Ajay Kaul, managing partner of Folsom, Calif.-based digital technology consultancy AgreeYa Solutions pointed to the increased value created by instant communication and easier collaboration among colleagues across different teams and from different regions of the world. This type of communication also breaks down silos and encourages information-sharing and innovation.

“Unintuitive technology and disorganized virtual workspaces can cause employees to become stressed, thereby triggering disengagement,’ Kaul told CMSWire when asked about communications in the digital workplace. “This is a powerful distraction with enormous workplace costs. In the U.S. one study estimated that workplace stress caused absenteeism, productivity losses and sick leave in 2010 at a cost to employers of $300 billion. With intelligent virtual workspaces, employees can easily see the tasks that need their attention and take the necessary actions when applicable.”

The final shape of Teams won’t be known until next year and even then it will be subject to ongoing development. However, it is clear that anything that breaks down content silo walls can only be a good thing and that Microsoft is working to make Teams break those walls down as it develops.