Microsoft's launch of Microsoft Viva on Feb. 4 marks a new chapter in the company's employee applications strategy, one which builds on its increasingly dominant position in employee productivity and collaboration with Teams to embrace the burgeoning field of employee experience.

Viva combines tools to support employee engagement and well-being, learning and knowledge management, as well as experience analytics, all delivered through Microsoft Teams. In many cases the capabilities on offer have been available in disparate applications, however the reorganization into a single platform casts them in a new light geared at business users beyond the IT department. The platform also sees some of Microsoft's previous acquisitions playing a more central role. 

It's All About Employee Experience

Microsoft is tapping into a broader employee experience zeitgeist with Viva. Employee experience has been a growing focus for some time now, thanks in part to people's rising expectations about how they want their business tools to work, and compounded by increased complexity in the tools they rely on to do their job. It's an area that also has implications for attracting and retaining the best talent, with CCS Insight's research showing that 76% of employees consider a good workplace technology experience to be an important factor in employment decisions.

However, the employee experience has come even more under the spotlight in recent months. The shift to widespread remote working during the pandemic has exposed weaknesses in businesses' abilities to support and connect employees and maintain the corporate culture when people are away from the office environment. And with flexible working here to stay — 56% of employees want to work from home at least one day per week post-COVID-19, according to CCS Insight research — businesses are now recognizing the urgent need to address these weaknesses. They must invest in solutions and strategies that help employees feel connected to their organization wherever they work, to feel part of the community and culture, to feel valued and supported in their career growth, and ultimately to want to contribute to the company's overall success.

Related Article: How the CIO and CHRO Will Rethink Employee Experience Together

Employee Experience, a Hotspot of Supplier Activity

Unsurprisingly, employee experience is also a hot topic for software providers, with an array of solutions approaching these challenges from different angles. Some focus on employee enablement, for example through learning and development or employee onboarding solutions. There's a strong overlap here with employee engagement, and this type of software clearly targets HR buyers.

Other providers focus on analyzing the employee experience, taking advantage of the tools employees use to assess and ultimately improve their experience. There are three groups of solutions here, and they're split into those that analyze:

  • The performance of IT applications, devices and services used by employees to allow IT teams to track and resolve potential problems, for example in an employee's network connectivity, device startup or login, or while they use an application.
  • The way people use their tools and applications to identify concerning patterns of behavior, surfacing this to employees or business leaders so that issues can be addressed.
  • Employee sentiment, based on their responses to surveys or their conversations in workplace collaboration applications, using natural language processing and artificial intelligence.

Related Article: Microsoft Viva – Who Is it For?

A Unified Employee Experience Platform

Microsoft Viva is interesting in that it spans several, although not yet all, of these areas. Positioned as a unified solution for employee experience, Viva is currently comprised of four components: Connections, Topics, Learning and Insights. These are delivered as four new "apps" for Microsoft Teams, exploiting existing and previously announced capabilities within the Microsoft portfolio, from products including SharePoint, LinkedIn Learning and Glint. Viva Connections, Viva Topics and Viva Learning lean heavily toward employee enablement, whereas Viva Insights tackles some of the experience analytics scenarios.

Viva Connections

Viva Connections allows organizations to provide a curated communications experience to employees. In practical terms, it's a way to surface a personalized, SharePoint-based intranet experience within Teams. This capability was announced at Microsoft Ignite in September 2020, where it was referred to as the Home Site App. It's something that many internal communications and intranet professionals have been demanding for some time, allowing businesses to join the dots between day-to-day team collaboration and organization-wide connections and relationships that support knowledge-sharing and define the organization culture.

Viva Topics

As the second output from Microsoft's Project Cortex initiative, Viva Topics surfaces topic-based information in Teams, so that employees don't need to break their workflow to search for information. It uses artificial intelligence to reason about content and collaborative project activity in Microsoft 365 to identify topics and expertise in the organization, creating a dynamic, interactive knowledge repository. It can work alongside SharePoint Syntex, the first release from Project Cortex which launched at Ignite 2020.

With Viva Topics, users can hover over a topic referenced in a conversation or content in Teams to see a summary card that shows relevant documents and experts in that subject. They can also see all the collected information associated with it by navigating to the full page within the Viva Topics app in Teams.

Viva Learning

The Viva Learning module is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the announcement as it sees Microsoft finally embracing online learning as part of its portfolio of employee applications. It brings together learning content from a range of sources including LinkedIn Learning and Microsoft Learn (the company's own free learning content resource), as well as third-party and custom learning content.

Employees can search for and access learning content directly in Teams, while managers can assign courses to team members and track progress. A learning tab can be created in each Teams channel, allowing team leaders to aggregate and recommend relevant material. Later in 2021, Microsoft will also introduce support for integration with learning management systems including Cornerstone OnDemand, Saba and SAP SuccessFactors.

Viva Insights

Viva Insights sees Workplace Analytics and MyAnalytics — the Microsoft 365 dashboards that offer insights about team collaboration, personal productivity, effectiveness and well-being — now surfaced directly in Teams. These dashboards assess the health of the workforce by processing data about how employees use tools like Outlook and Teams throughout their workday, for example, how long they spend in meetings, use of the tools outside normal working hours, and who they're connecting with in the organization.

MyAnalytics highlights personalized data to employees to help them work in a healthier and more effective way, whereas Workplace Analytics provides aggregated and anonymized data to team leaders. The new "virtual commute" capability in MyAnalytics, announced at Ignite 2020, will also become part of Viva Insights when it becomes generally available.

Microsoft also announced a new dashboard in Viva Insights that combines Workplace Analytics data with data from Glint, the employee sentiment and engagement tracking platform that LinkedIn acquired in 2018. This starts to see Microsoft joining the dots between its various employee experience analytics tools and raises some interesting questions about future developments here.

Learning Opportunities

Related Article: Microsoft Viva Debuts, An Employee Experience Platform for the Hybrid Workplace

A New Opportunity for Microsoft

It's clear that Microsoft sees an important opportunity in employee experience. It's a way to expand the conversation with customers beyond the IT department — where Teams has been hugely successful — into areas such as communications and HR, and with line-of-business leaders more broadly, who are increasingly conscious of employee enablement and well-being thanks to the shift to remote and hybrid work.

To a large extent, the launch version of Microsoft Viva is a reorganization and refocussing exercise as the company brings together various previously disparate capabilities, aligning them to answer a specific business problem. However, this is undoubtedly only the beginning for Viva, and the new brand provides a focus and platform for the company's future investments in employee experience. From a revenue standpoint, Viva also opens a new stream for Microsoft: as the first generally available app, Viva Topics is priced at $5 per user per month, with pricing for the other apps yet to be announced.

A Work in Progress

Viva is an important launch for Microsoft, but the product will continue to evolve and gain shape in the coming months. In particular, I expect the company to fine-tune its solution for online learning as it works out where it needs to deliver native functionality in the Viva Learning app, and where it can rely on partners.

However, it's fascinating to finally see assets from the LinkedIn portfolio, which Microsoft acquired nearly five years ago now, playing a more central role in the company's employee apps story and feeding more directly into the Microsoft flywheel. Glint's integration is also particularly important in the context of Viva's employee experience capabilities, and I wouldn't be surprised to see Glint gain a higher profile in the Viva story in the future.

In Viva Insights, one piece from the Microsoft portfolio that isn't yet part of the Viva narrative is Microsoft Productivity Score. Launched late in 2020, Productivity Score combines data about how employees use collaboration tools for work with data about their technology experience — for example whether their devices are running the latest versions of Microsoft 365 apps. Although this is positioned as an IT tool rather than a business tool, there are some obvious overlaps with the Viva Insights capabilities, and there's potential for Microsoft to bring these together. 

It's worth noting however that Microsoft is treading carefully with Productivity Score after it had to roll back some pre-launch functionality following backlash about employee privacy, so this is perhaps why it is not included in the launch version of Viva. CCS Insight’s research shows that employees are particularly concerned about employers increasing monitoring where it’s perceived as tracking their individual productivity or wellbeing, so there’s a definite balance to be walked between the needs of employers and the privacy of employees in this area.

Another area that was missing, or at least very underplayed in the Viva announcement, is the role of online communities in connecting employees across a business, to enable knowledge sharing and remove silos in an organization. In the Microsoft portfolio, this function is enabled by Yammer, which doesn't seem to be a significant part of Viva at the moment. Given that social interaction is the number one challenge employees face when working remotely, according to CCS Insight's research, this seems like a missed opportunity for Microsoft.

Related Article: Lack of Social Interaction Tops Remote Work Challenges

The Start of Something Big

Overall, this is a big move for Microsoft, and I have no doubt we're only scratching the surface in terms of its implications for the company's strategy in the years ahead. Employee experience is a broad, complex and nebulous concept, but it's becoming an investment priority for businesses, both from an IT and a non-IT perspective, so it's important for Microsoft to have a clear play here. It's early days for Microsoft Viva, and the picture isn't fully formed yet. But it's really positive to see the scale of focus and investment the company is placing on employee experience.

For certain, the Viva launch underlines the importance of Microsoft Teams in the company's strategy. Thanks to its impressive market penetration and usage, Teams is now the focal point for all employee applications in the Microsoft portfolio — not just Office 365 and Microsoft 365 applications, but also Power Platform, Dynamics 365 and LinkedIn apps.

The number of third-party apps for Teams is also rising fast, with more than 800 now available. The challenge, however, is how its user interface manages this increasingly vast collection of capabilities and apps in a way that doesn't overwhelm users.

From an employee experience perspective, one tool may indeed be easier than multiple disconnected tools, but this doesn't mean that the tool itself is easy to use. The more capabilities there are, be they native or from third parties, the more important it is to hide that complexity from users. Microsoft will need to invest extensively here as usage of Teams expands.

Editor's Note: The article has been updated to clarify Viva Topic's relationship to Project Cortex and SharePoint Syntex.

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