How Microsoft is reimagining meetings for a hybrid work world

Jun 8, 2021   |  

One of the most challenging aspects of leading the Employee Experience team at Microsoft is the deployment, maintenance, and support of thousands of conference rooms around the globe. Since employees often encounter different conference room technology—even within the same building—it can lead to frustration, delay, and even support calls. As a result, employees have consistently identified that experience as an area for improvement.

By investing in the meeting experience with Microsoft Teams and by reimagining the physical and virtual spaces where meetings take place, we’re laying a foundation of innovation that will help Microsoft employees and our customers thrive in the emerging hybrid world of work.

– Nathalie D’Hers, Corporate Vice President, Employee Experiences

With the advent of Microsoft Teams and the amazing innovation being driven by the product team, we saw an opportunity to transform Microsoft employee and customer meetings from a weakness to a strength. By investing in the meeting experience with Microsoft Teams and by reimagining the physical and virtual spaces where meetings take place, we’re laying a foundation of innovation that will help Microsoft employees and our customers thrive in the emerging hybrid world of work.

We’ve already seen satisfaction with meetings increase, while also making the migration to hybrid work more seamless for Microsoft and for our customers. How are we doing it? I’m glad you asked!

Simple questions, complex answers

For those who may be unfamiliar with hybrid work, Microsoft’s WorkLab blog describes it as …”a blended model where some employees return to the workplace and others continue to work from home.” The Microsoft 2021 Work Trend Index identified seven key trends driving the emerging hybrid workplace. While all seven are relevant, two stood out as we considered the hybrid work experience:

  1. Flexible work is here to stay, and
  2. Talent is everywhere in a hybrid work world

It was clear we had some work to do as a team to prepare for a hybrid future. My team started by asking two simple questions:

  • What is the value of the physical work environment in a hybrid work world?
  • What kind of meeting experiences satisfy the modern world of hybrid work?

Our answer to the first question was simple—to socialize and to collaborate. The pandemic has tested all of us in innumerable ways, but a common response from employees, even those who have enjoyed the flexibility to work from home, is how hard it can be to collaborate remotely. The ability to socialize and connect is closely related, as both of those activities build trust, an essential ingredient of successful teams. We determined that the meeting experience of the future needed to honor the value of physical space while making it possible for everyone to fully participate, regardless of where they were.

The second question was more complicated. We recognized the need for simple, powerful meeting experiences in our facilities and had been working on just that in the years leading up to the pandemic. But how could we reimagine the meeting experience for a newly hybrid work force to enable our employees to collaborate without friction and feel connected even while physically apart? Microsoft Teams has already implemented an innovative feature in Together Mode to help make hybrid teams more connected. But how could we take that vision to the next level?

The way things were—hybrid meetings in an in-person world

To answer that question, contributors across Microsoft began to build prototypes in a space we call “the Hive,” a design environment optimized for reimagining physical and virtual spaces. In the Hive, PMs, designers, and software engineers are empowered to question everything, so no idea goes unexplored, and no constraints go unchallenged. This approach led to breakthroughs across both physical and virtual space.

In the physical world, a typical Microsoft conference room consists of a rectangular table, with space for six to 18 people, dependent on room size. It’s a pretty traditional layout you’ve likely seen before. A large monitor or projector screen is mounted on a wall. In person attendees are oriented toward each other on either side of the table, not facing the screen unless they tilt their chairs. Online participants are out of sight during discussion, only visible when in-person participants are focused on the screen. Physical white boards are situated on either side of the table, out of view for online participants. Conference rooms were designed and optimized for in-person collaboration, inadvertently putting remote participants at a disadvantage.

In the virtual space, Teams focuses on a shared presentation or a “spotlighted” presenter. Whomever shares their screen needs to choose what additional details to display—the list of attendees? The chat window? Neither, in order to maximize presentation space? While Teams is highly optimized for the online meeting experience, the hybrid meeting experience was uneven. We realized we had some work to do if hybrid meetings were going to be the future of work at Microsoft and for many of our customers.

Building the perfect meeting

To address these shortcomings, we spun up a virtual team comprised of product engineers, representatives from our facilities team, and the Microsoft Digital team. Together, we imagined a new meeting room experience that would offer a corporate boardroom-like experience for all employees.

The team began by shifting the center of the room from the middle of a table to the halfway point between in-person and remote attendees. They imagined a “single pane” of content instead of multiple screens, where remote attendees could appear at eye level and approximately life size. With the seating arrangement allowing more viewable space, content takes center stage, with still more room for chat and other meeting content at the sides.

As the team iterated, they began to see an exciting new experience taking shape: one that brought people together across physical and virtual spaces. Remote attendees might join from their phone, their home, or a focus room somewhere else on campus, but each participant was on equal footing and on the same page.

We are the heartbeat of the employee experience across the company, the team that propels the company forward in terms of modern workplace patterns and practices and provides an inspirational enterprise blueprint for customers and partners.

– Andrew Wilson, Microsoft Chief Digital Officer

When we began to share these prototype designs, the response was immediate and enthusiastic. Unlike bespoke systems from some of our competitors, the new meeting room experience we had envisioned could be created and supported with commodity hardware at modest cost and powered via enhancements to our already ubiquitous Microsoft Teams product. We were thrilled when Microsoft Corporate Vice President Jared Spataro and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella chose to highlight this prototype environment in their talks at Microsoft Ignite, and I can’t wait to work with both to make this vision real for our employees and for our customers!

From “traditional IT” to “stewards of the Employee Experience”

While this new meeting experience doesn’t yet exist, it’s a great example of how my team inspires our Microsoft product teams by thinking holistically about the employee experience and driving innovation that helps our customers. This is how Andrew Wilson, our Chief Digital Officer and my boss, described the mission of my team:

We are the heartbeat of the employee experience across the company, the team that propels the company forward in terms of modern workplace patterns and practices and provides an inspirational enterprise blueprint for customers and partners.”

With this new prototype meeting room experience, we’re leading the way and preparing for a future of hybrid work, where everyone regardless of their physical location can collaborate, socialize, and feel like a trusted and important member of the team. To support that vision, we recently published a free guide for business leaders to help you navigate the complexities of the hybrid workplace. Coupled with inclusive meeting behaviors, we believe that hybrid meetings can be just as productive as in-person meetings.

We’re excited to be working with our counterparts in product development and facilities to turn this prototype into a real experience that will help everyone to be more productive. There’s no better way I can think of to demonstrate our commitment to Microsoft’s mission to Empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.

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