Every company faces significant decisions on how to build the workplace of the future. Digitizing the business moved from optional to essential for every industry over the past two years. But there are still many choices ahead of us. One critical issue focuses on attracting and retaining talent in the era of the Great Resignation. Suddenly, workplace technologies are at the forefront of IT purchases as companies seek to deliver simple yet powerful employee experiences. At Microsoft’s Ignite conference, Jared Spataro, Corporate Vice President for Modern Work at Microsoft, shared a vision on the small and large ways workplaces will change over the next decade. Microsoft should know. Its software powers collaboration for 250 million Microsoft Teams users and the company has seen tremendous growth in its cloud computing and software services.
Given the massive growth in productivity and collaboration services, you may be wondering what’s next? Spataro’s keynote covered many topics, but at least three stood out: Context IQ, Loop and Mesh. Let’s take a moment to look at how these concepts will provide a foundation for a different world of hybrid work.
More intelligence with Context IQ.
Lopez Research frequently advises customers on creating Right-time Experiences that deliver insight to the right individual at the right time. Right-time experiences require applications to provide workflows that are contextual, adaptive, learning, and predictive. One of the challenges with this concept is that most of today’s applications lack contextual data. Today, software vendors collect, integrate, and analyze contextual data from multiple sources (e.g., previously viewed content, employee interactions, sensor data, weather data, location) to provide better insight using AI-enabled applications.
During the event, Microsoft launched Context IQ. Alysa Taylor, Microsoft’s Corporate Vice President, Industry, Apps, and Data Marketing, described in a blog as “ a set of capabilities for Dynamics 365 and Microsoft 365 that make information, people and conversations more accessible in the moment, reducing the need to switch between apps. Context IQ helps ensure business users can access documents and records, colleagues across the organization, and conversations—all in the flow of work, whether from within Dynamics 365 or Microsoft 365 applications.”
Let’s look at an example of how this happens in the real world. In the early days of AI-powered workflows, the Editor function corrected grammar and spelling and made suggestions as you typed to autocomplete sentences. Today, Context IQ can recommend the most relevant files directly in an individual’s workflow. A product demonstration of Context IQ illustrated how tools such as Editor could glean insights into how an individual works throughout the day and make predictive suggestions to ensure the right content is readily available in Microsoft Teams and Outlook apps.
Context IQ minimizes the need to search for files, switch between applications, and manually copy and paste links into your email. For features such as at mention (e.g., @Maribel Lopez), it uses logic to recommend the right people saving you from searching or accidentally including the wrong individual. Other examples include Context IQ integrating customer content from Dynamics 365 into chat, suggesting related Loop components for a Dynamics 365 sales opportunity record, and components from third parties such as Jira, SAP and Zoho. The goal of Context IQ is to deliver real-time insights at the point you’re taking action, saving valuable time.
Seamless access to data across applications with Loop, collaborative apps and collaborative apps
At the conference, Microsoft announced Loop, a tool that helps people quickly access and share information regardless of the app they’re using. It consists of three core elements that include workspaces, pages and components.
1. Loop workspaces. Loop Workspaces are shared spaces that allow you and your team to see and group necessary items to a project. For example, a person can add office docs, notebooks, files, links, whiteboards to a project. Loop workspaces allow the team to brainstorm, create and build on each other’s work.
2. Loop pages. Loop pages are flexible groupings of information that Microsoft calls Canvases that allow you to organize your work.
3. Loop components. Every loop page can feature live components. Think of these Loop components as small units of information or functionality that can be added to a page or placed within an application. Loop components allow a person to pull in live business records, track tasks, or capture progress. Additionally, these capabilities aren’t limited to a Loop app. With live components, you can bring any part of your workspace into other apps such as Microsoft Teams, Dynamics 365, Outlook, and other apps.
Loop components synchronize data which means if you make a change to a Loop component, it’s immediately reflected in any application that uses the component. Loop components support access permissions to ensure that only authorized people have access to information.
Loop is what SharePoint should’ve been and now we have the technology to realize a more seamless flow of information between apps and people. It’s also an example of a Right-time Experiences because it delivers information within a person’s workflow.
The rise of collaborative apps and cross-company collaboration
Another feature of a Right-time Experience is connecting data across your company internally and externally across companies. Microsoft shared concepts that mirrored this concept: collaborative apps and cross-company collaboration within Teams. Spataro shared how partners like ServiceNow, Atlassian, and Monday.com are building collaborative apps that can embed Microsoft Teams into the workflow. For example, ServiceNow integrates the ability to join a Team’s meeting right from their collaborative app.
One of the most interesting and powerful features of collaborative apps is offering bidirectional information flow across different apps. For example, embedding case and incident details from ServiceNow directly into Microsoft Teams simplifies service management, boosts collaboration, and enables rapid response to critical issues.
Meanwhile, Microsoft Teams Connect creates a secure collaboration environment that enables people to work together as one team across companies. A person’s external shared channels show up alongside their other channels in one single view. From a shared medium, you can easily invite a person or a team. Microsoft extended Azure AD to securing and managing access for external collaboration in Teams Connect. The service will be in public preview during the first quarter of 2022.
The combination of Loop, Collaborative Apps, and Team Connect provides examples of how modern work applications make data and features from one application accessible to other applications, breaking apart the notion of a monolithic service and data silos.
A business-oriented Metaverse vision called Mesh
According to Wikipedia, the term “metaverse” is typically used to describe the concept of a future iteration of the internet, made up of persistent, shared, 3D virtual spaces linked into a perceived virtual universe. It’s supposed to be the next big thing and companies such as Meta (Facebook-renamed) and NVIDIA with its Omniverse are going all-in on the concept. At WebexOne, Cisco announced Webex Hologram, which combines Webex meeting functionality with immersive 3D holograms and uses augmented reality (AR) to enhance the collaboration experience for people working in different locations.
Microsoft took the opportunity to discuss a more business-centric use case for the Metaverse called Mesh. For Microsoft, Mesh enables more immersive collaboration with mixed reality using holoportation and avatars. Holoportation is a feature that allows a person to project themselves as a lifelike, photorealistic person to someone wearing virtual reality (VR) glasses or using the app on another device. You can use Mesh on HoloLens 2, VR headsets, mobile phones, tablets, or PCs with any Mesh-enabled app. Mesh also introduced avatars, which are digital representations of the user, as a second way to interact with individuals in applications such as Microsoft Teams virtually. Microsoft showcased a whole digital workplace where employees could interact and collaborate virtually as part of the demo.
It’s difficult to imagine a large percentage of the populace walking around and connecting with colleagues within a virtual environment. Then again, ten years ago, you may not have thought the world would be enamored with emojis, TikTok videos, or posting what they had for breakfast. Today, these behaviors are generally accepted and desired. With major hardware and software companies supporting it, it will find its way into the gaming community. It could also find its place in business as part of the portfolio for collaboration technologies.
User experience represents one potential deployment issue with Mesh. Touch interfaces revolutionized the smartphone industry because the user interface was intuitive. With Mesh, you’ll need to learn how to use the pinch, zoom and move features, which may not be as easy as they look. A second potential deployment issue is the cost of creating these solutions. It’s unclear how much an organization will need to invest in hardware and training to offer virtual meetings and workplaces. A third issue is the adoption of the Mesh solution by other business applications outside of the Microsoft fold. The more applications adopt a metaverse concept, the easier it will be for organizations to embrace the technology.
However, there may also be some unexpected benefits. Avatars may be a breakthrough for introverts (like me) that tire of the constant requirement for video meetings. A virtual reality workplace also solves the issue of blurring your home office background and commuting three hours round trip to work. At the end of the day, it’s worth investigating what types of applications and meetings could benefit from this technology.
Microsoft’s Ignite demonstrated that evolution, integration, and execution are alive and well at Microsoft. Announcements such as Loop highlight the shift from siloed products to integrated solutions that work better together. ContextIQ showed us the evolution and execution of practical applications of AI that minimize friction within a workflow. Meanwhile, Mesh is an evolution of Microsoft’s HoloLens work that focuses on the critical issue of how to improve engagement and community in a hybrid workplace. All of these are positive directions for Microsoft and the collaborative workplace.
What does it mean for business leaders?
Executives need to understand that the tools and methods they’ve used to manage and operate a business in the past won’t be enough to take it to the next level. The established patterns of work have changed. Even if everyone in a company returned to an office, it would still be different because our workplace tools have changed over the past two years.
Many employees are comfortable using various digital touchpoints and cloud-accessible software solutions that allow individuals to work in their location of choice without compromising quality. Video conferencing has existed for decades, but now it’s accessible to everyone. It’s also an irreversible part of the collaboration toolkit. But even video collaboration continues to evolve. Asynchronous video communications will continue to grow significantly as companies look to use it for everything from sales pitches to global executive communications and keeping up with teammates in other geographies. Now we also have AI transcriptions to bridge the language and hearing gap. Finally, a new mixed reality collaboration environment is on the not-so-distant horizon. While it may not evolve into businesses creating full digital workplaces, it does have the opportunity to improve certain types of collaborative experiences.
As applications continue to add more context and intelligence, individuals will be able to make the right decisions quickly and focus on tasks that differentiate the business. A real win all businesses.
Spataro left the audience with a promise “We’ll show you new apps that in one year will be just as integrated into your daily workflow as Teams is now.” My question to those reading this is, are you ready?