Digital collaboration platforms need to embrace ‘soft’ engagement features, as well as productivity

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez July 9, 2020
A number of updates to Microsoft Teams this week pushes the conversation on digital collaboration tools in the right direction - beyond practical requirements.

Image of a Microsoft Teams meeting
(Image sourced via Microsoft Teams blog)

The nationwide COVID-19 lockdowns and the sudden shift for many businesses to distributed teams and working from home has made digital collaboration tools essential for how teams get work done. The likes of Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Slack and Google Meets have seen an unprecedented surge in popularity amongst users and their development has accelerated at an unanticipated pace.

As the vendors fight it out to become the most popular online collaboration platform, the realisation has hit that simply having easily accessible video conferencing available isn't enough.

My colleague Phil Wainewright has been covering the collaboration space extensively in recent months and years and rightly points out that there's a lot more to remote digital teamwork than video meetings. His line of thinking is that companies need to consider different teamwork patterns and build a collaborative canvas across the enterprise.

I completely agree. However, in my mind there has been a key focus that has been missing from the vendors in recent months as they race to roll out features and updates. There has been extensive attention paid to security, privacy, scalability, as well as to integrating to the necessary productivity tools to support work.

What has been missing is an understanding that the platforms that are likely to win big are the ones that not only make work practical and functional online, but also make that online experience enjoyable, social and addictive.

The digital collaboration vendors should be looking to social media firms to get an understanding of what makes online collaboration something you not only come back to time and time again because you have to, but also something you embrace as a central feature of your day because you enjoy it.

Instagram is a great example. In recent years Instagram has extended beyond just sharing photos and being an online ‘photo album', to becoming a platform that encourages versatility in content sharing. The platform now includes the use of stories, close friend circles, animations, filters, direct messaging, music, personalised feeds - these features could easily have made a simple platform very messy, but the focus on usability and engagement has resulted in the platform being more popular than ever.

Microsoft Teams makes the right noises

Whilst I've been mulling this position on digital collaboration for a while, this post was prompted by some new features released by Microsoft Teams this week. Microsoft appears to be experimenting with not only productivity features (integration to other workflows and tools), but also making the user experience of digital collaboration more engaging and compelling.

What does this look like? Well, for example Microsoft is releasing ‘Together Mode', which uses AI segmentation technology to digitally place participants in a shared background, making it feel like you're sitting in the same room as everyone else in the meeting.

The idea behind this being that by creating a better ‘shared experience' it will make it easier to focus on people's faces, body language and pick up on non-verbal cues.

In addition to ‘Together Mode', Microsoft Teams is also releasing a feature called ‘Dynamic View'. This aims to give users more control over how you see shared content and other participants in a meeting. New controls will allow users to personalise their view to suit their preferences and needs.

Other new features announced also include:

  • Video filters to adjust lighting levels and soften the focus of the camera to customise the experience.

  • Reflect messaging, which allows managers and leaders to easily check in with how their team is feeling - either in general or about a specific topic.

  • Live reactions is a non-verbal feature that will allow meeting participants to react during a meeting using emojis that appear to all participants.

  • Chat bubbles will be introduced so that instead of manually having to open a chat window to view a chat screen, a chat sent during a meeting will surface on the screens of all meeting participants.

Commenting on the releases, Jared Spataro, Corporate Vice President for Microsoft 365, said:

Today we're announcing a set of new features in Microsoft Teams that make virtual interactions more natural, more engaging, and ultimately, more human. These features offer three key benefits for people at work and in education. First, they help you feel more connected with your team and reduce meeting fatigue. Second, they make meetings more inclusive and engaging. And third, they help streamline your work and save time. It's all about enabling people everywhere to collaborate, to stay connected, and to discover new ways to be productive from anywhere.

Building an experience for everyone

The announcements from Microsoft this week in my mind focus on the ‘soft' engagement features of online collaboration, which I think is really important.

Given the speed at which remote working and distributed teams has become the ‘norm', it's going to take a while for both users and product creators to get an understanding of what works for people and what doesn't in this new world of work.

But a key part of this is also looking at tools and features to engage for all members of a team, where different personality types and differing preferred methods of communication should be considered.

Online video meetings are often described as a ‘leveller' as it puts everyone in the same position as everyone else in the meeting, removing hierarchical barriers you may sometimes experience in a physical environment. However, it needs to also be considered that different members of a team may wish to voice support or express ideas and thoughts in a different way to other members of a team.

I believe these new ‘soft engagement' features being tried and tested by the vendors are a good step in that direction towards inclusivity across a team, whilst also building a product that fosters more compelling usability.

My take

It's unsurprising that the initial focus from the online collaboration vendors was on building out features and integrations that focused on productivity. As teams were forced to disperse to their home environments, there was an essential requirement to think about how to get work done remotely. However, as time goes on and people settle into their new work environments I believe it's imperative that these vendors also take into consideration the ‘soft' engagement features that not only make the platforms practical and productive, but engaging, compelling and...dare I say it...enjoyable to use (for everyone).