Microsoft floods Ignite with a surge of new Teams features

Profile picture for user pwainewright By Phil Wainewright September 22, 2020
Collaboration app Microsoft Teams dominated much of the news at today's Inspire virtual event with a torrent of announcements

Microsoft Teams dynamic view screenshot

Microsoft has been keeping its Teams product developers busy this year, and judging by the torrent of announcements at today's Ignite conference, there's no let-up in sight. The vendor unleashed a tidal wave of new digital teamwork functionality to be rolled out over the next nine months, touching everything from the in-meeting experience and employee wellbeing, to integration, approvals and workflow automation, to productivity analytics and administration aids.

Measured against diginomica's digital teamwork maturity model, we'd argue that some of the most important announcements were around workflow and analytics, so we'll drill down on those shortly. But the most eyecatching were upgrades to the Teams meeting experience, along with some intriguing stress-busting features, so let's start with these.

Microsoft leapfrogged video meeting competitors back in July when it unveiled its Together mode, which uses AI to display meeting participants in a shared background. At launch, it showed a lecture hall. Users will soon also have the choice of an auditorium, a conference room, or a coffee shop. The AI is also getting more sophisticated, adding the ability to resize participants so they appear in proportion to each other. Dynamic View, another AI-powered feature launched in July that superimposes presenters on-screen in front of presentation slides is now being enhanced with the option of custom layouts. With the roll-out of breakout rooms next month, Teams plugs its final major functional gap compared to video meetings pureplay Zoom.

Stress-busting features

New stress-busting features planned for introduction next year include the option of scheduling a 'virtual commute' to bookend the start and finish of your work-from-home day. Believe it or not, studies carried out by Microsoft Research have found that the time for reflection your daily commute provides can boost your workday productivity. In a partnership with online mindfulness service Headspace, guided meditation will also be available within Teams to help you unwind during workday breaks or those virtual commutes.

Microsoft is promoting new analytics capabilities in Teams as another boost to wellbeing. Starting next month, individual users will get tips on organizing their schedule, while managers will be able to track team metrics such as after-hours collaboration, focus time, meeting effectiveness, and cross-company connections. Business leaders will be able to track metrics across the organization to ensure that employee wellbeing and effectiveness is on track, and get research-backed recommendations for improvement.

In workflow, approvals in Teams become generally available next month and integrations with Adobe Sign and DocuSign are planned for later this year to add e-signature authority to approvals. These workflows can also be connected into other enterprise applications using Power Automate.

Enabling more elaborate process automation, a new low-code database for building custom apps in Teams called CDS Project Oakdale has now entered public preview. This was originally announced in July under the now abandoned name Dataflex. Oakdale opens up the ability to build low-code apps and chatbots within Teams that can access all the data and essential capabilities of the Microsoft Power Platform across Dynamics, Office 365 and Azure. This puts unprecedented capabilities into the hands of power users, says Richard Riley, Senior Director, Product Marketing:

What we're doing with Project Oakdale is we are creating a slimmed-down version of Common Data Service ... It's adding that rich relational data store into Teams, which means you can start to build apps on Teams that are way more complex than you would have been able to do using a SharePoint List or an Excel spreadsheet as your database.

My take

I'll have more from an interview with Riley in a follow-up article on Project Oakdale, but bringing this capability inside Teams is a highly significant step, because for the first time it gives business users a low-code tool for building automations that sit in the shared space of Teams, rather than being tied to a specific application. When a digital teamwork platform is able to connect workflows and data across multiple applications it begins to open up the full potential of digitally connected collaboration, as set out in the maturity model I alluded to earlier. Having visually appealing and AI enhanced video meetings helps, but there's much more than that to digital teamwork.

The highest level of the maturity model comes when an organization starts to use machine learning to identify which teamwork patterns work best. This is why I also call out the new analytics capabilities in Teams as significant. Today's announcements are a small first step and Microsoft is carefully emphasizing their use for employee wellbeing in the first instance. But improving productivity is an equally important use case and we should expect to hear more about this aspect in future iterations, as Microsoft strengthens its machine learning models for evaluating teamwork patterns and their outcomes.