MICROSOFT THINKS CORONAVIRUS WILL FOREVER CHANGE THE WAY WE WORK AND LEARN

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Microsoft says people’s habits are already changing

MicrosoftMicrosoft is revealing more about how people are using its Teams app, and it predicts the novel coronavirus pandemic will be a turning point that will change how we work and learn forever. Demand for Microsoft Teams surged worldwide last month, jumping from 32 million daily active users to 44 million in just a week. While usage continues to rise, Microsoft is releasing a new remote work trend report to highlight how work habits are changing.

Naturally, more people are using the video and meetings capabilities of Teams, and Microsoft has seen a new daily record of 2.7 billion meeting minutes in a single day. That’s up 200 percent from 900 million minutes in mid-March, around the time many businesses shifted toward remote working. Unsurprisingly, people are turning on video in Teams meetings two times more than before, with video calls usage in Teams growing by more than 1,000 percent in March. Microsoft found that people in Norway and the Netherlands are more likely to turn on video with around 60 percent of calls including video, compared to 38 percent in the US and 47 percent in the UK.


Microsoft Teams video usage.

Microsoft engineers are rushing about behind the scenes to make sure the company has enough capacity for all these new users. “We’ve had to really make sure we had the infrastructure necessary to respond, and we have just been scrambling like everyone else,” explains Jared Spataro, head of Microsoft 365, in an interview with The VergeMicrosoft had a brief Teams outage in Europe, just as demand skyrocketed in countries like Italy. It caught the company by surprise.

“As things really started to heat up in Europe, the pattern we saw geographically was not what we were expecting,” says Spataro. “It was a surprise to us, frankly. The issues we saw were the result of us having to make quick adjustments.”

Businesses have also been transitioning their town halls, all-hands calls, and customer meetings online, so Microsoft has seen big surges in demand for Stream, the company’s video streaming service. Microsoft has had to raise the limit from 10,000 participants to 100,000 as more companies look to Microsoft to help them facilitate bigger meetings and events.


Teams usage due to the coronavirus pandemic.

All of this demand has also changed the way Microsoft is prioritizing features for Teams. Custom backgrounds are now finally available for everyone in Teams, a year after the feature was originally announced. This hides messy backgrounds in impromptu home offices, and it has become a popular Zoom feature recently. The raise your hand feature the company revealed last month will be available later this month. Meeting organizers will also be able to end the meeting for everyone with a single click starting today and download a participant report that includes join and leave times.

Microsoft is also working on improving the video call view in Teams to include more people. Zoom usage has soared recently, and it has a simple gallery view that lets you easily see everyone in a conversation. “Today the Teams setup allows you to have the two-by-two, and we recognize meetings are bigger than just four people and people want to see more video,” says Spataro. “So we’ve reprioritized resources to make sure we’re quickly moving on that and in the near future we’re working on getting to see more and more people at once.”

During this work from home period, webcams and laptops are selling out at retailers as consumers look to buy equipment for remote work and distance learning. Microsoft is seeing similar trends in the supply chain. “The PC is back,” jokes Spataro. “People are recognizing… trying to use an iPad to work from home is not gonna work. That PC form factor is huge and you can see that data in everything from supply chain and what’s happening with devices.” Mobile usage is also increasing in Teams, driven by usage in education and health care where people have different devices and setups to typical commercial users of Teams.

So what happens after the pandemic has subsided? “It’s clear to me there will be a new normal,” explains Spataro. “If you look at what’s happening in China and what’s happening in Singapore, you essentially are in a time machine. We don’t see people going back to work and having it be all the same. There are different restrictions to society, there are new patterns in the way people work. There are societies that are thinking of A days and B days of who gets to go into the office and who works remote.”


Microsoft Teams pop-out chat feature.

After China lifted coronavirus restrictions, Microsoft is still seeing two times the number of new Teams users each day in the country, compared to the end of January. The number of daily active Teams users also continues to grow week-over-week in China. That’s an early indicator of how the rest of the world might adjust to the new realities of post-pandemic society. Singapore has also implemented a circuit breaker model where it sends workers and students home if there’s an outbreak in a certain part of a city.

“The new normal is not going to be, like what I thought two weeks ago, that all is clear, go back everybody,” says Spataro. “There will be a new normal that will require us to continue to use these new tools for a long time.”

Microsoft is also seeing cases where remote workers can no longer be an afterthought in meetings, and how chat can influence video calls. “The simplest example is how important chat becomes as part of a meeting,” says Spataro. “We’re not seeing it as being incidental anymore, we’re actually seeing it be a new modality for people to contribute to the meeting.” This could involve people chatting alongside video meetings, and coworkers upvoting suggestions and real-time feedback.


A Zoom wedding.

 Photo by Lisa Kabouridis and Graeme Blackett

Microsoft isn’t the only company trying to capitalize on remote working, though. Competitors like Slack, Google, and Zoom have also seen huge surges in demand, with Zoom making headlines for the creative ways people are using it and some big privacy and security issues. Spataro doesn’t seem to be concerned with Zoom’s huge growth — even if Microsoft is monitoring it closely — as it’s now facing growing pains and a backlash.

“At Microsoft privacy and security are just never an afterthought, they’re deeply ingrained into who we are and what we build and how we build it,” explains Spataro. “You see in other competitors, instead sometimes there’s a focus on simply allowing people to join a meeting quickly and participate quickly. Unfortunately, because security and privacy end up being an afterthought, in the world we live in you just don’t have that simplistic consumer view and make it an overnight hit. You end up with issues and real problems.”

Microsoft thinks pure video calling is seeing a surge that will naturally decline and that Teams facilitates a lot more than just video calls. “My sense is that just like video conferencing isn’t enough to get work done, over time we’ll see video conferencing will end up having a spike in usage and then go back down,” says Spataro. “A lot of what we’re experiencing is somewhat transitory. It’s weddings and one time events that we’ll go back to doing in person again.”

It’s clear Microsoft sees the pandemic changing things forever. “I really feel this will be a turning point for how we work and learn because there are just some very real practical things happening that will mean we’ll never go back to the old way,” predicts Spataro.

This article first appeared in www.theverge.com

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