With the dust now settled on the recent Microsoft Ignite conference it’s easier to stand back and assess the value of many of the releases and how they will impact the digital workplace. Microsoft released literally dozens of upgrades and new products, many of which will find themselves into the workplace over the coming year. Before the conference everyone was waiting to see what we would get for Teams and Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft didn’t disappoint. What we got was Mesh for Teams, Microsoft’s latest mixed reality offering built on Azure.
Mesh With Teams
Microsoft first unveiled Mesh at its Ignite Conference in March 2021. Mesh was designed to improve remote collaboration and provide immersive training and communication tools for businesses and consumers. It did so by creating a space for real-time collaboration which participants could join using HoloLens 2, virtual reality (VR) headsets, smartphones, tablets or PCs.
In the interim, Facebook raised the stakes in the collaboration space with its rebranding and repositioning of its business strategy to focus on the metaverse.
Leaving aside the fact that dozens of smaller companies are already developing different elements of the metaverse, it’s not like Facebook is cornering the market. Indeed, at Ignite, Nadella made it very clear that it intends to become a contender, presenting the possibility of at least two different concepts of the metaverse in the future.
Mesh for Teams will be a key part of this. According to a Microsoft blog, two trends are driving Mesh for Teams, notably the fact that remote workers are far more efficient than most business leaders ever imagined, and they miss connecting with each other in person.
Mesh for Microsoft Teams, which will start rolling out next year, is designed to tackle this. The feature combines the mixed-reality capabilities of Microsoft Mesh, which allows people in different physical locations to join collaborative and shared holographic experiences, with the productivity tools of Microsoft Teams, where people can join virtual meetings, send chats, collaborate on shared documents and more.
Leaving aside some of the wilder speculation about the metaverse and how humans will start living in virtual environments, Mesh, according to Nadella, has a very specific function in the workplace.
Collaborating on Equal Footing
Brian Jackson, research director in the CIO practice at the Info-Tech Research Group, points out that in the post-pandemic operating model, organizations are looking for ways to reduce friction around hybrid collaboration. They have some workers in the office and some workers remote on any given day of the week, but these two groups need to be able to connect and collaborate to be effective.
With Mesh, Microsoft is introducing a way for all employees to collaborate on an equal footing regardless of where they are connecting to the platform from. The idea of using a totally digital space and digital avatars to connect colleagues is an attempt to reduce the friction around collaborating while we inhabit different spaces and for those times when we can’t turn on our cameras.
Mesh is geared towards synchronous collaboration — people getting together to discuss or work on something at the same time. It will see its best use case when teams need to relate to a common digital design of a model or object they are developing. Mesh is also pushing into some experimental space by introducing the concept of using avatars for collaboration at work.
That’s a new idea that we haven’t seen adopted in the workplace today, and there’s no guarantee that workers will feel compelled to create them or use them. “As it stands, there are more situations where Mesh for Teams is adding an additional layer of abstraction to collaboration that is often not necessary. For that reason, I’d expect the role that Mesh will play to be a niche one — for specific use cases where real-time collaboration around a specific piece of digital content is necessary,” Jackson said.
There is another aspect to it too. Microsoft has probably got more data than any other firm on how the pandemic’s disruption is affecting the workplace. Not only because of its own workplace study that was conducted on its U.S. workforce and published in Nature, but because of the data that it collects from our use of its collaboration software during the past 18 months.
That gives it an understanding of the pain points around collaboration in a work environment that’s fully mediated through technology. It can put that intelligence to work through its version of the “work graph,” which is an important component of the Mesh platform. It contextually understands a worker’s relationship to work documents and their colleagues across the enterprise. That can be used to make smart recommendations that will save workers time and even make recommendations to enhance collaboration.
While the new and flashy aspects of Mesh will be the 3-D digital spaces and virtual avatars he says, the more useful part of it that we’ll all use in our daily work routines are the parts that are in the background and don’t get in the way of our work but enable productivity with small nudges at the right time.
More Effective Collaboration
Collaboration is, indeed, the big problem. Leave aside the flash and futuristic elements of the metaverse and you get to what enterprises are really looking for — not new ways to collaborate, but more effective ways to collaborate in a workplace staffed by humans. In fact, it’s even more than just collaboration. In the hybrid working era, its essential that businesses crack the code on remote collaboration, according to Mike Davis, modern workspace practice lead at Missouri-based World Wide Technology. “While there’s no replacement for in-person collaboration, Microsoft Mesh-enabled capabilities offer truly new possibilities when it comes to virtual ideation sessions and design and build projects,” he said.
Beyond collaboration in traditional office environments, Mesh tools hold potential for areas like education and workforce training, where digital materials may lower costs and create entirely new learning experiences, such as virtual science labs and hands-on, 3-D design assignments. Virtual entertainment is another opportunity. Imagine attending a virtual concert, the sound quality would probably be better, and you could have the option of virtually moving around to different parts of the venue.
The Feeling of ‘Presence’
At a very simple level Microsoft Mesh is all about giving participants the very elusive feeling of “presence,” as though the participants were virtually sitting next to co-workers, David Farkas, founder and CEO of NJ-based digital marketing company, The UpperRanks
For those who are uncomfortable with cameras, this might be a significant step forward. Alongside Avatars, pre-built immersive places for virtual hangouts will be available in Mesh for Teams. As a result, groups may be able to design their own customized meeting area, similar to a real workplace. It might be less stressful to have a virtual coffee discussion with your avatar than it is to turn on your camera.
According to Microsoft, organizations will be able to build their own environments in the future, allowing them to resemble their actual headquarters. However, all this is a long way away yet. Despite being characterized as “ergonomic,” the HoloLens 2 is more of a big headset than a pair of glasses, and it’s not cheap; the HoloLens 2 currently costs $3,500.
This will be one of the most significant roadblocks for Microsoft in making Mesh broadly available and used, as even lowering the price to half or a third of what it is presently would put the hardware out of reach for the majority of people. “The concept is far from being fully adopted anytime soon,” Frakas said. “But when we finally do shift to the metaverse, it will be powerful!”
Getting the Basics Right
Lars Hyland, chief learning officer of San Francisco-based Totara Learning, a provider of enterprise learning, engagement and performance management technology argues, that enterprise workplace strategists need to get the basics right first. He says the computing power and technology now available makes it possible to envision a photo/video realistic rendering of virtual environments and other people that could suspend our disbelief sufficiently to feel like you really are in a shared space with someone. The current avatar solutions fall short of this, however, and are likely to restrict adoption, as the quality of communication and collaboration is hindered rather than enhanced.
However, this is not a priority and companies need learn first how to use what they have already. Companies should first focus on their processes, workflows and cultural expectations to ensure everyone is comfortable, safe and free to work where they want, when they want and can communicate and collaborate effectively with others — both synchronously (like Zoom today, Mesh tomorrow), and asynchronously (using tools like Totara Engage, Teams, Slack). “In fact, he says, “success will be gained from effective asynchronous collaboration, freeing, people from meetings that are too often unproductive time sinks irrespective whether they are in real person, video conference or as an avatar.”
The concept of using avatars in a metaverse as a solution to work collaboration has some problems to overcome that haven’t been addressed, Jackson concludes. In a hybrid operating model, with workers that are both gathering in offices and connecting remotely, you can expect that workers who are together in the office will want to meet in person.
If including remote workers in a meeting means the office workers also need to engage in a purely digital space, that in-person aspect is lost. The trick is to enable a set-up that’s a good experience for both those meeting in-person and those connecting remotely and not to require everyone to default to a digital meeting space.