Video conferencing, group chat, and other collaboration software tools were never intended to be the main channels for workforce collaboration. When everyone worked in the same office, these tools augmented in-person collaboration. They were a backup. You could still go down the hall and talk to your colleague in person or eat lunch together in the kitchen.
But this past year changed everything.
As everyone stampeded to work from home almost a year ago, these tools suddenly were pressed into full-time work. Video conferencing and group chats were no longer side channels. They were the main channels, even though they were never built to be a substitute for the whole office experience. It was a major switch for these tools, according to Gartner Research VP Mike Gotta.
"Then all the sudden the pandemic hit and tools like [Slack and Teams] became the activity hub for people," Gotta told InformationWeek. "People live in Slack all day. They live in Zoom all day. They live in Cisco all day."
But while these tools helped collaboration and employee connections, over time people still felt isolated, according to Gotta.
"There's no folklore, no gossip, no collisions of serendipity," he said. "We are missing the things we get from physical space that is hard to replicate in virtual space."
Now nearly a year after the race to work from home, collaboration apps are starting to evolve to meet the demands of the new work-from-home, all-the-time work force and to fill that void. Startup Sophya has launched a virtual version of a physical workplace, designed to create the opportunity for more spontaneous employee interactions, among other goals.
Microsoft this month rolled out Microsoft Viva, which it describes as "the first employee experience platform built for the digital era." Built on top of the company's Microsoft 365 productivity software, Microsoft said that Viva adds knowledge, resources, and insights into the applications that employees were already using, such as the chat, screensharing, and video conferencing platform, Microsoft Teams.
"We have participated in the largest at-scale, remote-work experiment the world has seen, and it has had a dramatic impact on the employee experience," said Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, in a statement announcing the new offering.
This next evolution of these work collaboration tools is focusing on something that has suffered during the isolation and stress and often increased workloads of the pandemic work-from-home necessity of the last year. The new focus is on the employee experience.
"As the world of work changes, the next horizon of innovation will come from a focus on creativity, engagement and well-being so organizations can build cultures of resilience and ingenuity," said Jared Spataro, corporate vice president, Microsoft 365, in a statement.
Microsoft said the new builds on Teams and Microsoft 365 to unify the employee experience across four areas -- engagement, well-being, learning, and knowledge. This will be created with new modules, and Microsoft has introduced an initial set of them to provide build-in capabilities, integrations with industry partners, and platform extensibility that will enable customers to integrate the platform with their own systems and tools.
The modules include Viva Connections, Viva Insights, Viva Learning, and Viva Topics.
Viva Insights is available now in public preview. At an individual level, it is designed to help employees protect time for regular breaks, focused work, and learning. At a management level, leaders are able to see team trends (aggregated and deidentified to protect privacy). The analytics offers recommendations to better balance productivity and well-being, according to Microsoft.
Viva Learning, available now in private preview, aggregates all the learning resources available in an organization into one place and makes them more discoverable and accessible in the flow of work, according to Microsoft. It incorporates content from LinkedIn Learning and Microsoft Learn as well as from third-party providers such as Coursera and edX, plus content from each company's own private content library.
Viva Topics is now available as an add-on to Microsoft 365 commercial plans and makes corporate knowledge easier to discover. It uses AI to surface "topic cards" within conversations and documents across Microsoft 365 and Teams, Microsoft said. Clicking on a card opens a topic page with related documents, conversations, videos, and people.
Microsoft Viva is not so much new technology as it is an augmentation of Microsoft 365 and Microsoft Teams, repackaged with some new capabilities that make existing features easier to find and consume, according Gotta. The release also puts a market focus on the importance of belonging and connectedness.
"But you can't buy employee experience in a box," Gotta warned. "There are a lot of non-tech things that go with employee experience. This will raise those conversations."
For more on careers and productivity in 2021, read: