The tech that’s empowering the teams of tomorrow

The Microsoft Office 365 collaboration suite now has over 100 million monthly commercial active users and growing. We discover what makes it so popular, and why businesses from Facebook to AXA are using Microsoft tools to better connect their workforce

Lindsay James
Lindsay James
By Lindsay James on 05 July 2017
The tech that’s empowering the teams of tomorrow

This article first appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of The Record.

The way today’s high-performing organisations operate is radically different from how they operated ten years ago. According to Deloitte’s 2017 Global Human Capital Trends report, leading enterprises are shifting away from hierarchical organisational structures, instead moving toward models where work is accomplished in teams.

“Research suggests that employees now work in nearly double the number of teams than just five years ago,” explains Ron Markezich, Microsoft’s corporate vice president of Office. “What’s more, these teams are made up of people who aren’t necessarily located in the same office. In fact, they might not even be in the same country.”

A 2016 Culture Wizard survey of executives from over 80 countries confirms this trend. It found that corporate teams are now almost entirely virtual, and 41% never meet in person. What’s more, 48% of respondents revealed that more than half of their teams include members from other nations.

Markezich says that this is the result of a number of factors. “Working from home is an increasingly attractive proposition for employees, and many enterprises are keen to leverage the benefits of this,” he explains. “But also, in a fiercely competitive operating environment, companies simply want the best talent for a task, regardless of where that talent is located. This can be said across almost every industry – finding the best specialist skills is key to gaining competitive advantage.”

With all this in mind, the need for effective collaboration tools has never been greater. “Efficient collaboration tools have, in effect, become a prerequisite to get timely results from your colleagues, partners and suppliers,” says Katya Linossi, managing director and co-founder of London-based digital strategy and technical consultancy ClearPeople.

But what works for one team member might not necessarily work for another. “In any organisation, you will have some people who will adopt and some who won’t out of fear,” says Ivan Lloyd, CEO of edison365. “Collaboration needs to be made easy and automatic: tools should be so simple and easy to use that they become an embedded part of working life.”

Markezich agrees: “The biggest challenge facing enterprises is the different profiles of team members. Those just coming out of college now have lived with technology since birth, but for others it was introduced at a certain point in their career. Therefore, there are different levels of comfort when it comes to technology. Finding a way to enable different generations to work seamlessly together is important.”

With its Office 365 suite of tools, this is exactly what Microsoft has achieved. Bryan Goode, Microsoft’s general manager for Office 365, explains: “Because every team player is unique, we don’t believe in a one-size-fits all approach to collaboration. We believe companies should benefit from a ‘universal toolkit’ – and we call that Office 365. As younger, digital natives enter the workforce, they bring with them their reliance on and comfort with technology tools to get work done. Office 365 has evolved to meet the needs of this generation with real-time editing, chat-based collaboration and more, while continuing to offer more traditional tools such as e-mail and document creation.”

“Office 365 is designed to meet the wide variety of needs of every organisation, empowering our 100 million monthly active users to connect and collaborate across the globe to drive business growth,” adds Gaurav Sareen, Microsoft’s corporate vice president of Outlook, Yammer and Groups. “With Office 365, our customers have access to a fully integrated suite of tools with robust collaboration built in.”

It’s this versatility that led Facebook to adopt Office 365 across its geographically dispersed organisation. “The people who use Facebook are distributed around the world, and to support them, our people are globally distributed as well,” said Tim Campos, former CIO of Facebook, in a blog post for the Office team. “We facilitate their productivity by letting them choose the device and platform that is most effective for them. We collaborate on everything online – no files, no fragmented information stores – and we provide our employees with the ability to work anywhere and in any way they want. All of this means that our IT has to be flexible and available over the web, on mobile and across platforms – wherever our employees need it.”

At the crux of the Office 365 suite are the apps that users know and love like Word, Excel and PowerPoint, and Outlook for enterprise-grade e-mail. “There’s no question that e-mail is still alive and well, and continues to thrive,” says Markezich. “Gartner has recently confirmed that, awong public companies using cloud-based e-mail, Microsoft is more popular with larger organisations and has more than an 80% share of companies using cloud e-mail with revenue above US$10 billion.”

Then there’s Yammer, the social network built for work. “If a CEO wants to connect with his or her entire company, then Yammer is the perfect vehicle through which to do so,” says Markezich.

The numbers speak for themselves: more than 85% of Fortune 500 companies now collaborate with Yammer, including ABB, Tesco, eBay and International Airways Group. “We introduced Yammer two years ago, and within just six months, more than 11,000 employees had joined the British Airways network,” said Adrian Steel, global head of IT operations for International Airlines Group, the holding company of Aer Lingus, British Airways, Iberia and Vueling, in a case study published by Microsoft. “We’ve found that Yammer facilitates spontaneous conversations among employees – sparking innovative ideas that help us operate more efficiently and improve customer service.”

Skype for Business is also an important cog in the Office 365 machine, and a component that German chemical and consumer goods company Henkel, is quick to praise. “We call the latest Skype for Business telephony capabilities a natural evolution of the digital foundation we began building three years ago with Microsoft Office 365,” says Markus Petrak, corporate director for Digital Workplace Integrated Business Solutions at the company. “We have become more mobile and agile and generally better equipped to compete in a digital world. Today, we’re introducing cloud-based telephony as yet another way to enable our employees to communicate and collaborate on any device, anywhere.”

“We use Skype for Business for our development teams in Kenya, Poland and the UK to meet around the same ‘table’,” explains Camilla Braithwaite, marketing director at governance software provider eShare. “It helps us share knowledge and understanding of all our products.”

SharePoint, meanwhile, enables teams to effectively store, sync and share files in the cloud. “More than 250,000 organisations and over 85% of Fortune 500 companies now have SharePoint as part of Office 365,” says Markezich. “In the last year, the use of SharePoint has grown by 90%, content stored has grown by 300% and more than 10 million new SharePoint sites have been created.”

And finally, there’s the latest offering to the Office 365 suite: Microsoft Teams. “This chat based hub for teamwork provides a full history of shared conversations, meeting notes, documents and presentations so that new teamworkers can quickly and easily get up to date,” Markezich explains.

Since announcing the preview of Microsoft Teams in November last year, more than 50,000 organisations have started using it, including Accenture, Alaska Airlines, Deloitte, Expedia, Hendrick Motorsports and Three UK. As companies embark on their collaboration journey, Microsoft recognises that security has become a top priority. “As more employees rely on digital tools and platforms, more security risks and threats are introduced,” Markezich adds. “Enterprises have to get the balance right between encouraging collaboration while protecting company data.”

Braithwaite agrees, pointing towards the recent WannaCry virus as an example of the impact a security breach can have: “The attack on the NHS in the UK could have been devastating,” she says. “Lives could have been lost if they could no longer access and share information.”

That’s why Microsoft has robust policies, controls, and systems built into Office 365 to help keep information safe. Office 365 is designed on the principles of the Security Development Lifecycle, a mandatory Microsoft process that embeds security requirements into every phase of development.

With Microsoft focused on providing the number one secure collaboration platform, its partners are focused on implementing the right elements for each customer, making their adoption easier and helping the customer with the change that’s needed. “Partners can help by really understanding the psychology of collaboration, the business problems an organisation faces and helping customers use the right technical solution at the right time and in the right way,” says Lloyd.

“Better collaboration doesn’t happen overnight and the technology is only one piece of a much bigger jigsaw,” adds Linossi. “Fundamentally, it is a process of organisational change which Microsoft and its partners are well versed in guiding their customers through. At ClearPeople, we begin this journey of change by standing in the users’ shoes. By understanding their goals first, we can help to realise a vision of what collaborative success looks like and provide a solution that is a better fit for the individual employee with an intuitive interface.”

Laurent Maurer, CEO of online training provider Mandarine Academy, agrees: “Software change is rarely a choice made by the end users – they undergo this change with either enthusiasm or indifference according to the immediate benefits they get from the new tools,” he explains. Effective adoption, he says, will be achieved via a number of key steps. “The first element is communication: inform users of the future change, communicate on the benefits it will bring. The second element is training: accompany users with an expert trainer, and then give them access via complementary means to continue discovering new features. The third element is to share the experiences of everyone on an internal social network dedicated to the organisation like Yammer.”

As collaboration tools continue to be embraced, a host of new solutions are expected to find their way into the market. “I’m excited about what the future collaborative workplace will look like,” says Markezich. “We’re already seeing how virtual reality technologies like HoloLens can work with Skype – I have no doubt that the combination of these technologies will be embraced by enterprises in the coming years.”

Braithwaite at eShare also believes that virtual reality will transform collaboration in the future. “Whether the office space still exists will be interesting,” she says. “As property costs rise and population grows, technology may pave the way to virtual offices. However, the familiar institutions of a business – meetings, stand ups, brainstorms, surveys, reports – will all still happen, and the structure around this will be more important than ever.”

Lloyd of edison365, meanwhile, says that in the coming years we are going to be collaborating with much more than just people. “Automation is going to play a big part, with humans moving away from purely social interaction. In the future you will see humans conversing on an even level with artificial intelligence, and advanced capabilities such as virtual reality and real-time language conversion will be a part of everyday life. We’ll be able to talk with our customers or relatives in Australia and it will really feel like we’re all in the same room. Collaboration will finally have no boundaries when it comes to location, language or culture or indeed to who or what we collaborate with.”

“We’re just scratching the surface in terms of what Office 365 can facilitate for businesses,” concludes Markezich. “We will make sure there’s no person left behind when it comes to collaboration: every worker on the planet will be able to contribute more to their organisation.” 

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