Making work easier with the Microsoft ecosystem

Making work easier with the Microsoft ecosystem

Recent enhancements to productivity apps like Teams and Outlook are changing the way that colleagues and clients exchange information, ideas and knowledge, regardless of their location 

Alice Chambers |

The proportion of jobs in which people can work from home grew by 80 per cent between 1999 and 2023, according to the UK’s Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. Working from home is not a new concept: the US Census Bureau reported an increase of 4.2 million home-based workers between 1997 and 2010 in the USA, and Statista found that 36 per cent of employees in the Asia-Pacific region had started to work from home before the onset of Covid-19. However, at the height of the Covid pandemic during the second quarter of 2020, over half a billion people (17.4 per cent of the world’s employees) were working from home, according to the UK’s Centre of Economic Policy Research.  

Following the pandemic, many businesses have continued to offer flexible work options for their employees. In the USA, 51 per cent of employees have moved to a hybrid model and are working from home on an average of 2.8 days per week, according to WFH Research’s Survey of Working Arrangements and Attitudes.  

“Work is changing faster than it has in a generation,” says Jaime Teevan, chief scientist and technical fellow at Microsoft.  

For many employees, hybrid working offers an improved work-life balance by eliminating commuting time and the distractions of the office, which often results in higher productivity. Yet, while many employees have enjoyed these benefits, hybrid working has introduced several issues too.     

Overcoming the obstacles of remote work 

The 2021 Employee Well-Being Report from Microsoft partner Glint found that 41 per cent of employees felt disconnected from their colleagues, 38 per cent were overwhelmed with their workloads and 35 per cent felt a conflict between catering to demands from home and work. In many instances, this is leading to employee burnout.  

“There is a real challenge to reduce current burnout levels, with 53 per cent of employees caring more about their health and well-being more than they did before the pandemic,” says Teevan on the podcast series Possible.  

Burnout has a significant impact on employee productivity as it often reduces energy levels, engagement and creativity, and increases the likelihood of errors. Deloitte’s Workplace Burnout Survey found that 91 per cent of surveyed employees’ quality of work is impacted by an unmanageable amount of stress and nearly half of millennials have left a job specifically because they felt burned out. 

During the pandemic, Microsoft created a New Future of Work initiative to help organisations better understand new remote work practices so they could effectively support both desk-based and frontline employees during the hybrid work transition. One of the key recommendations that Microsoft has shared is for organisations to invest in productivity and collaboration apps in Microsoft 365 – like Microsoft Teams and Office applications – to help workers exchange information, ideas and knowledge easily. Mobile devices for frontline workers and cloud-based solutions such as the Tasks and Shifts apps in Teams are also helping users to carry out operations more efficiently while managing their workloads.  

Microsoft has also been researching how organisations can use artificial intelligence-powered solutions to overcome some of the common issues that are causing employee productivity, efficiency and morale to decrease.  

The AI-powered Viva Personal Insights within Microsoft 365, for example, provides users with a personalised and private view of their work habits to help them prioritise tasks and increase productivity. Organisations can also opt for ‘Focus Time’ to be automatically scheduled onto users’ Outlook calendars to fit around their meetings for that day, helping them to better manage their time and reduce stress. 

Some companies have found that the burnout levels in remote and hybrid workers correlates with a lack a sense of connectivity to their team. Microsoft’s New Future of Work 2022 Report found that 61 per cent of individuals surveyed had reported lower connection to their colleagues as a key barrier to remote work for fear of less social activity with their team members and lower visibility to leadership. However, 76 per cent are interested in using technology to facilitate better connections.  

Microsoft Viva Engage is just one example of the Microsoft technologies workers could use to facilitate better communication and collaboration between co-workers. Integrated in Teams, Viva Engage allows colleagues to connect through text and video messages, and uses AI to power the ‘Answers in Viva’ functionality, which provides users with pre-existing answers to their questions or connects them with an internal expert. This saves employees the time that it takes to source the answers from other team members and helps them to feel connected to others in their organisation.  

As colleagues are no longer all working in the same office at the same time, the number of virtual meetings has increased, with a 252 per cent rise in the average Microsoft Teams user’s time spent in meetings since February 2020, according to Microsoft. This has introduced new challenges to everyday work life such as meeting inequity and fatigue. Due to this, it is more important than ever for businesses to invest in platforms such as Teams to help facilitate real-time communication and devices such as headsets and conference-room microphones that enable people to host productive meetings.  

Audio hardware provider Jabra, for example, is focused on combatting the ‘leaf blower’ problem – when a big distraction for one participant in a meeting has a knock-on effect for other team members and makes the meeting unproductive. Its Speak2 range of speakerphones have noise-cancelling microphones and voice-level normalisation technology to avoid meetings being impacted by background noise, increasing participants’ concentration levels. 

Hybrid work also means that some participants are joining virtual meetings online whilst others are joining from the office, often resulting in the key interactions of the meeting being missed due to outdated technology causing issues such as audio delays or participants being unable see one another. Audio and video solution provider EPOS is helping to alleviate this problem through its EXPAND Vision suite of products. For example, the EXPAND Vision 1M camera uses an 8x digital zoom camera, an integrated electro-mechanical privacy shutter and intelligent picture framing powered by EPOS AI to adjust the frame of the camera to capture the amount of people sitting in a meeting room. This enables participants to engage with everyone while speaking.  

Transformative AI 

Not only has the pandemic accelerated the shift to remote and hybrid work, but it has also had a large impact on the development of AI-powered solutions and according to Microsoft’s research centre, advanced AI and AI machinery has an “unprecedented opportunity” to transform the way people work. For instance, AI is helping to overcome the challenges of people working in different time zones. 

“We stopped thinking about space and locations when we began to work remotely,” says Teevan, highlighting the challenge caused by employees not always working in the same physical places as colleagues. “AI provides the opportunity to help employees make sense of data and different working zones.” For example, AI summarisation technology embedded into Teams provides individuals who are unable to attend online and hybrid meetings due to time zone differences with an outline of the key topics and action points, ensuring that everyone remains part of the discussion.  

Sales teams are also managing the different work zones of contacting customers both in person and online such as through video calls better with AI through Microsoft Viva Sales, which streamlines sales activities so that users no longer need to jump between multiple applications, appointments and emails. Powered by Azure and OpenAI, Viva Sales generates suggested email responses for sellers to use in various scenarios, including replying to an enquiry or creating a sales proposal. Viva Sales also uses natural language processing technology to generate call summaries, detect questions, calculate key performance indicators and extract action items, all to save time for sales members and to remind them to follow up on emails.  

The power of AI helps contact centre employees to focus on important tasks too. Vehicle manufacturer Mercedes-Benz is using Azure OpenAI to power the Mercedes Virtual Assistant, which uses conversational AI capabilities to respond to customer queries. Rather than calling helplines, car owners can submit questions either by chat or voice input and directly receive a relevant response, including images and descriptive videos to help them get to know their vehicle, helping to alleviate the pressure for workers in call centres.  

“As leaders look to embrace AI, it becomes more critical than ever to prioritise having a data-driven business, fortified with digital and cloud capabilities,” says Judson Althoff, executive vice president and chief commercial officer at Microsoft. “This approach will help organisations leverage generative AI as an accelerant to transformation.” 

Enterprises are quickly realising the value of AI to deliver products and speed up the supply chain process. Global consumer goods company Unilever, for example, has partnered with Accenture and Microsoft to migrate to Azure and becoming a cloud-only enterprise, and to use Azure OpenAI to drive increased automation across its manufacturing operations and advanced analytics to help employees make better informed decisions. Meanwhile, India-based HDFC Bank is using Azure, Power Platform and Microsoft 365 to enhance its data-sharing capabilities, modernise and migrate its application portfolio and provide a secure digital workplace for its employees. The bank is currently building a new solution on Azure to share data easily between several of its business units. It will include a collaborative engineering environment, security, AI and machine learning capabilities. 

Responsible AI 

As generative AI helps to lead the way for the future of work, it’s important to ensure it is used in an accurate, equitable and privacy-preserving way. Natasha Crampton, chief responsible AI officer at Microsoft, says responsibility must be a key part of AI design, rather than an afterthought. “In the summer of 2022, we received an exciting new model from OpenAI,” she says. “Straightaway we assembled a group of testers and had people probe the raw model to understand what its capabilities and its limitations were. 

“The insights generated from this research helped Microsoft think about what the right mitigations will be when we combine this model with the power of web search. It also helped OpenAI, who are constantly developing their model, to try to bake more safety into them. 

“We built new testing pipelines where we thought about the potential harms of the model in a web search context. We then developed systematic approaches to measurement so we could better understand what challenges we could have with this type of technology – one example being what is known as ‘hallucination’, where the model may make up facts that are not actually true. 

“By November we’d figured out how we can measure them and then better mitigate them over time. We designed this product with responsible AI controls at its core, so they’re an inherent part of the product.” 

With IDC predicting that a total of $6.8 trillion will be invested across digital transformation strategies between 2020 and the end of 2023, AI technology and other cloud-based technologies are empowering organisations to better provide for their employees, and in turn, their customers.  

“Never before has there been such an opportunity to actively shape the future of work,” concludes Teevan in the New Future of Work 2022 Report. “With research and careful study, we can create a new future of work that is meaningful, productive and equitable.” 

Partner perspectives 

We asked a range of Microsoft partners about how they are using Microsoft's cloud-based and AI technologies to drive efficiency and enable remote and hybrid working strategies. 

“With our integrations for Dynamics 365, Avalara is enabling businesses to increase efficiency and productivity by automating the onerous process of managing tax compliance,” says Frank Hanzlik, vice president and general manager of global partner development at Avalara. 

“The transition to being quantum safe will take time, so the time to start looking at this is now. As a Microsoft Intelligent Security Association member, Entrust can help with our Cryptographic Center of Excellence professional services offerings in the Azure Marketplace,” says Samantha Mabey, product marketing director at Entrust. 

“Azure allows isolved People Cloud to be scalable, speedy and secure so employees – regardless of where they are – can access pay, benefits, performance measurements, engagement tools, communication channels and more,” says Lina Tonk, chief marketing officer at isolved. 

“Meetings are further enhanced by Dynamic Composition, an intelligent camera technology co-developed with Microsoft,” says Nigel Dunn, managing director in EMEA North at Jabra. 

“We’ve been working with customers to use Microsoft’s cloud-based technologies to enable their organisations to achieve operational efficiency by giving teams the processes and technology to not only empower them but make them powerful,” says John Opgenorth, sales account executive at Synergy Technical. 

Read more from these partners as well as AVIXA, CyberProof, JourneyTEAM, Metafile Information Systems and Tiger Technology in the Summer 2023 issue of Technology Record

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