New hybrid meeting experiences are coming to Microsoft’s employees and guests, a Microsoft Teams Rooms-powered transformation that will save space at the table for everyone, no matter where they join from.
Thanks to new meeting room layouts, improved technology, and better integration with Microsoft Teams, remote participants will feel more included in meetings that will also be better for people in the room.
Getting these experiences right will play a big part in helping everyone feel comfortable and included in this new hybrid work environment. It’s not about making sure both remote and in-the-room experiences are perfectly equal—that’s not possible. Rather, the goal is to enhance and optimize each experience so each is the best it can be.
“When they decide to go into the office, employees want experiences that are worth the commute,” says Nathalie D’Hers, corporate vice president of Microsoft Digital Employee Experience, the organization that powers, protects, and transforms the company. “That means making sure that when they choose to go in, they do so for an experience that they can’t get from home.”
And vice versa, it’s important to make sure that those who work from home, at a coffee shop, or from a hotel on the road feel like that experience has been optimized for them.
“We’re building solutions that solve for both sets of needs,” D’Hers says. “Most of us are working in both worlds anyway—it benefits us all to get both experiences right.”
Several organizations across Microsoft—including Microsoft Digital Employee Experience, Global Workplace Services, and Microsoft’s product groups—are working together to make sure we get these hybrid experiences right. We want to properly greet employees and guests when they go to a Microsoft campus and that we make them feel equally welcome when they virtually join a meeting.
“We’re digitally transforming our meeting spaces and facilities around the world so we can support more inclusive experiences,” says Michael Ford, corporate vice president of Global Workplace Services, the organization responsible for planning, building, maintaining, and operating Microsoft’s global real estate and security. “Our culture is about diversity, inclusion, and trust, and we are designing experiences that support and promote those important values.”
Along with other new transformations—including improved transportation, dining, and workspace reservation experiences—creating new hybrid meeting room experiences represents a major step forward in the future of work at Microsoft.
There’s a place on Microsoft’s Puget Sound campus where our software engineers, audio-video engineers, architects, and interior designers are coming together to weave new devices, technology, and concepts into transformed meeting room experiences.
It’s called The Hive.
“It’s the facility where we bring in all the new devices that are coming to us from our OEM partners and test them out and see how they work,” says Matt Hempey, a principal program manager who focuses on engagement and collaboration at Microsoft Digital Employee Experience. “We think about all of the subtleties of how a physical space and hardware can interact—that’s the challenge we’re trying to solve here at The Hive. This is how we can get things just right for everyone.”
In The Hive, teams across Microsoft can gather to brainstorm, test, and validate all meeting room scenarios that they can think up. It’s all about coming up with new ideas, like being inspired to try a new room layout when a set of new components comes in. This can include moving walls, bringing in new furniture, and cutting a table in half—all of this can be done quickly without having to do the expensive work of structural redesign.
“We think of it as our living laboratory,” says Scott Weiskopf, director of the Center of Innovation for Global Workplace Services. “You’ve got cardboard tables and Styrofoam things that we can move around and do rapid prototyping and testing with. It’s our little garage that we can tool around with stuff.”
When thousands of Microsoft conference rooms around the globe suddenly sat empty, it was clear that the work experience was changing. The shift to fully remote demonstrated that people liked flexibility and that meetings could happen from anywhere.
In some ways, it leveled the playing field.
“It used to be that people dialing into a meeting felt like they weren’t going to be as important as people who were physically there,” Hempey says. “Suddenly we were in a world where no one was physically in the room, so everyone was having the same meeting experience. Everyone was equally important; meetings became more inclusive—everyone felt heard and seen.”
At the same time, a lot of human connection was lost.
Social bonds, the richness of discussions, the little chats that occur at the start of the meeting, and the fidelity of in-person brainstorming on a whiteboard were missed. As good as the remote technology was, some individuals still had a strong desire to get back together in meeting rooms.
The shift brought on by the pandemic gave employees the opportunity to choose the kind of workstyle that worked best for them. Some would remain working from home while others would come back to the office. And some would manage a mix of both.
It was clear this dueling dynamic between remote and in-person would require new accommodations from Microsoft.
Having a modular environment to come up with new ideas—The Hive—has empowered Microsoft to pivot to these new circumstances, including upgrading to a new Microsoft Teams Rooms experience powered by hybrid meeting rooms.
The pause in meeting room usage meant The Hive team could step away from normal escalations and concerns and get creative in designing the new workplace experience. This break from the norm would ultimately prove to be key in deciphering the balance between employee needs.
“We’ve had to look at what technologies can be used to make remote employees feel more included in a meeting and vice versa,” Weiskopf says of the effort to help connect in-person and remote attendees in a meeting room. “It involves physical changes to the room and furniture, technical changes to the audio-visual equipment and software. And then, of course, trying to optimize this idea of including everyone.”
Collaborators throughout The Hive designed Microsoft’s new hybrid meeting rooms as immersive and inclusive spaces. Everything was reimagined, from fabric, light, the different pieces of furniture, to how the space itself is arranged.
“What creates a great hybrid experience is not necessarily the technology as much as just the way everyone is facing,” Hempey says. “If people are facing each other in the room, they’re not focused on the people that are there remotely.”
By default, all of Microsoft’s new hybrid meeting rooms face a large screen where remote attendees are displayed. Rooms that used to sit 10 in a center-facing direction will now be refitted with a guitar pick-shaped table that focuses attention on the screen and cameras at the front of the room.
To offset any loss of capacity due to the new table shape, a second elevated table sits at the back of the room. Cameras in the room easily capture both levels of seating, so remote attendees can clearly see everyone in the room.
Other design decisions, like enabling presentations and content to appear on screen without bumping remote attendees out of line of sight, further enhance the experience. A Microsoft Surface Hub at the back of the hybrid meeting room generates additional functionality, allowing the device to be utilized for groups of two or three people without starting a formal meeting.
You can’t create a hybrid space without thinking about the technology that’s going to bring in virtual attendees.
Transitioning to Microsoft Teams prior to the pandemic was a huge benefit for when it was time to go virtual. Now that same technology is central to Microsoft’s hybrid meeting room experience.
“People already associate Microsoft with software, they expect to see lot of computer screens and code,” Hempey says. “For software to shine, you need the room itself to be that end-to-end experience. Our basic fundamental premise is that every room you walk into is just a Teams room, just like the software that’s on your device.”
To further improve the attendee experience, hybrid meeting rooms do away with some of the traditional headaches of finding the right cable hookups and inviting everyone into the call. Instead, the same process for joining a call in Microsoft Teams initiates the room.
This empowers attendees to use their own devices to interact with and take advantage of the room’s features.
With around 13,000 meeting rooms around the globe, Microsoft is developing a way to quickly deploy these new features to employees and guests. It’s a challenge everyone is facing as the new hybrid model of work is embraced.
“We’re developing standards for things that we would like to roll out quicker than our normal refresh cycle so that we can get a better hybrid experience in the hands of our employees, guests, and customers much faster,” Weiskopf says.
In rapidly testing and prototyping scenarios and use cases inside The Hive, Microsoft has created global AV design standards that enable hybrid meeting room experiences to exist at scale.
“We’re trying to get experiences right at Microsoft and hopefully others can benefit from that as well,” Hempey says of the new hybrid meeting rooms. “We can be very transparent about the challenges that we face. Our software is constantly evolving; our products are constantly getting better.”
As new lessons are learned, Microsoft can quickly update, incorporate, and deploy changes. This iterative process will allow employees and guests to have experiences that make the trip to a Microsoft campus worthwhile.
“It’s the combination of software, hardware, and the placement of people and cameras that enable the experience,” D’Hers says. “And that’s what creates the kind of experiences that we want, that are personal and accessible.”
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