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How Microsoft designed a radical future for hybrid meetings

A new world of work requires a new way of working. And that apparently includes demolishing your conference room.

A Microsoft Teams meeting

Microsoft's new meeting rooms put all participants, physical and virtual, on the same level. Literally.

Photo: Microsoft

We should probably start by talking about the table. It's a long, wooden conference room table, much like the ones in every office everywhere, but three things about it stand out. All the chairs are on the same side of the table, so instead of a conference room, it's more like a stage for a re-creation of "The Last Supper." The table is also gently curved inward, crescent moon-style. And it's beautifully, perfectly lit by a row of lights above that matches the table in both length and curvature.

Greg Baribault, a program manager at Microsoft, walked excitedly around this table, which sits in a prototyping facility he calls "the hive" at the company's offices in Washington. A colleague followed him with a camera, so I could see the whole space over Microsoft Teams. Before this table was a table, Baribault said, it was a prototype. And before the hive looked like a conference room out of a science-fiction movie, it housed a team of researchers and program managers who happily made a mess of the place. "We had these large, inch-thick cardboard sheets," Baribault said, which they used to build every version of a table they could think of.

The team played with different amounts of curve in the table, looking for that sweet spot where everyone could see each other but also see the screen on the facing wall. They moved the table closer to the screen and then farther away, then did the same with the microphones. It was ... a process. "We have a lot of software expertise," Baribault said, "but not a lot of furniture expertise." Eventually they partnered with Steelcase to build the finished wood and metal object in the room.

The goal was simple, Baribault said: "To really get a model where, when I sit at the table, I feel like I'm looking eye-to-eye and at the same level as the people that are remote."

Microsoft workers at a curved desk looking at their remote colleagues projected on screen An early version of Microsoft's new conference room prototype, complete with curved table.Photo: Microsoft

Oh, and the projected wall he mentioned? It takes up almost the entire opposite wall, projected from somewhere I can't see over our Teams call. In spirit, though, it's effectively the other side of the conference room table. The bottom of the screen is a row of faces, showing every remote person involved in the meeting. They show up in the room as if they're seated at eye level. Their audio is pumped into the hive through a spatial audio system that makes it feel like the people on the left of the screen are actually to Baribault's left.

Microsoft calls this setup Front Row. For those in a Front Row-equipped room, it's meant to feel like everyone else is present in person no matter where they actually are. For the remote participants, it's just the opposite: Everyone should look remote. Special cameras in the hive turn its well-lit occupants into heads in rectangles on screens, just like everyone else. Ceiling-mounted microphones make sure they can be heard.

Down the hall from the large conference room, there's a smaller space, designed for only three or four people. Microsoft's research found that about half of meetings happen in groups this small, in focus rooms and huddle spaces like this one. Here, the table looks like it's been sawed off at one end and then shoved directly into the wall. The projected screen sits above it, putting the remote participants effectively at the head of the table. The camera is mounted almost flush to the wall, right at eye level, once again turning digital participants into physical ones and vice versa.

That kind of flexibility, optimized for everyone all the time, is the essence of Microsoft's vision for the future of hybrid work. After more than a year of working remotely, the company has spent a huge amount of time and energy trying to figure out what's next. Nobody knows for sure, not even Microsoft's researchers and product teams. But they have some theories. One of them, maybe the most urgent one, is that hybrid meetings tend to be awful. (Anyone who's ever been "the person on the phone" can attest to that.) The only way to fix that, Microsoft thinks, is a counterintuitive one: Companies need to redesign their physical offices with remote workers in mind.

"When I talk with customers who are already headed back," said Jared Spataro, Microsoft's corporate vice president for Microsoft 365, "I ask them, 'So how's it going?' And without fail, they say: 'The worst meetings I've ever had in my life.'" Most companies know that the next phase of work requires more flexibility, and that every employee seems to want something slightly different. Spataro agreed that hybrid is the future, but said he defines the term more broadly than most. "We believe that really what's happening is, there's going to be flexibility in when, where and how people work," he said. "It's going to come together in a pretty ad hoc way, and it's going to require a new operating model, a new way of thinking: How does your organization function? How do you get things done?" Hybrid work is about much more than melding offices and home offices; it's about a total rethinking of the way business works.

If that sounds big, it should. "This really does seem like a once-in-a-generation shift," Spataro said. Microsoft has a significant product interest in this shift, of course: Spataro's team has been retooling every part of Microsoft 365 to better position the service for this hybrid future. Teams has become the center of the productivity ecosystem, while Viva is a new hub for employee resources. And the competition among work tools has never been hotter. This might be the best chance in a decade for a company like Microsoft to own the future of work ... or for a competitor to take it down.

All this design and building work has forced Microsoft into a heady line of questioning. (Like, what even is a meeting, you know?) During the pandemic, everything was a meeting. "That was the only technology we had," said Jaime Teevan, a chief scientist at Microsoft. "Happy hours became meetings, water-cooler chats became meetings." Going forward, she said, Microsoft has to build for a wide spectrum of hybrid gatherings. "How do you engage people not just spatially, but how do you arrange things across time as well?" Teevan said. "Think about asynchronous and synchronous engagement: How do you transition between those? I think there's a real opportunity there."

Team members on a screen with parallel chat and agenda Part of Microsoft's big rethinking of meetings involved figuring out how a digital meeting can be more useful, with agenda items and parallel chat.Photo: Microsoft

Some of these ideas extend from decades-old research at Microsoft, including projects from the early '90s that tested early versions of spatial audio and digital whiteboards. "It's really building on the fact that we have pretty significant history as human beings of interacting with people, by looking at them, with all of our turn-taking," Teevan said. "All of this stuff kind of assumes that we have this equal footing in how we're engaging." Teevan's a big fan of the digital hand-raise and reaction emoji features, for instance, which help replicate some of those signals in a digital space.

Now that meetings are primarily digital things — and will continue to be even in a hybrid world — Microsoft and others are trying to figure out how software can improve them. Some things are obvious: Meetings can be recorded for those who couldn't be present, and they can be transcribed. Spataro recalled one meeting he missed, in which his name came up. "And what was so cool is I could search for my name," he said. "This was a 60-minute meeting, I didn't attend it, I didn't want to attend it. I just wanted to know, what did they want me to do?" In this new world, a meeting becomes a source of information rather than a you-had-to-be-there moment in time.

The other part of making hybrid meetings work is about making it easier to work in hybrid meetings, which means collaboration. So, also on the screen in the hive: a running list of action items being compiled by everyone in the meeting. It's one example of what Microsoft calls Fluid Components, which are sort of atoms of productivity — a meeting agenda, a quick spreadsheet — that can be worked on simultaneously across Teams meetings, OneNote, Outlook and Whiteboard.

Put together, it's a very compelling vision: a meeting setup that feels genuinely optimized both for remote and in-person participants. There's just one downside, which is that it requires spending a fortune to renovate every conference room in the building. That's why Spataro said he's trying to help customers see the future of meetings as a process.

Two screens full of video chats Yes, Microsoft has big ideas about the future of meetings. But a better camera and an extra screen can also go a long way.Photo: Microsoft

To that end, here are Spataro's Three Steps For Hybrid Success. Step one: Get everyone to bring their laptop to the meeting. "Turn the audio off and just have one central audio input, but have everybody have a video feed on their face. That makes a huge difference." Step two: Upgrade the in-room camera, and add a second screen for seeing everyone's faces. "You can find cameras … that are just motion- and speaker-tracking cameras. They make a huge difference." And then, yes, step three: Rip your conference room down to the studs, bring in a curved table and go full Front Row.

Spataro's guess was that many companies will go through the three steps over the course of the next 12 months. Most will convert one conference room at first, then slowly expand over time. (And if you're looking for a budget boost, he suggests making the case that decreasing business travel might open up some meeting-tech money.) Frankly, he'd be happy if companies even get to step one. "Pre-pandemic, I went to a lot of customers where it was like a TV with a long cord you were supposed to plug into," he said, "with maybe a Polycom thing sitting there on the table. There's a lot of work to do."

And here, again, Spataro said he doesn't know exactly how all this will shake out. Nobody does. The future will surely get weirder: Microsoft is already looking at telepresence robots, improving its gaze-correction tech that makes everyone look like they're staring into the camera and thinking about how AI can get even better at understanding the content and context of meetings. But that's all down the road, and there are a lot of problems to solve between now and then.

For now, Spataro offers two ideas that he hopes will guide companies figuring out their own future of work. First, that every hybrid company is fundamentally a remote one, and that the process should be to bring the best of remote work into the office rather than to go back to the way things were. And second, to stop thinking of meetings as a single thing that happens at a single time with a single group of people. Start thinking of them as permanent, searchable things, sources of information and understanding.

And maybe think about swapping out your conference room table.

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