Microsoft reinvents the video chat grid because virtual meetings are exhausting

It's called Together mode, and it ditches virtual backgrounds for something a lot simpler.

Microsoft Teams Together mode

Instead of having everyone in their own square, Microsoft Teams can now put them all in a single virtual space.

Image: Microsoft

After four months of working from home, most people are deeply tired of video chat. That's anecdotally obvious, but it's also backed up by a study Microsoft's been running with brain sensors since even before the pandemic. The not-so-surprising upshot: It's harder to concentrate on a video call than in an in-person meeting. Somewhere around 25 minutes into the meeting, staring at a grid of faces just gets to be too much.

Video meetings aren't going away any time soon, though. Even when some people go back to the office, Zoom and its ilk are likely to remain a big part of most people's work lives. So Microsoft also designed what it thinks is a less stressful way to do them:

  • A new feature coming to Teams, called Together mode, swaps the grid of faces for something that looks more like everyone's in the same room. You can stick everyone in a lecture hall, seat them at a conference table across from you or even make it look like a cafe. Teams cuts out everyone's background and drops their floating heads into whatever background you choose.
  • Because everyone has the same background and is seated roughly in your field of view, Microsoft's research found that it can help with video call fatigue.
  • It also, apparently, helps when you can't see yourself. Because most people seem to spend most of their meeting time looking at themselves, and that turns out to be pretty stressful.

Like every other video platform, Teams usage has been huge during the pandemic, and in addition to trying to keep up with Zoom (it also added breakout rooms and live captions to the product today), Microsoft is interested in figuring out how to bring a sense of order back to people's crazy schedules.

  • Its survey found that video calls make people feel more empathetic toward their colleagues — it's harder to get annoyed about the late report when you see your co-worker in a T-shirt with their kids running around — but simultaneously less connected to them.
  • Removing everyone's backgrounds does take away from this a bit, but at least you can still see the T-shirts. And facial expressions, and messy hair.

The path to this point has been really interesting. Zoom's gallery view is a huge improvement over most previous video chat systems, and competitors have rushed to mimic it, but it's clearly not the only or best idea. Now there are products like Mmhmm and Shindig based on providing new ways for people to virtually talk and present and mingle, and features like Together mode trying to make the whole system a bit easier to handle. "Everyone's on video" isn't the end of the process for these products, it's just the very beginning.

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