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Microsoft’s new Viva tool gives ‘productivity’ a more human definition

Getting more done is still the plan, but Microsoft's trying to help keep everyone sane, too.

Microsoft Viva Connections

Viva Connections is just one part of Microsoft's new way of thinking about the employee experience.

Image: Microsoft

Microsoft is launching a new set of tools designed to help companies be more productive. That's not a terribly revolutionary thing for Microsoft to do, but the approach this time is quite different. The new set of tools, called Microsoft Viva, is less about increasing operational efficiency or hitting your KPIs faster, and more about making sure employees are happy, sane and feel taken care of.

While Viva is a set of tools, it's ultimately part of an even larger family: Microsoft's building a new "Employee Experience Platform" to try to help redefine, quantify and achieve a new definition of employee success. The industry Microsoft is trying to capture is worth hundreds of billions of dollars a year, dominated by companies like ServiceNow. And Viva is Microsoft's first foot into the fray. So far, Viva is four things: Viva Learning, a hub for all of a company's training and courses; Viva Topics, an automatically curated library of various internal videos, presentations and other content; Viva Connections, a Facebook Workplace-style intranet that can help people find resources within the company; and Viva Insights, which aims to measure and help improve employee experience.

Most companies already have a lot of this stuff, but it's in a dozen different systems that nobody ever remembers to check. Microsoft wants to collect it all in one place, and then by integrating it into Microsoft Teams, make it available in the place everyone spends their time.

In the long run, Viva Insights is the key to understanding what Microsoft is trying to do with Viva, and with EXP in general. In the early days of the pandemic, Microsoft began hearing a lot of the same question from its customers: How do I find out how my employees are doing? Not just whether they're getting any work done (though there was a bit of that, too), but whether employees are burned out, struggling to manage work-life balance, feeling lonely, all the things so many people have felt over the last year. They wanted to know if Microsoft could offer some insight.

Even within Microsoft, coping with the new ways of work has been a challenge. "I transitioned about a year ago into this new job that I'm in," said Kirk Koenigsbauer, who is now COO and CVP of Microsoft's experiences and devices group. "I haven't met 80% of my team." The day we chatted, he was gearing up for an all-nighter in his New Hampshire home, in order to do a quarterly catch-up with a team in India. "I've seen so many people I work with, with their kids, their grandparents, their spouses, their cats, their dogs. It's all just there. So how do you keep employees connected?"

Microsoft Viva Insights Viva Insights tries to put numbers — and solutions — to questions about employee productivity and well-being.Image: Microsoft

Things like connection and burnout are hard to measure, but Koenigsbauer is hopeful Microsoft can at least help shed some light on things. "If I'm a manager, I can very quickly kick off a quick survey and get insights. I would call that quantitative data." And here he's careful to note that Microsoft is trying to do this in a privacy-preserving way, anonymizing individual data and only sharing it with bosses in aggregated form. After the backlash to the "Productivity Score" that automatically showed managers a lot of individual data about users' activity, Microsoft's eager to not repeat the same mistake.

Koenigsbauer said there are other ways Microsoft is learning to measure employee well-being, but also acknowledged that there's always going to be a qualitative side of the story. He pointed to Viva's partnership with Headspace as an example: "If you have some of this high-level trend information," he said, "they can provide a bunch of tools to help employees, whether it's meditation or a bunch of different services that they're going to provide."

These insights aren't meant to just be for managers, either: Employees can turn to Viva for help remembering to take breaks and set calendar boundaries, and to ensure they're spending time on the right things. Koenigsbauer pointed to Microsoft's recent Virtual Commute feature, which automatically sets aside time for employees to get ready for work even when they're working from home, as an example of the sort of simple, automated system that can make work better.

Most companies will handle these things in different ways, he said, and there will always be outliers who demand ruthless production at all costs. "But generally speaking, people's interests are aligned," he said. "Successful, happy, non-burned out employees are what's going to keep things going."

Koenigsbauer acknowledged that Viva is new, that the world of work remains in flux, and that a lot is likely to change even in the next several months. "What if two of us decide to go into the office and the other person doesn't want to?" he asked, just to name one example. "Will the fear of missing out happen again?" But he's confident that EXP is a big business going forward, and thinks Microsoft's well-equipped to lead it. The company already knows so much about how its customers work. If it can figure out how to measure that in a way that is both respectful of privacy and useful to all parties — which will be no small task — it can help nudge everyone in better directions.

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