"My goal is not to get everybody on the planet in Teams meetings all day long": Microsoft's Jeff Teper on the future of collaboration

Teams meetings may be popular but asynchronous collaboration can be more productive, while Teams insights and Office analytics reports are suggestions rather than solutions.

Indian woman teacher wear wireless headset video calling on laptop

The past year has seen the number of video meetings and the number of participants creeping up.

Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Just because Teams makes it easy to have meetings doesn't mean that spending your day in Teams meetings is the best way to get work done. Whether people carry on working remotely or transition to a mix of remote and in-person meetings, even Jeff Teper, corporate vice-president for Microsoft 365 collaboration (including Teams), doesn't define productivity, or the success of the service, as more people in more meetings.  

"My goal is not to get everybody on the planet in Teams meetings all day long," Teper told TechRepublic. "We're not trying to attention-hack people into spending more time in meetings." 

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Jeff Teper, corporate VP at Microsoft: "The best thing you can do is take care of yourself, not be in meetings all the time, and then get lots of other stuff done. And I've learned, I need to say that, not just think it." 

Image: Microsoft

Remote presenteeism 

The pandemic has surfaced questions around remote work, career development and employee engagement that businesses had been considering for years. The past year has seen the number of meetings and the number of participants creeping up, and Teper decided it was time to raise the issue when he noticed one of his own meetings had 76 attendees -- far more people than would be actively contributing. 

Some people have a meeting on in the background as a way of making a social connection to colleagues they no longer see around the office, but there are also concerns around career advancement, Teper suggested. "For many people in larger companies, there's anxiety -- particularly for people early- and mid-career -- about visibility and recognition."  

Teper is being more open about encouraging his teams to catch up later, or read the notes from meetings like strategy reviews for teams they're not part of, to stay current. But they shouldn't feel they must show up to be seen to be working. 

"We talk about hybrid work being 'anywhere, any time, any place'. Everybody is focused on the 'anywhere': you can have remote meetings and they're inclusive, and that's the new norm about people going back to work. I think 'any time' is underappreciated because people might want to go for a run in the middle of the day, or have some focus time where they're not context switching and they're writing code for four hours straight, as opposed to trying to write code for a half-hour segment in between meetings." 

"If you're off driving decisions or writing code or coming up with designs and missing those meetings, please don't like feel you need to go to these meetings just to chime in and be visible for your career advancement," said Teper. "The best thing you can do is take care of yourself, not be in meetings all the time, and then get lots of other stuff done. And I've learned, I need to say that, not just think it." 

Meetings are more valuable when people are prepared and when the conversation focuses on the problems rather than the presentation -- however good that is. For Teper, that means getting "some of the discussions and decisions, and slide reading out of the meeting, into asynchronous time, on people's own time." For example, faced with a long slide deck on the business strategy for the Lists app, Teper wanted to jump straight to brainstorming "the real hard problem we were wrestling with". That meant explaining that the slides did such a good job of conveying the strategy that he didn't need them to walk him through it -- "I had to make them feel psychologically safe," he said. 

Sometimes, the reason that a meeting can't just be an email is that it takes a forcing function like a meeting to get people to look at the information that could have been an email. If you can get people to read the slides and documents in advance, the comment features in Word, Excel and PowerPoint let you do the work asynchronously -- which is also easier for working with people in other timezones. 

Agreeing on the next fiscal year metrics for the Microsoft 365 team could have taken multiple meetings, but instead most of the work was done in advance. Team leaders wrote up their proposals and over the course of a week people left comments. "We were 90% in agreement, 10% we didn't [agree on]; they accepted some feedback, rejected some feedback, and flagged some things for us to discuss," said Teper. "We spent the meeting not reading the slides point by point, which would have been brutal; we just talked about the three things we didn't yet agree on, and it was hyper-efficient." 

Teper is enthusiastic about the new collaboration and meeting policies for his group, not because they're necessarily novel but because they might give other organizations a starting point. 

"I think it's my job to be Chief Evangelist of 'do things with Office document collaboration, SharePoint, Lists, Planner, Azure DevOps'. Do your bookkeeping and workflow, not with your voice in a meeting with a hundred other people all day long; do it asynchronously and when works for you in the collaboration tools, and the world will be a better place and you'll be happier." 

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Outlook can show that shortened meetings are an organization-wide policy. You can also choose your own defaults for how to shorten meetings, taking into account how long they will last.

Image: Microsoft

Take a break 

For the meetings you do need to attend, Microsoft's latest research confirms what many people have probably already figured out: that back-to-back meetings without a break in between are both exhausting and stressful. A short break in between (the 'cognitive white space' of walking, talking, getting a drink or just taking a minute for yourself) means you can focus better and actually contribute in the next meeting. 

Individual users can already set Outlook to trim a few minutes off the beginning and end of meetings they create, to give attendees the chance of some downtime. Microsoft's brainwave research suggests ten minutes between meetings stops your stress level cranking higher and higher as the day goes on. But now organizations get the same setting Microsoft is already using internally in Exchange, to automatically shorten all meetings by default. 

Organizations can choose whether the break is set at the beginning or the end of the meeting, and whether the time varies with the length of the meeting: five minutes at the beginning of a half-hour meeting, or 15 minutes to recover after an hour-long meeting. Users can still change the length of an individual meeting when they set it up, or tweak their own defaults for meeting lengths, but making breaks between meetings policy for everyone means that people are more likely to feel comfortable actually taking a break before the next meeting -- and stopping on-time at the end. 

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Viva Insights delivers personalised insights and actionable recommendations into peoples' workflows in Teams.

Image: Microsoft

Insights and suggestions 

Understanding how people are collaborating and nudging them into what research suggests are healthier habits might help them be more productive. But after the backlash over Microsoft 365 metrics that seemed too open to abuse by heavy-handed managers, Teper is careful to frame the new Viva Insights app in Teams (announced earlier this year and being released this month with the promise of 'personal wellbeing insights') and the weekly MyAnalytics reports for Office users as productivity suggestions rather than solutions. 

Customers are asking for help, he said: "People are asking us to have stronger opinions about how the tools should be used. People are asking our help on time management and focus time, organisations are asking for our help on productivity, and how to optimise performance with wellbeing. People come to us and say 'help us solve these problems'." 

But not only do different people have different working habits and find different approaches helpful or healthy for them, but different professions have different goals, Teper noted. 

"Productivity is very different for a scientist, for a teacher, for a software developer. You may be an evening person, somebody else might be a morning person; there might be some people who want to keep their weekends totally sacrosanct, while other people would say 'I love catching up with reading for work on a Saturday afternoon'. What we can do is just give people insights into their time management, and possible ideas for how they might try different things." 

Calling these metrics 'Insights' is very deliberate. "We're not over-promising. We're not telling you, 'hey, we know how to manage your day better than you do'. We're just taking the time to look at the data. 'Gosh, it looks like you have no free time during the day', or gosh, you know, you're sending a lot of after-hours email." 

Not everyone will find that valuable, Teper admits, but others might: in the same way that setting a tenant-wide policy to have meetings start and finish five minutes off the hour normalises breathing room between meetings, so not having leaders send email late at night lets everyone who works for them relax in the evenings. 

"If, as the leader of a team with a few thousand people, I send mail to everybody in the team at eight, ten o'clock at night, I'm creating a culture in my team that could be kind of oppressive. The fact that Outlook is now saying, 'Do you really want to send this now, or do you want to wait until business hours', I think, is pretty helpful." 

SEE: Office 365: A guide for tech and business leaders (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Teper is clear that this needs to be done carefully. "I think we've done a good job with privacy and controls and the sensitivity there, but people remind us anytime you wade into this space that this data can be abused, and we want to be really responsible about that." 

But knowing what makes you more productive and having your tools help with that can help people have more control -- something everyone would welcome a little more of right now. If you have the autonomy to control your schedule, your collaboration and meeting tools should help you do that. 

"I might be predisposed to wanting two hours free in the morning to stay in the flow; that's peak performance for me. Reviewing and tweaking my slides in between meetings, like not efficient versus staying in the flow. I think we need to give people a way to tell the tools what they want." 

Teper is already planning his own summer schedule back on the Redmond campus; Tuesday will be a SharePoint day in building 34, Thursday will be for Teams, meetings will be online, but if it's sunny and people are in the office he'll do some one-on-ones walking around. 

"What I've found is that you have to be intentional about how you manage your time. You can't just say 'my schedule is crushing me and there's nothing I can do about it'. As an individual and as a team, and especially as a leader, you need to design your rhythms." 

The metrics in Office and Teams Insights might be a way to discover what works for you by looking back at the previous month. "They could be good insights, they could be bad insights, but if all they do is stimulate your thinking and then you discard them, that's okay." 

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By Mary Branscombe

Mary Branscombe is a freelance tech journalist. Mary has been a technology writer for nearly two decades, covering everything from early versions of Windows and Office to the first smartphones, the arrival of the web and most things inbetween.