Key lessons on staff morale from 1 million Microsoft Teams meetings

By Jim James,

Founder EASTWEST PR and Host of the SPEAK|pr Podcast

Here are some of the learnings that have happened for the company that has held over 1 million Teams meetings online. The impact of symbols, working from home, the loss of workplace rituals add to this sense of fatigue, because not only are people no longer surrounded by their colleagues, they’re not surrounded by the things and the places that normally fuel company culture. 

The powerhouse that is Microsoft Teams

One father that has been working now from home during lockdown since March shared that his company has now got the distinction of hosting over 1 million Microsoft Teams meetings. They have 40,000 members of staff, and he said that it’s transformed the way that they run their business. Interestingly enough, he said that they’ve been able to accelerate their strategy implementation from taking nearly 30 months down to only six months. They saved a massive amount on travel, on incidentals, and simply, time. With Microsoft Teams, they can host meetings with 400-1,000 people in a way that wasn’t possible before. He talked about polling, taking all the questions in advance and letting the meeting attendees vote for which ones that they wanted to address first. It wasn’t always the case that the the people in the field were asking the questions that the management team wanted to answer, but it was giving them a forum to do so. The management team was also very aware that if they didn’t take these questions seriously, they’d undermine the whole process of this democratic sharing or town hall meeting.

Some new protocols and new ways of working are needing to be established in Teams, Zoom, Skype, or even Facebook. The world is moving into another phase of maturity, and this particular organisation is large enough that they actually work directly with Microsoft on some of the input of the of the program. This business owner said one of the implications is that file sharing and file archiving are now being fundamentally changed, because in the same way that people would go to a meeting and share a PowerPoint or documentation with one another in the room, now people are sharing documents whilst they’re in an online meeting. When it’s impacting 40,000 people and over a million meetings, you can just imagine the scale of the issue that’s being being faced. They’re talking about the need to integrate email in things like the cross-organisation search. With platforms like Microsoft and Zoho, one can really see the complete ecosystem of the business being online. 

This father also shared how psychologists have been working with his company on the impact of Teams, the volume of these virtual meetings, and fatigue. Psychologist encouraged them to turn off their video when not speaking, because it actually creates latency between what you’re saying and what you’re hearing. Also, people become self-conscious about what they look like on screen rather than just focusing on the speaker. It does make sense, because if you’re both “watching” yourself and the person speaking, you’re distracted. Say you’re in a meeting at the office, you wouldn’t be constantly looking yourself in the mirror, but you are when you’re on a video call plus, of course, there’s the anxiety of how your home office looks, possible children coming in, a dog barking, a delivery arriving, and so on. There’s a lot of things going on that are contributing to fatigue. 

Microsoft’s Together Mode

Microsoft is now looking at ways to make virtual events less exhausting. They launched a Together Mode in June, which displays avatars of meeting participants. In other words, you wouldn’t put your yourself online. Instead, you would have an avatar representing yourself there. The benefit of avatars is they could look a bit more consistent and professional. Jaron Lanier, a scientist with Microsoft Research, said he conceived, tested, and realised this new Together Mode during the pandemic. He said that if it hadn’t been for the pandemic, it would have been years of testing and development to release something like the Together Mode. So, some software technologies are being developed specifically because of COVID and within the COVID timeframe. This means that the likelihood of going back to how it used to be is increasingly slight, because software has made massive advances across everything from security to background to audio to screen sharing, and the like. 

Microsoft is also adding a dynamic view which allows a more flexible presentation. They’re allowing simultaneous live streaming of video and a smoother transition between participants, so it’s not quite as tiring to have people drop in and out. These are some of the aspects we’re seeing between Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Skype, Google Hangouts, or whatever we’re using. There’s a myriad of dedicated virtual conference and trade show platforms as well. And while the pandemic has brought many businesses to a halt, it has also put things into perspective, allowing many people to spend time with family, but also taking away the opportunity engage with his team members. 

What does the destruction of a monastery have to do with virtual meetings?

There was destruction of the Mar Elian monastery in Syria by the ISIS forces. It was a pilgrimage site that sheltered hundreds of Syrian Christians who had survived and huddled in this sanctuary in spite of the onslaught of the the ISIS forces. The ISIS forces arrived, and they captured a French priest, while his community stayed around the building. Eventually, the French reverend escaped, his following came in, and they decided they must all leave this part of Syria near Palmyra. They did so, because the monastery have been destroyed. To them, it was more than just a place. It had been a symbol of hope. It had been where they held their rituals, where they would come to pray, where they would have a certain social order, where they would have their culture of what they would wear and what they would read, and where they had their symbols of their faith, their crosses, scepters, and crypts. These are all elements that, as human beings, bind people together. They’re the essential elements of any culture that people need, these rituals, these symbols, these myths, and stories that validate why all of these things exist, why they matter, and what they represent. For 1,600 years, people have been going as pilgrims to this site, and in just a short period of time, a group of people had managed to destroy it, not just the building, but the hope and the faith that these Christians had. From this story of a fourth century saint who had founded the Mar Elian monastery in Syria had bound people together, it was clear that he had really given his people a sense of purpose and a sense of energy to withstand amazing pressures and physical harm.

The Mar Elian monastery destroyed by ISIS forces

Photo from The Straits Times

Coming back to people’s working lives, many have lost the symbols, the rituals, and the myths of their work environment. By working at home, they’ve tried to create new environments, but most are working in places that are not surrounded by the same kind of people for sure, and they’re not surrounded by signage. They’re not surrounded by someone at reception who welcomes them and asks how their day was. So, as company owners, have you sent anything to your teams in their home working environments that represent a symbol or a link to the business? Companies are holding virtual meetings regularly, but that’s still not the same as walking into an office and feeling the energy of everybody else in the room, or watching other people enter, and getting excited about a joint project. And so, as this business owner talked about the 1,000,000th team meeting that this company had held, there was a sense of great joy at the simple productivity of virtual meetings, at the time saved from not having to drive or commute to work, the money saved from not having to go for lunch and coffee, no longer needing to replace expensive suits, but also a sense of nostalgia of the pre-COVID times.

As you think about your team, wherever they are, from a communications perspective, how can you energise your staff, your teams, your clients, and your partners? How can you represent the symbols of our business and share this with your staff? Can you send tokens? Can you send background logos? Can you send t-shirts? Whatever it is, what can you do to help people reengage and feel that there are some symbols or icons that they can touch base with? Maybe fatigue isn’t just about the loss of energy caused by sitting at the screen. Maybe it’s also the lack of energy, because where people are working right now is not imbibed with energy. The circumstances are different now, because most people are trying to counter the environment they’re in with family, so they’re not in an environment that’s providing them with energy or support. As a company, if you’re responsible for those people working in those environments, could you possibly send company-branded material to your staff? 

As you look to lead your organisation and people around you, and as you encourage and inspire those people to dedicate themselves to work, think about what rituals, symbols, or myths you can create to make everybody feel that this is a worthwhile organisation, that this is something they can believe in, that it has a mission and a purpose, that it can give guidance when there may be an absence of it. Everyone is under a lot of pressure, but this is a chance to show great leadership, and leadership will come as you look deep within, look forward, and decide what’s important. The challenge is figuring out how to turn their situation and homes into a productive and a compelling workplace.


This article is based on a transcript from my Podcast SPEAK|pr, you can listen here.

Cover Photo from Microsoft

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