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Office workers don't want to return and Microsoft has software for that

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Employees are resisting calls to return to the office, but Microsoft wants companies to know it has an answer for smoothing things out while some workers remain remote.

The software maker this past Thursday showed off design changes to its Teams teleconference and collaboration software meant to ensure remote workers are just as involved in meetings as those seated in company conference rooms. Microsoft later this year will release "front row" in Teams, which moves the video gallery to the bottom of the screen so people calling in remotely are displayed face-to-face with those in the conference room. It also makes chat comments more clearly visible to in-person participants so they can see and respond. Slack Technologies Inc. and Zoom Video Communications Inc. have also been offering new features to their videoconference services and Zoom is pitching new hardware to make this hybrid scenario work better.

For software companies like Microsoft, Zoom and Slack, which saw jumps in product usage by remote workers during the pandemic, the return to office provides new requirements, as well as opportunities to cast themselves as the solution to balancing workplace teams that are partly in corporate offices and partly remote. Products that help make a hybrid workplace easier are becoming increasingly important as companies face resistance from employees who don't want to go back full time to a company site or face difficult health and family issues in returning.

Earlier this week, a group co-founded by Slack released research that showed 76% of more than 10,000 knowledge workers surveyed want some sort of flexibility about where they work. Apple employees circulated an internal letter against returning to the office, the Verge reported, and Amazon.com last week relaxed its stance on an "office-centric culture" telling corporate employees to show up in the office at least three days a week beginning in September.

There's a lot of pressure on employers to get it right -- or workers may quit. Fifty-six percent of those surveyed by the Slack group said they are open to something new. A poll last month of 1,000 U.S. adults by Morning Consult on behalf of Bloomberg News found 39% would consider quitting if their employers weren't flexible about remote work. And an earlier Microsoft poll of 30,000 global workers found 41% said they, too, were thinking about a new job.

Microsoft is also working with hardware partners to improve hybrid meetings, including sharpening artificial intelligence so that transcripts better identify participants and cameras can show everyone in a meeting room, helping remote workers keep track.

Slack has added the ability in its corporate chat product to schedule a message to be sent later to a room or group thread and is enabling users to replace live meetings with video that can be watched at any time. Slack is trying to encourage a mix of working from home and in the office for its employees, too. Executives have been told they can work in the office no more than three days a week so as not to pressure their employees to come in daily.

 

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