Since 2019, when Microsoft first came out with its daily usage numbers for Teams, we have been carefully following its growth amid an increasingly competitive UC platform market. In July 2019, the then two-year-old Teams platform announced that it had crossed 13 million daily users – an impressive feat considering that the far older Slack had just over 10 million daily active users that year.
In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic and the consequent rollout of WFH globally gave Teams adoption another leg up. In March, it reached 44 million daily active users and soon crossed 75 million in less than two months.
There has been no looking back since then. Microsoft has consistently added new features and upgrades, deprioritising its other communication tools like Skype for Business in favour of Teams. As per the last announcement, Teams had officially crossed the 115 million DAU mark – signalling unprecedented adoption in a very short period.
Is this trend only limited to the short term, a response to the urgent needs of COVID-19? Or, can Microsoft sustain this growth curve, firmly establishing itself as the world’s leading UC player, just as it is recognised as the world’s leading OS provider?
It all comes down to the next few quarters, and the steps Microsoft intends to take to cement and add to the popularity amassed in 2020.
That’s not to say one can dismiss Teams’ adoption as temporary hype, propelled by free availability and easy deployment. Forrester’s Total Economic Impact study reveals that companies can save anywhere between $ 8.8 million to $21.7 million in labour costs in three years using Teams.
We spoke to several leading industry experts to unravel the role of Teams in the WFH landscape (and vice versa), looking at the top trends that lie ahead in 2021. In Part 1 of this round table series, we spoke to Maintel, StarLeaf, Nuvias, Cavell Group, Giacom, and Qunifi – you can read the full insights here. For Part 2, we sat down with experts from communication analytics company, Tollring, cloud communications provider, VanillaIP, SMB-focused telephony provider, Soluno, leading telco, Gamma, business development company, Larato, and telephony solutions company, Voiceflex.
Their insights reveal the direction in which Teams could be headed in 2021, and changes to expect the overall WFH/remote working market.
Don’t forget to read Part 1 of the Microsoft Teams for WFH in 2021: Expert Round Table.
Let’s dive right in.
Teams as a Top WFH Solution
Looking at pre-2020 numbers, Teams was a top player but it was at par with most of its competitors and growing gradually. It is only during last year’s WFH period that Teams usage shot through the roof. We were eager to know the reasons behind this trend. We asked our experts, why is it that Teams is attracting so much attention as a WFH tool/solution?
The answers reveal enlightening insights into Teams’ applicability for remote working use cases, continually supported by Microsoft’s improvement efforts. Besides this, Microsoft’s existing industry presence also had a role to play in its rapid rise as a top WFH tool, the experts suggested.
Tony Martino, CEO of Tollring
According to Tollring’s Tony Martino, it was Teams’ ability to replicate the ease, convenience, and intimacy of in-person experiences in a WFH setting that garnered it so much attention. “Teams has provided an excellent substitute for the traditional office workplace at a time when many businesses have been forced to send their employees home to work.”
And this applies to independent professionals, SMBs, and large enterprises equally, owing to Teams’ freemium model and cloud-based scalability.
“Since many businesses were already using Microsoft Office 365, Teams was a trusted and easily accessible platform for all types and sizes of business,” said Martino. “It offers communication and collaboration services through a single interface, delivering all the tools that a business needs such as internal and external chat, voice calls, video meetings, file share, team collaboration, and app integrations,” Martino highlighted.
The popularity of Teams has also created demand for other applications that add value to Teams’ core proposition. Martino told us that Tollring has seen increasing requests from customers for add-on tools that can introduce analytics, improve performance, etc.
“The saturation of Teams has come quickly and speaking with our customers that use Teams, we are seeing great demand for applications that transform Teams from simply enabling collaboration to taking it to the next level in terms of customer engagement and overall business performance.”
Therefore, Teams has not only emerged as a top WFH solution, but it has also pulled up demand in the collaboration space along with it.
Iain Sinnott, Sales and Marketing Director, VanillaIP
For Iain Sinnott from VanillaIP, it was the sheer convenience of access that pushed Microsoft Teams to the forefront. “At the time the pandemic forced the initial relocation to home working, MS Teams was the most accessible tool combining virtual meetings and proper collaborative working,” he said.
Interestingly, Microsoft Team’s perseverance, consistent messaging, and commitment to value addition helped it to stay relevant despite other, more commonly recognised collaboration platforms like Zoom. as Sinnott put it, “Zoom captured the headlines and the consumer focus as a ‘meeting’ tool.”
“But as the Microsoft Teams message pushed forward, businesses with 365 subscriptions realised they had a hidden asset which they could start to exploit.”
Ultimately, it will be the business gains that Teams unlocks that will cement its positioning as a leading WFH solution. We are gradually getting there, as businesses wake up to the benefits of WFH and the possibility of holding onto these benefits even after the pandemic.
“The longer the pandemic continued, the more businesses bought-in to WFH, recognising productivity gains instead of reductions and the potential to change their underlying reliance on bricks and mortar. When freedoms return and travel costs start hitting the accounts again, I think businesses will insist on the retention of more virtual work, based on the results of this forced experiment,” Sinnott said. Expectedly, Teams will be central to this new normal of virtual work.
Mattias Holmberg, Product Manager, Cloud PBX, Soluno
Mattias Holmberg from Soluno points out that Teams isn’t quite as unique in its feature set as it might appear. “Video conferencing and chat turned out to be important as the pandemic dispersed employees but Teams is far from the only platform to offer those tools,” he rightly notes.
So, what drove Teams to become so popular for WFH use cases?
According to Holmberg, there are three reasons for this:
- UI/UX design – Holmberg attributes a large portion of the adoption to a series of “wise design choices” by Microsoft, effectively reducing the learning curve for newly remote users.
- Existing presence – Like most industry experts, Holmberg agrees that “the pre-existing Office365 install-base” was somewhere instrumental in getting Teams to the spot of the “default” WFH solution.
- Third-party integrations – Holmberg believes this to be the key reason why Teams has managed to retain – and not just attract – WFH users. “It is the choice to open for integrations of the tools businesses are already using. The core of collaboration is working together and the core of collaboration tools is working well with other tools.”
James Bushell, Director of Product Management, Gamma
Gamma’s James Bushell traced Teams’ origins, and how its logical inclusion in Microsoft’s business solution line-up has led to its success here today.
“Since its release in 2017, Microsoft Teams has significantly impacted the UC market thanks to its ease of use, free inclusion in most Microsoft Business licences, and its seamless integrations that allow it to coexist with many existing business technologies,” Bushell said. As a result, organisations with existing Microsoft business licences (which comprise quite a sizeable number) already had access to Teams at that crucial moment of switching to WFH.
“As the pandemic hit,” said Bushell, “many businesses have had to fully embrace collaboration platforms, and for many, Teams was the obvious and quickest choice to implement.”
And after implementation, companies have selected to stay with Teams for two reasons – easy internal communications and powerful telephony capabilities.
“With its free instant messaging and video features (if you have already purchased the qualifying Office licence), Teams is a no-brainer for businesses looking to simplify their internal communications. When you add to that the ability to turn it into a telephony system that connects to the PSTN thanks to Direct Routing, the reasons it has attracted so much attention over the past year become even clearer.”
Lucy Green, Managing Director, Larato
For Lucy Green from Larato, the security imperative was the single biggest reason why companies adopted Teams in droves. Cloud-based communication and data exchange come with a whole gamut of security risks that are unfamiliar to companies that traditionally operated in an on-premise environment. “53% of UK businesses encountered cybersecurity challenges from home working,” Green mentioned, underscoring the severity of the challenge.
However, there was no getting around remote work last year, and companies had to necessarily double-down on security. “One in three firms invested in new security measures in Lockdown 1.0,” Green shared exclusive insights from Larato and V12 research. In this climate, it made sense to choose Teams which as StarLeaf’s Steve Raffe mentioned in Part 1 of this round table, is built by a well-known software brand and therefore is probably a safe choice.
Green also told us that the security situation, at least in the UK, hasn’t improved much since the initial lockdown days. This could further drive Teams adoption in 2021. “In lockdown 3.0, 39% of firms are still having problems with security. Microsoft Teams is perceived as a more secure option, which is helping to drive its adoption.”
Paul Taylor, Sales Director, Voiceflex
Paul Taylor from Voiceflex said that this was the coming of age for unified communication and collaboration (UC&C) of sorts, propelled by the needs of a crisis.
“UC&C has been around for many years and there are some great platforms in the market,” he said, but there was always a ceiling to adoption as in-person communication took precedence, holding companies back from realising the gains of UC&C.
“UC&C has always been an option that most users never use because users had been office-based, where communication was face-to-face and you had face-to-face meetings. Nothing has ever had a shop window like COVID, making it the right product at the right time,” Taylor reflected. He further said that the availability of additional applications on Teams was a useful addition to the standard Microsoft productivity package, sure to persuade users.
Next, the conversation moved towards the benefits of Teams adoption, with our industry experts unravelling the new opportunities that could arise from smart management of remote, distributed teams.
New Business Opportunities for Companies with Distributed Teams
2020 proved that companies with remote teams aren’t necessarily at a disadvantage. Not only does it make room for agility and crisis readiness, but companies have also been able to wring meaningful opportunities out of the situation. We were eager to know the possibilities of leveraging distributed teams for growth, and how Microsoft Teams could play a role. Our experts were asked how have platform developments created more opportunities for businesses with remote workers?
Here’s what they had to say.
Tollring’s Tony Martino explained how the necessary switch to remote work has led to a demand for value-adding third-party integrations, working alongside platforms like Teams. The business implications are immense, ranging from better work-life balance for employees to finetuning exact moments on the customer journey.
“For example, apps like collaboration analytics within Teams are providing the visibility required to work effectively in all environments. This level of insight will be vital as the WFH format becomes more established and habitual, with many business leaders looking to make hybrid working a permanent fixture in the future”
Fortunately, platform advancements already allow for new applications that could measurably improve business growth in a WFH world. As Martino told us, “The evolution of a new generation of third-party capable API integrations has allowed app developers to provide a strong roadmap of applications to help businesses cope with the changing working landscape.”
Tollring is one such provider, equipping Teams users with the tools that they need for success while operating with distributed teams.
“Tollring’s Analytics 365 suite for Teams assists organisations in managing customer engagement, team collaboration, and wellbeing. It delivers insights and collaboration comparisons across teams, departments, and teams, promotes wellbeing through trend analysis and reveals customer engagement activity across the business to maximise customer experience and gain efficiencies,” explained Martino.
Iain Sinnott from VanillaIP believes that WFH-led opportunities were available aplenty even before the pandemic, but businesses weren’t compelled to explore them. “The opportunity was clearly there before March 2020. Businesses in general, and especially the SME, were too busy to investigate the potential and held a belief that WFH was less productive.
According to VanillaIP’s usage metrics, WFH was an occasional one-off even among industries most suited for it, like knowledge work. Sinnott tells us:
“The usage figures on our voice conferencing service were very interesting, with Monday and Friday being big days, and the middle of the week the quietest. This suggests WFH was a 1 or 2-day thing for knowledge workers”
This has completely changed post-2020.
“What has now been proven, through Microsoft Teams and also Webex, is that rolling business meetings, projects, and teamwork can be effectively delivered using Spaces or Channels (depending on if you are a Webex or Teams user),” he added.
The platform approach to unified communications has brought with it efficiencies like the absence of commute and idle hours, debunking long-standing myths around productivity when working from home. And these opportunities will only multiply with the increasing sophistication and maturity of platforms.
“I think this is much more the UC experience we wanted to see evolving – a practical use of video to promote engagement/participation in group calls, ongoing chat, sharing Q&A, and easy access to the relevant files,” summed up Sinnott.
Mattias Holmberg from Soluno opined that the maximum opportunity for businesses would probably lie in platform-based meetings and new-age licensing models.
In the first instance, meeting tools allow remote employees to collaborate in real-time with shared access to important assets. This replicates in-person experiences without the hassles, costs, or safety hazards. Interestingly, Microsoft has also invested heavily in helping customers gain more from meetings. He said:
“Since the need for remote meetings surged last year, it is no surprise that it’s also where Microsoft focused most development. New features were directed at making the experience of participating in online meetings closer to physical ones and with features like a whiteboard and the possibility to bring apps into meetings it’s now easier for remote employees to work with shared tools”
The other aspect, which is licensing, could reduce software licence fragmentation and vendor orchestration efforts for IT teams. Using a single licence, companies can leverage the Teams platform for telephony, meetings, chats, and even hardware, introducing a much-needed simplicity to a WFH environment.
“On the business side, changes in licensing also opened up the possibility for small companies to integrate Teams with telephony systems,” said Holmberg.
“This provides a cohesive solution for internal and external communication. When the workforce is largely remote, it becomes increasingly important to cut down on the number of different systems and interfaces for both employees and IT-departments to maintain and learn how to operate.”
Gamma’s James Bushell spoke about an important challenge arising from WFH that requires our attention as much as its promising opportunities.
“One of the biggest concerns for businesses that have emerged due to new remote working requirements is isolation and employee wellbeing. Traditionally, remote workers don’t have as many opportunities to simply have a casual chat with colleagues, and research shows they tend to work more hours than their office-based counterpart”
Employee wellbeing cannot be the trade-off for productivity and business gains, and this is something companies must seriously consider as they move forward. When left unchecked, isolation among remote workers and the tendency to work longer hours can cause burnout, said Bushell.
“This, in turn, compromises their productivity as well as their wellbeing. Microsoft has acknowledged this at Microsoft Ignite 2020 and has been working on providing new features that can help overcome these challenges.”
Therefore, an opportunity that companies must actively pursue as part of WFH is the improvement of employee mental health when using and aided by technology platforms. “Features such as Together Mode are a great way to create a more friendly and creative virtual space for employees,” Bushell shared an example of how to go about this. “Personal and Manager Insights can track productivity and risk of burnout, helping organisations and individuals look after employees’ health. This a clear catalyst for productivity and business success.”
Larato’s Lucy Green zeroed-in on the two biggest benefits organisations could expect from platform developments: efficiency and scalability.
According to research by Larato and V12, companies leveraging platform solutions for WFH have already seen incremental growth in operational efficiency during the adoption period. They were also able to gain access to new customers and markets, thanks to the borderless nature of WFH that removes most (if not all) geographic constraints.
Here are the key metrics she shared from the research:
“The two biggest business opportunities are improvements in operational efficiency (42%) and access to new customers and markets (28%)”
Paul Taylor from Voiceflex correctly observed that the base technology enablers for WFH (previously known as telecommuting) have been around for decades. However, the absence of any real urgency held back adoption, even if there were tangible gains to be unlocked. He said:
“The technology has been available for some time – we have had mobile and email for years – but many office-based staff would have never bothered with the tech as there has never been any need”
In 2021, as we move into acclimatise ourselves with the dynamics of WFH and its business benefits, UC platforms like Microsoft Teams will be central to our business. “We have moved into a true ‘work from anywhere’ concept,” Taylor said, and there is no going back. “Unified Communication and Collaboration (UC&C), including Microsoft Teams, has and will continue to play a big part in the transformation.”
After considering the rise of Teams and the resulting business opportunities, we were eager to know about the trends that could mark the UC&C landscape in 2021, and the role that Teams would play in this climate. The conversation revealed interesting predictions (and some surprising ones) – here are the full insights.
WFH Trends for 2021, with Microsoft Teams on the Centre Stage
Sitting on Q1 of 2021, it is safe to say that remote work wasn’t just a flash in the pan or a one-off response to a crisis. It pushed forward the eventual adoption of WFH technology by several years, and Microsoft Teams happened to be at the right place at the right time, backed by the right set of resources.
As WFH continues for the foreseeable future – possibly morphing into a hybrid model but definitely not going away anytime soon – we were interested in the trends that would make a difference in 2021. We asked our experts what WFH trends could we expect in 2021? What do they foresee they’ll see from Microsoft Teams over this timeframe?
The answers varied from sure-fire predictions like increasing flexibility in working models to more unexpected ones such as training to cope with a steep UX learning curve and a declining focus on meetings in Teams.
Tollring’s Tony Martino is looking forward to the rise of a Teams marketplace that is in-sync with the requirements of a new hybrid working world. “Hybrid working across a mix of office, home, and other flexible locations will become more common,” Martino firmly believes, as team members begin to expect flexibility as a core tenet of the employee experience.
Therefore, Teams will have to support employees logging in from an office, from an on-field site, from their homes, from a coffee shop, or a beach equally well. “The Teams marketplace will extend to deliver more sophisticated and integrated business apps designed specifically to support these hybrid and WFH trends. The apps will be fundamental to work processes, with Microsoft Teams firmly entrenched at the heart,” Martino elaborates.
In other words, the continued success of Teams will depend as much on its ability to attract third-party application integrations as it will on its in-house innovations.
Tollring is among the third-party providers looking to offer turnkey hybrid work enablers within the Microsoft Teams ecosystem. The company has several launches planned for the next few quarters, geared to unveil deeper data insights into how efficiently the business is operating on a distributed model through Teams.
“In 2021, Tollring’s new Analytics 365 suite will develop from collaboration analytics to recording management through to integration with CRM and calling platforms, bringing more communications tools into the business ecosystem – again, with Teams at the heart,” Martino told us.
“As a result, we’ll see work become more fluid and organisations become more effective, no matter where their workers are based.”
Iain Sinnott from VanillaIP mentioned that the ink is yet to dry on the details of remote working in 2021, and platform providers must plan for every case scenario. “Almost all agree that WFH is here to stay, but what % of working time will it become?” Sinnott questions.
To his mind, work will happen across multiple channels and locations, but there is no going back to the pre-pandemic way of doing things. “I see the welcome return of face-to-face client, team, and training meetings. What I don’t expect to see is that level of travel/office time getting much above 50% of the old norm,” he said.
Sinnott also shared with us his predictions for Teams as a first-party provider as well as resellers/integration partners looking to cement their market share.
“Microsoft has the least to do when it comes to meeting and collaboration and the most to do in terms of telephony, but I expect the telephony piece to change dramatically by December,” he emphasised the need to invest in telephony capabilities for Teams. For resellers, the key is to offer flexibility and variety.
“The reality for resellers is that whatever % it is, they will need a portfolio of options to easily enable productivity in the many different environments home-workers inhabit.”
Sinnott is also careful to point out the risks arising from the rapid maturity of Teams as a first-party platform, leaving very little value for resellers to add. “The question is what value will be left in the hands of the reseller who has a realistic threat from Microsoft’s ability to go straight to customers, as well as the lower margin expectations of the Microsoft IT partner channel.”
Indeed, there have been instances, across January 2021, of Microsoft directly reaching out to customers, without notice to resellers. Whether this could become a trend or if there is an alteration of Microsoft-reseller partnerships on the cards for this year remains to be seen.
Like Martino and Sinnott, Mattias Holmberg from Soluno is bullish about the longevity of the WFH trend, even as employees begin to get restless about returning to the office. What is already a reality for 100% remote companies around the world – i.e., work from anywhere, peppered with mandatory employee engagement days in the office – could become more prevalent across industries.
“While I think many of us are looking forward to spending time with our colleagues more regularly, it is also clear that work from home is here to stay,” said Holmberg. “As the situation normalises after COVID, I believe we will see some more creative ways to embrace remote work. Perhaps there will be designated office days where work will focus on workshops and social activities.”
An important prediction Holmberg shared for Microsoft Teams is a renewed focus on collaboration, beyond voice or video meetings.
“The next step for tools like Teams will be to focus on improving the parts of working together that are outside of meetings. Working on shared documents, sharing files, chats, and making information accessible will need to be even more intuitive if those parts of Teams are to reach the same adoption level that video meeting has,” he said.
His bet would be on smarter knowledge management and creating a 360-degree workplace, similar to an intranet, or its competitor, Confluence. “My guess is that Teams will make enhancements to the Wiki feature to claim the intranet market, which you could say is dominated by Confluence.”
While most of our experts believe that the focus will be on hybrid and not just remote, Gamma’s James Bushell has a slightly different perspective. Driven by the benefits and opportunities arising from WFH last year, 2021 will be the year of “remote first” productivity infrastructure. It will be businesses that proactively deploy these capabilities, not necessarily in response to employee demand.
“In 2021, businesses will continue to pivot and adapt their strategies due to the pandemic,” said Bushell. “We will most likely see a shift from remote-friendly to remote-first environments. While in 2020, remote working was a temporary necessity, many businesses now see the benefits of this new way of working and will choose to make it the norm, rather than the exception.”
This means that platforms like Teams will be at the heart of your productivity stack. Not only would this provide employees with a consolidated suite of work tools, but it would also be accessible from anywhere, thanks to the cloud.
“All employees will need access to the same tools and solutions, regardless of their location – UCaaS will play a vital role in enabling businesses to successfully transition to a remote-first approach.
There are two trends Bushell expects from Teams in this context:
- Market domination and ubiquity – “Microsoft Teams will also continue to be a key player in the market. Microsoft will try to turn Teams into even more of a unified channel to access every tool an employee may need during their day.”
- Employee health and wellbeing – “We also expect to see a greater focus on employee wellbeing, with many new features, such as virtual commutes and integrations with meditation apps, having been announced already.”
Once again, the focus is squarely on sustaining both business health and individual health in the long-term.
Lucy Green from Larato agrees that WFH will be a staple in 2021, but stresses the need for realigning technology and people processes to make the work environment fully effective. When asked what would be the top trends for this year, she highlighted three elements:
- Continued WFH – According to Green, it is the mid-market enterprise that is the most likely to stay on with WFH in the next few quarters. “Approximately 35% of mid-market enterprises will retain the workforce at home for the foreseeable future,” she said, citing metrics from Larato and V12 research.
- Technology and HR overhaul – Last year’s hurriedly built WFH set-ups will not suffice for the long-term, Green believes. “Companies will invest in improving WFH environments from a tech and HR/ people perspective. 97% of businesses say their workers’ environment needs adaptation to be effective,” she added.
- Teams training – Given the rapid pace of Teams evolution, employees need fresh skills to use it optimally. “One in two businesses are saying that workers need better skills in using collaborative apps,” Green confirmed. “I would expect MS Teams to build on the training materials they are providing as well as continuing upgrading functionality.”
In Part 1 of this round table, Steve Raffe from StarLeaf mentioned that complexity in Teams was a major issue, so much so that users felt that it was composed upon them 58% of the time. Adequate training could be the secret to alleviating this, making it an important trend for 2021.
Paul Taylor from Voiceflex is confident that Microsoft Teams will carry on with its hectic upgrade roadmap in 2021, a trend we also saw last year.
“We have seen an array of additional telephony features added to MS Teams over the last 12 months and this will be no different in 2021 as we can expect to see continued feature sets being added throughout the year,” Taylor said.
It isn’t just first-party vendors like Microsoft Teams that have to “up their game” this year. IT departments, too, must pivot towards WFH requirements, finally implementing the connectivity and security measures that were put off during an almost overnight shift to WFH.
This could be more critical than one can imagine – “It is every week that I receive updates of Microsoft authorisation codes for Outlook and Microsoft Teams on 3 devices,” Taylor said, noting that security gaps still very much exist.
“Data connectivity and security will be high on IT departments agenda in 2021. WFH is no longer a trend but reality – WFH staff need the same level of connectivity and security as they would enjoy in the office,” predicts Taylor.
As our experts pointed out, 2020 pushed Teams adoption to a tipping point, fast-forwarding our technology use by several years and thereby transforming work dynamics for good.
With a total economic impact of up to $21.7 million worth of savings in labour costs over three years, Microsoft Teams offers its customers incredible promise and generally lives up to it. 2020 was a landmark year for the platform amid global WFH, and this year will only serve to cement this positioning, provided Microsoft plays its cards right.
For the complete insights, do check out Part 1 of this round table. We would like to thank our experts for taking the time to share their valuable thoughts, opinions, and insights, and we hope you’ve found this read to be inspiring and informative.
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