Posey's Tips & Tricks

New Microsoft Teams Features: The Gimmicky, the Practical and the Maybe

With much of the corporate world now interacting via online chat, Microsoft is throwing a bunch of new features at its Teams platform, hoping that at least a few of them will stick. But chat bubbles?

Thanks to the state of the world, Teams is quickly becoming one of Microsoft's flagship products.

Not surprisingly, Microsoft has been hard at work introducing new features and functionality to further improve the Teams platform. Some of these new features are a bit gimmicky, to say the least, but others could prove to be extremely useful.

Gimmicky: Together Mode
Let me start with what I see as being the most gimmicky of all the new features. Interestingly, this is the feature that Microsoft chose to lead its page describing all of the new Teams features. That feature is called Together Mode. It is essentially a virtual conference room.

According to Microsoft, COVID-19-related lockdowns have left people feeling disconnected from one another. (I have absolutely no doubt about this.) To help people to feel more connected, Microsoft has created a virtual conference room that makes it appear as though everyone on a video chat is in the same room.

Personally, I just can't imagine that a virtual background is going to make any kind of meaningful difference for people who are feeling disconnected from one another, but I applaud Microsoft for at least trying to help people feel more connected. Who knows -- maybe Together Mode will ultimately be an impactful feature. We will just have to wait and see.

Practical: Virtual Breakout Rooms
One of the new Teams features that seems far more practical and useful is the new virtual breakout room feature.

I can't tell you how many times I have attended online meetings in which side discussions were taking place in the chat window. Don't get me wrong -- I don't have a problem with people having side discussions, even if those discussions are completely irrelevant to the topic being discussed in the meeting. Even so, I have a tough time focusing on two different conversations at the same time, so I usually end up closing my chat window to avoid being distracted. On occasion, though, this has caused me to miss something important.

But consider how the availability of virtual breakout rooms might make the situation different. Participants will presumably be able to step out of a meeting, have a quick side discussion, then rejoin without being disruptive to others.

Better still, based on the screen captures I have seen, it seems that the virtual breakout meeting feature will allow several side chats to occur at once, as opposed to having one breakout option for everyone. If this is indeed the way the feature works, it will make it possible for people to have private conversations without the risk of snooping by other meeting participants.

Maybe: Chat Bubbles
One of the new features I am on the fence about is chat bubbles. The idea is that when someone types a message into the chat window, their message will be overlaid on the video in the form of a comic strip-like speech bubble.

I found it really interesting that Microsoft decided to bring this capability to Teams, because it's something that it has tried before (sort of). Exchange 2000 included a comic strip-like chat feature in which chat participants were represented as cartoon characters, with the messages that they typed being displayed in speech bubbles.

The Exchange Server comic strip chat feature went away almost as quickly as it was introduced, so my exposure to it was limited at best. Even so, I remember liking the feature because it was so out-of-the-ordinary.

My guess is that the Teams chat bubble feature will initially be seen as a novelty, but will eventually prove to be useful. Overlaying speech bubbles on top of the video feed means that a traditional chat window may no longer be necessary. Some much-needed screen space might be reclaimed from the chat window, leaving more room onscreen for other things.

As you can see, Microsoft has been really busy working on Teams enhancements. In fact, there are far more new features than what I have been able to talk about here. You can find a full list of all the new features in this document.

About the Author

Brien Posey is a 22-time Microsoft MVP with decades of IT experience. As a freelance writer, Posey has written thousands of articles and contributed to several dozen books on a wide variety of IT topics. Prior to going freelance, Posey was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the country's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox. In addition to his continued work in IT, Posey has spent the last several years actively training as a commercial scientist-astronaut candidate in preparation to fly on a mission to study polar mesospheric clouds from space. You can follow his spaceflight training on his Web site.


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