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Microsoft’s “virtual commute” elicits mixed responses

While many do not miss traffic and crowded commutes, many said the new Microsoft Teams feature would help separate them from work.


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Last month during a Microsoft Ignite IT pro show, Microsoft announced that it was adding a new feature to Microsoft Teams called “virtual commute,” which will allow users to schedule time at the beginning and end of each work day for reflection and goal-setting. 

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In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Microsoft 365 general manager Kamal Janardhan, explained that the company wanted to do more to promote well-being and had “a role, almost a responsibility, to give enterprises the capabilities to create these better daily structures and help people be their best.”

Janardhan went on to say that with virtual commute, people will be able to better manage their work hours and set strict limits on when they should start and stop working, noting that Microsoft has found that of all the chats taking place on Teams, half were occurring between 5 pm and midnight, a nearly 50% increase compared to the months before the coronavirus pandemic fully started. 

SEE: COVID-19 workplace policy (TechRepublic Premium)

The feature, which is still being worked on, will also include other aspects like integration with Headspace for a 10-minute guided meditation session, sections to note how your day went and the ability to create to-do lists where tasks can be checked off or moved over to tomorrow. 

Janardhan also said it may include recommendations for podcasts or books if users would like to share. 

While many of the people TechRepublic spoke to said they definitely did not miss crowded subways or costly gas expenses, most welcomed the idea as a way to better delineate between work hours and downtime.

“I’m one of those who cherished that quiet time in the car on the way home, but I don’t miss the $80-120 in gas every week,” said Peter Kelley, head of antiques marketing and sales agency Kelley Group Two. 

“It’s interesting, but smart, that a monolith like MS, with their heritage of unrelenting tech innovation, is now making a pivot to ‘we care about your well-being.’ The improvements to Teams will last long past the COVID era.”

Erika Lance, senior vice president of people operations at KnowBe4, told TechRepublic that many of the company’s employees have already said they miss the drives to and from work because it gave them a chance to decompress.

“I am not sure if being connected to a computer, since most of the virtual workers are tethered to them all day, is the way to assist employees to feel like they are breaking their ‘new normal’ routines,” Lance said.

“At KnowBe4, we have implemented fun, active employee initiatives like Steptember and Biketober to get the employees out of the house and developing new, healthy habits.”

Some people had set routines like listening to podcasts or reading books that were done exclusively on their commutes, and now that everything is at home it can be hard to find time to fit those same activities in. 

Timothy Chiu, vice president of marketing at K2 Cyber Security, noted that it has become paramount for people to find new ways to separate themselves from work when they need to.

“Finding a way to create a boundary between work and home is a great idea,” said Timothy Chiu, vice president of marketing at K2 Cyber Security. 

“With the pandemic, too many people have let work drag into family time, and this is a good reminder to put work in its own space, and to let go when it’s time to re-engage with family.”

Chloé Messdaghi echoed Chiu’s remarks, telling TechRepublic that as vice president of strategy at Point3 Security, she has noticed that many of her employees and coworkers really benefited from the time spent commuting.

Messdaghi said she hated the traffic while driving to work but learned to actually enjoy it by listening to audio books, NPR, or singing to tunes on the radio. 

“I even miss Uber/Lyft rides and/or being on the metro for commuting because I would write poems, draft ideas, listen to music, or read a book. It was a time to start my day off the way I wanted to. Remember that humans like to have structure and actually benefit from it. Ironically, structure in our daily lives actually allows us to think outside the box with an enhanced sense of freedom. That separation is so important to prevention of burnout,” she said.

“Right now, COVID-19 and politics are burning out people on all sides of the aisle. Commuting can produce endorphins that help us be creative before we walk into the office. On that return home trip, the day is more relaxed–maybe responding to articles, talking to friends on social media.”

She added that many of her most effective and important ideas came during those commutes and now, because it’s automatically assumed that she will be online all week, she feels like much of her creativity time happens on the weekend.

“I actually miss my commute. Without our commutes, we’ve lost the lid we put on the workday. Good for Microsoft offering us a bit of closure, comfort and creative headspace. It’s cool too that they have the meditation element in this–it helps provide the foundation structure that lets our creativity emerge spontaneously,” she said. 

“In fact, at this point some people are faux-commuting by bus, train and even flight. Not because they need to for work—just because they want to recapture that downtime and an important part of their work lives. Microsoft’s onto something here.”

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