Microsoft Teams getting breakout rooms, virtual commute, and new ‘Together Mode’ backgrounds

Microsoft Teams is getting several updates as part of the company’s virtual Ignite tech conference this morning, looking to keep pace with its rivals and keep up with the demands of users  increasingly relying on the collaboration technology as critical infrastructure for remote work and learning.

The ability to create ad hoc breakout rooms will be available starting next month. Microsoft says this is one of the most requested Teams features. “Meeting organizers will be able to split up participants into smaller groups to facilitate brainstorming sessions or workgroup discussions. Presenters can then hop between breakout rooms, make announcements to all breakout rooms, and close the rooms to return everyone to the main meeting,” the company says in a blog post.

Microsoft is partnering with meditation app Headspace on a customizable “virtual commute” feature. It uses automation technology to help users close out tasks and designate work for the following day, log their sentiment about the work day, and then directs them into a guided meditation process.

The company cites a 2017 study by Microsoft researchers that demonstrated the improvement in productivity that came from winding down from work at the end of the day. Its more recent research finds that the blurred lines between work and home are hurting their feelings of well-being.

Teams is getting new “Together Mode” backdrops, and custom layouts for presentations. The new backdrops show participants in shared virtual spaces including conference rooms and a coffee shop. Microsoft announced Together Mode in July, and it’s also used to power the virtual fan experience for the NBA.

Custom layouts will let presenters determine how their content appears to meeting participants, including the ability to superimpose their own video feed on top of the slide they’re showing.

Microsoft is competing against Zoom, Slack, Google and others in the market for remote collaboration technology, which has been growing quickly due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. Microsoft in April said Teams surpassed 75 million daily active users, up from 44 million the month before. Slack filed an antitrust complaint against Microsoft in Europe in July, alleging that it illegally leverages its Office platform to give Teams an unfair distribution and marketing advantage.

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