WFH boom makes ‘employee experience’ a C-suite priority, says Microsoft Viva chief

Microsoft's new employee experience platform, Viva, is central to the company's bid to roll out software that helps organizations better manage and support a remote or hybrid workforce, says Chuck Friedman.

viva insights

After a year of dealing with pandemic-related issues, C-suite leaders now find themselves focused on the “employee experience,” according to Chuck Friedman, Microsoft’s corporate vice president in charge of the company’s new Viva platform.

Microsoft Viva, which the company highlighted at this year’s Ignite event, is designed to provide digital tools to support remote workers. Unveiled last month, it is an employee experience platform (EXP), with four modules focused on employee engagement, well-being, learning, and knowledge.

Though interest in employee experience had been on the rise, said Friedman, it took off last year as businesses switched to a largely remote-work model and had to deal with issues such as access to online training and development, maintaining company culture, and even avoiding burnout.

As the COVID-19 pandemic shut down offices worldwide, “suddenly we moved from a workplace [where] people could be next to each other to a remote workplace where the demand for these things moved to digital,” Friedman said. “All of these things starting to come together…,” leading to Viva.

chuck friedman headshot Microsoft

Chuck Friedman, Microsoft vice president in charge of Viva.

As with all areas of digital transformation, the need to deal with remote workforce issues — everything from HR applications to workforce analytics and employee engagement — boomed during the pandemic, said Raul Castanon, a senior research analyst at 451 Research, part of S&P Global Market Intelligence. 

About four out of five businesses (78%) see supporting remote workers as a challenge over the next two years, according to 451, with employee experience issues — such as work-life balance, access to technology, team morale, and employee retention — among top concerns.

As a result, said Friedman, an issue that had largely fallen on human resources has grown in importance among senior business leaders. “That [responsibility] has fundamentally changed,” he said, “and the entire C-suite is now thinking about the experience of their employees: How do they retain employees, how do they maintain morale of their employees?”

Pre-pandemic, HR was closely involved with the employee experience, particularly  employee engagement, while CIOs, IT managers ,and line of business (LOB) leaders focused more on technology adoption and change management, said Castanon.

“What we’re seeing now post-pandemic is a convergence and a growing overlap that is leading to cooperation between these areas…. HR is increasingly concerned with productivity, IT with employee engagement, LOB managers with both, and so on,” he said.

Matt Cain, a Gartner vice president and distinguished analyst, said in a report that Viva is likely to “elevate the prominence” of employee experience technology in IT circles, and should lead to increased interest in a variety of services, “requiring greater levels of IT and HR collaboration.”

Viva availability 

At Ignite, Microsoft offered up more details about the four Viva modules – Connections, Insights, Learning and Topics. Among the updates is the introduction of a desktop app for Viva Connections, the company-branded intranet portal that uses SharePoint on Yammer and provides access to news, conversations, and other resources. The desktop app will be available this month, with a mobile version due this summer. The Connections module will be available at no extra cost to existing Microsoft 365 customers.

Viva Learning — which serves up an organization’s custom content along with resources from Microsoft’s LinkedIn Learning and third-party providers — will arrive as a public preview in April. Pricing and subscription details will be released when that module becomes available, said Microsoft.

Viva Insights, the analytics module that combines elements of the existing MyAnalytics personal productivity tracker and Workplace Analytics team-wide metrics, is now in public preview. At Ignite, Microsoft touted a “virtual commute” feature available in preview next month, and an integration with the Headspace guided meditation app arriving later in the year. Insights is available at no extra cost to Microsoft 365 users, with the organization-level insights accessed as an add-on via Workplace Analytics.

Microsoft Viva Topics is the only generally available module currently, and costs $5 per user each month.

Friedman said early interest in the platform has come from companies of all sizes. While Microsoft has worked closely with large enterprises on Viva, Friedman sees the platform as a good fit for smaller businesses, too.

“I think the problem is universal; small- and medium-sized businesses have the same set of challenges and they need the same set of tools,” he said, noting that different businesses will gravitate to various aspects of Viva.

“Frontline worker-focused companies are looking at learning and skilling as a real opportunity,” he said, arguing that Viva Connections can keep non-office-based workers in the loop with their wider organization via their mobile device. And information workers can use of Insights to address burnout, for instance.  

Teams as an employee experience portal

A key aspect of Viva is the availability of its modules within Microsoft’s Teams collaboration platform, which has 115 million daily active users. But Friedman acknowledged the danger of overloading users with too much information and too many notifications.

Microsoft worked to design a user interface (UI) that minimizes information overload, Friedman said. He pointed to Viva Connections, which can serve as a front-end UI within Teams to highlight important information for a user.

“The Connections module has the ability to compose all of the Viva capabilities and communicate with a single voice,” he said. “I'm hopeful we can simplify some of the UI inside Teams by using Connections as a sort of front end, a highlighted experience, as opposed to the idea of many different applications trying to reach the employee at the same time.”

Machine learning can also help pick the right time for notifications. “When you're in the middle of an interview, it's probably not the right time for a learning [notification] to pop up and say, 'Hey, Chuck — do you want to take some learning right now?'” he said. “We’re going to … use the right moments of the day to [be] proactive in communication.

“The flip side is if you bury things too deeply,” said Friedman. “Learning is another great example. The Learning content exists in many companies today, but when an employee wants to go and learn something new, they often have a hard time finding it.”

Employee analytics and privacy

With Viva Insights, Microsoft wants the analytics available in Microsoft 365 to be more accessible by employees, managers, and business leaders.

Employee analytics is a growing focus for many collaboration and productivity vendors, and Microsoft’s existing MyAnalytics and Workplace Analytics are central within Viva.

Microsoft came under fire for another of its analytics tools last year, Productivity Score;  it highlighted a worker’s application use to Microsoft 365 admins before changes were announced to anonymize and aggregate data at the individual level.

Friedman said maintaining employee privacy is important in Viva. “We will build clarity into the UI around what data is shown and what data is not. We’re doing many things on the back-end to make sure that we are only showing aggregate data, that we are removing anything that's personally identifiable….Then we will build reinforcement methods into the UI and transparency around why they can trust the data, who has access to it, that type of experience.”

At the same time, Friedman said there are benefits to both workers and business leaders in analytics data.

“…There’s value in transparency around things like goals, things like purpose for the team,” he said. “We want to help managers do an increasingly effective job of communicating to their teams, what their team is focused on, and then show aggregate sentiment through tools like Glint: 'When you made this announcement or when you announced this set of goals for your team, here's what the impact was on the team.'”

More to come?

With Viva services at various levels of availability and the likelihood of more modules on the way, Microsoft is just getting started — and analysts see room for expansion. In his report, Cain described Viva’s modules as “starting investments, rather than fully fledged mature services with clear and tangible business value.”

While Microsoft calls Viva an employee experience platform, Gartner classifies it as an example of EXTech, “a diverse collection of employee-facing applications designed to influence and improve the employee experience and organizational culture,” said Cain.

“A fully realized employee experience platform would have a broader top-level organizational structure, address a much larger set of touchpoints and interactions, and meet the needs of a variety of employee types, including desk-less or frontline workers.”

Castanon said Microsoft’s investment in Viva amounts to the most ambitious attempt to provide a unified platform for employee experience so far.

“We expect there will be additional capabilities and modules added,” he said. “However, as it stands it is probably among the most comprehensive EXP currently available.”

Unifying various tools can help businesses adapt to remote work in the long term, he said, and Viva’s comprehensive approach could be “instrumental for organizations looking to tackle the challenges of the ‘new normal,’” such as “managing employee productivity and engagement for a distributed workforce, and understanding the complexities that enabling secure remote collaboration entails.

“This will require a broader organizational transformation effort; the Viva platform could be instrumental for enabling this transformation,” Castanon said.

“We're at this category-creation moment,” said Friedman. In that sense, he said, Microsoft’s strategy differs from that of Office 365, where well-established products were packaged as a subscription. Although Viva modules rely heavily on existing Microsoft 365 services such as SharePoint, Yammer, and MyAnalytics, the services represent a new focus and new modes of interaction based on the employee experience.

“I would say we're early in this journey,” he said. “Very often, when Microsoft engages it's a better-established category. I don't think employee experience platforms as a category are fully defined yet, and that's exciting; you can point in a lot of directions….

“We expect that this will evolve over time; we're investing intentionally in being a leader in the space.”

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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