Microsoft Teams without… teams!?

Virtually every organisation I talk to wants to deploy Microsoft Teams. When I ask why, often they aren’t able to come up with a good reason other than Microsoft said so.

Many organisations are still trying to find their feet when it comes to the governance and lifecycle of Microsoft Teams, and truth be told I’m yet to meet one that has a good solution (not that good solutions aren’t out there). I generally see either one of two extremes: IT has locked down who can create a Team and all requests come through them, or on the other hand anyone can create a Team and they have a considerable amount of sprawl. I recently worked with an organisation whose users numbered in the thousands, where there was virtually one Team per person.

Sometimes organisations are simply wanting to transition away from Skype for Business on their own terms, before one day Microsoft starts shutting down services. Others want to move to Microsoft Teams for the better chat, meeting and calling experiences.

The challenge is that many organisations, IT departments, managers, and users are not ready for the teamwork aspect of Microsoft Teams. What I also see is where Microsoft Teams is used for channel conversations and files, but the organisation still has file shares as their primary storage system. Or where they use Microsoft Teams to collaborate without using the voice and meeting capabilities, and so and and so forth. Or where Microsoft Teams was thrust upon the users with virtually no training. Trust me, I’ve seen a lot of bad scenarios and continue to on an almost daily basis.

The other end of the spectrum is the organisation that wants to move to Microsoft Teams and wants to do it thoroughly. They want to migrate files to SharePoint and OneDrive. They want to use Microsoft Teams for voice and video-based meetings. They want Microsoft Teams to replace their phone system. They see Microsoft Teams as a way to improve how they collaborate on a daily basis both internally and externally.

And while I’m a big fan of doing it once, doing it right – the problem with the latter approach is that it takes time, and potentially a lot of money and resources. But more so the time. While the organisation tries to do things right they hold back from giving staff access to Microsoft Teams.

A while back I started floating the concept of deploying Microsoft Teams without the teamwork aspect; effectively separating the client application from the service behind it. What do I mean by this?

Well, the reality is that Microsoft Teams without the teamwork functionality is in short; a better version of Skype for Business. The chat is better, the mobile experience is better, the voice and video experience is better, the meetings are better.

So how can we give people this functionality without giving them access to the core Microsoft Teams functionality? Simple: don’t add users to any Teams.

Here’s what a normal user of Microsoft Teams will see when they are the member of a Team:

And here’s what the same user will see when they are not a member:

By not making the user a member of a Team, and by restricting who can create Teams – you have effectively restricted the Microsoft Teams application to be the reincarnated version of Skype for Business.

What this allows you to do is to give people access to the application, improve how they communicate, how they have meetings, etc.

Then when you’re ready you can start adding people to a Team where they will at least be already partially familiar with the user interface.

Sure, this doesn’t drive the metrics that some people would want (or actually shows more “adoption” of Teams than exists in reality), but it’s a good way to dip the toe in the water and start the journey.

It also addresses the whole “we need to upgrade from Skype for Business” challenge by allowing organisations to do it sooner rather than later, and without all the challenges around migration, governance, lifecycle, sprawl, etc.

Empowering home-based workers with corporate-grade conference technology

During office refurbishment or relocation projects, organisations will often spend thousands of dollars fitting out meeting rooms with conferencing technology. Depending on the room size, type and purpose that amount can increase to the tens of thousands.

A small meeting room (aka “huddle space” as it’s called these days) will require at minimum a TV mounted on the wall, with a camera and speakerphone to allow video conferences to occur. A minimum spend for such a room would be easily in the area of $3,000 for a decent quality TV and a conference device such as a Logitech Meetup.

Figure 1: Logitech Meetup mounted underneath a wall-mounted TV

More advanced rooms will include equipment such as a Skype/Teams Room System (such as the Logitech SmartDock) which includes a panel for meeting join/control as well as HDMI cable for laptop display.

While the spend and fitout of these rooms makes sense, the reality is that often these rooms are left unused throughout the day.

The current “future workplace” trend which leverages “activity-based working” and hotdesking concepts, aims to reduce the reliance on staff commuting to a physical location. While this is often messaged as an employee benefit, the reality is that it is generally designed to save on real estate costs. Many organisations these days tend to provide at a maximum 80% desk space for their workforce (some provide even less). For the employee this is sold as a benefit in that they can reduce their commute which cuts down on wasted human time as well as transportation costs, as well as a number of other benefits around culture, environment, etc.

Unfortunately, the reality of this situation is that staff who are ’empowered’ to work from home are often only provided with a laptop and a headset. All the good stuff (ie. multiple monitors, good quality external webcam, mouse & keyboard) is at the office. These are not expensive pieces of equipment, but at the discretion of the employee to source if they want a home working configuration to match what the office can offer.

So, what about video communications? In this modern era where video collaboration is almost the norm, it is all to common to see at least one person in a video conference who is clearly using a laptop webcam.

What about if we provided home-based workers with corporate-grade conferencing equipment? Would that experience be any different?

For some time I’ve been running the Logitech Meetup as my primary video conference system and firmly believe it should be the device of choice for those who are serious about working from home and video conferencing.

In this short video I explain why this is the case. Read on below for a more detailed breakdown.

The video calling experience

In this screenshot below, you can see a few different home conferencing experiences:

Figure 2: A meeting with Microsoft Teams where the Logitech Meetup is used by a remote participant

Above we see on the left side, Jethro sitting on his bed with the laptop on his stomach, top right is myself with the Logitech Meetup, middle right is Darrell at his standing desk using a webcam with headphones and external mic, and bottom right in the small box is Gabe using his laptop. As you can see, a variety of different home conferencing experiences. Both myself and Darrell have the “from my meeting space to yours” experience, while Jethro and Gabe have the “from my face to yours” version.

For a 1:1 video call, having a literal face to face video experience is a little more ‘in your face’:

Figure 3: The view of a remote person in a 1:1 video call with Microsoft Teams, using an in-built laptop camera

Here is what Jethro sees of me:

Figure 4: The view of a remote person in a 1:1 video call with Microsoft Teams, using a Logitech Meetup

As you can see, quite a big difference.

One of the comments from my colleagues during the call is that despite having a 4K camera, my video quality was not the best. The reality is that despite having cable broadband at home, I get relatively poor upstream bandwidth. As a result, Microsoft Teams detects this and lowers the quality of my video throughput to ensure that it flows and is in sync with my audio, instead of sending broken-up high quality video.

As you can see by the below comparison, the left shows me in my full 4K glory while the right shows the reduced-bandwidth (and blurrier) version of me:

Figure 5: Comparison of local 4K image through the Logitech Meetup (left), vs. with Microsoft Teams lowered picture quality (right)

Headset, speakerphone, or Meetup?

In corporate meeting rooms an effort is made to simplify the end user experience by reducing the chords. The Logitech Meetup works well here as the unit contains both microphones and speakers; so there is only a single USB cable to plug in.

For our home environments, this is equally as important. Just because our desk is not visible by our peers, doesn’t mean it should be left messy with cables and devices everywhere.

Many people will already have headsets, however often these are cabled which means we must remain tethered to our devices for the duration of the call. Unfortunately, this hampers our creativity and energy and can also entice us to look at other applications while participating in the meeting – further reducing the quality of our participation and engagement in the meeting. A wireless headset would certainly address this challenge, and it’s something I find using myself often as it allows me to get up and walk around. Another alternative is to use a speakerphone as they offer better quality sound than the microphone and speakers built into our devices- also a good option.

The challenge with having either a headset or speakerphone is that it consumes another USB port separate to the camera. Often on laptops we have 1-2 ports at best, whereas on most docking stations such as a Surface Dock this is only moderately improved with 4 USB ports. Once you plug in a mouse/keyboard and webcam; you’ve already lost two ports. If you have any other peripherals it becomes a challenge due to insufficient USB ports.

This is one area where the Meetup offers savings in that it provides camera, microphone and speakers all through a single USB cable, and all high definition.

Mounting the Meetup on a monitor

The Logitech Meetup is designed to be mounted on a TV in a corporate meeting area, with the ideal placement being below the screen but at eye-line with people in the room. To achieve this, a VESA mounting kit can be purchased as an accessory. Unfortunately for a home office, mounting it underneath the monitor is not practical and would most likely be aimed at the chest. To mount it above the monitor where one might normally put a webcam, I needed to build a custom stand as my monitor didn’t have VESA brackets. This cost me about $30 of parts from the hardware store: a piece of wood, some nails, and some paint. Constructing the mount took me a total of 5 minutes, and trust me – I am not a handy man: all that was required was a bit of sawing to cut the pieces to the right dimensions, some sanding to smoothen out the edges, some hammering to connect them together, and to paint the legs so they blend in with my monitor & riser.

Figure 6: Custom made stand for Logitech Meetup

Figure 7: Logitech Meetup mounted on custom stand, behind monitor

Figure 8: Logitech Meetup sitting above monitor

It is important that a gap is left between the lens of Logitech Meetup and the top of the monitor, otherwise the lens will be obstructed during the device boot-up process (as it moves itself around and re-centres). While it does recover and continue on, I didn’t like hearing the motor jamming sound and thought it best to avoid any potential issue from having this occur every time I plugged in.

Wide angle, or zoomed?

The Logitech Meetup comes with a remote control, allowing the camera to be controlled such as zoom and direction. This is not so much a requirement in a home office where I am the only person on camera, however during the course of setting up the Logitech Meetup in my home I also beta tested a feature that allows the camera to move around automatically and follow me as I move around the room. While I see this as a benefit in a corporate office, the feature is designed for multiple speakers in a room and as such has not benefit when I’m the only person in a room – even if I am making use of all the space.

Allowing the Meetup to zoom in on me would defeat the purpose of using it in the first place at home, as it would effectively revert to showing a zoomed-in version of myself which may not be so pleasant for the participants on the other side of the meeting.

The cost

At a glance, the cost of a Logitech Meetup for home might dissuade some; as ultimately it is a premium device designed for corporate meeting rooms. However, let’s consider the alternatives:

  • a quality webcam easily costs in the order of $100 – $250 (the top end for a 4K camera)
  • a wireless headset that is also comfortable to wear for hours a day starts at a minimum of $250
  • using a speakerphone such as those from Plantronics, Jabra or Sennheiser cost between $200 – $400

Realistically a similar experience will cost a few hundred dollars to have anything of decent quality.

While using the microphone built into a webcam along with external speakers is also possible, the quality of webcam microphones is generally quite poor. Often they will cause an echo as the sound from the speakers flows back into the microphone.

So yes, this is a premium device for a premium experience – and is realistically suitable for those who have video calls on a regular basis.

But let’s think about this from another aspect…

The average cost of a dedicated desk per employee, per year is estimated to be in the order of $5,000 (while there are various factors that influence this, this figure was averaged from a crowdsourced question).

For an organisation that is now saving this cost on a yearly basis from its operational expenditure, it would make sense to kit out its home-based staff so as to enhance their video collaboration experience. The reality is that it’s a small price to pay in order to deliver corporate grade communications capabilities without paying for dedicated desk space and empty meeting rooms.