Together mode is a new option in Microsoft Teams, Microsoft’s premier app for teamwork and team connection. You’ve probably seen it by now; everyone is united in a virtual space as if in a theater instead of being separated in boxes.
On one level, Together mode is a simple approach to making meetings feel better during the pandemic, however there’s also a deeper level that touches on our latest scientific understandings of cognition, social perception, and communication.
Together mode has a unique look, but it also has a unique feel. People typically become more relaxed, more attentive to one another, more playful, and yet more focused on shared goals. The design offers unique benefits: less fatigue from frequent video meetings, better sense of connection with others, and more effective meetings.
Here are my thoughts on how to get the most of Together mode.
When to use it:
The initial design has been optimized to help people during the pandemic. For now, Together mode is ideal when each person is in front of a webcam in a different location. We are exploring how the design can evolve to support conference rooms and other situations.
- Together mode is especially well-suited to calls in which multiple people will speak; we find that it’s easier and more comfortable for people to find moments to enter a conversation.
- Together mode helps when you must go to a lot of video meetings. Most users report less meeting fatigue.
- Together mode is helpful when a group might have trouble staying attentive, for instance in education settings.
- Together mode supports presenters who need to “read the room” or get energy from attendees.
When to not use it:
If you need to show physical content in your environment, such as a physical whiteboard, then Together mode is not the best choice right now, because it only brings you, not your environment, into the shared space.
The first version of Together mode isn’t optimized to share the screen with PowerPoint presentations. If a PowerPoint presentation is the main event and will take up the entire time of a meeting, Together mode might not be helpful.
Works best when users are not walking around or otherwise moving the camera or screen during the session. It looks weird, like you’re jumping around in your seat.
Together mode is more engaging than a typical video chat, and therefore more distracting from potentially unsafe tasks like driving. You might think, why even bother urging people not to video chat while driving? I wish I could say that I never see people trying to do it! Don’t, please.
The initial release of Together mode supports up to 49 people at a time optimally. Together mode might still be the best choice for a meeting with more than 49 participants, but that will depend on many details about how the meeting is conducted. Best practices for large meetings in Together mode are still emerging.
An itsy-bitsy introduction to the science behind Together mode:
People in Together mode know where others are in a shared virtual space. That means your brain can keep track of what other people are signaling or emoting in a natural way, relying on social/spatial perception; people can intuitively signal each other nonverbally. In a grid, you don’t know where other people are on the screen, relative to you, from their point of view, so natural glances and other subtle cues are impossible.
Together mode creates a shared space in which people are not separated by barriers. Being in overlapping space can lead to silly behavior, as when people “high five”, but there is also a significant benefit. People pay attention to each other more and can gain a better sense of a shared stake in the situation and a shared journey. Constructive behavior signals a level of commitment that isn’t signaled when goofy behavior isn’t even possible.
Together mode creates a usable illusion that the eye contact problem has been mitigated. (Eye contact is a classic problem in video conferencing; people appear to be looking in the wrong direction.) The illusion is based on the unique geometry; everyone is looking at the whole group through a big virtual mirror. The geometry feels natural, yet it turns out that the human brain isn’t great at tracking where someone else is looking within it. Once direct eye contact errors become hard to detect, people intuitively position themselves to look as if they are reacting to one another appropriately.
Best Practices for using Together mode:
It might seem strange to see yourself in the group at first, but that is what allows for the improved understanding of interpersonal signals. Don’t turn off your camera! For example, being a teacher seated with your students might look odd at first, but you’ll probably find that you understand the students better and they pay more attention to you when everyone can see the attention signals passing between all present.
While the initial release works best when everyone has the camera turned on, we are working to support voice only participants at an equal level as well as all types of ability.
But what if you’re shy, and prefer to leave the camera off? I’m often shy too. I ask you to keep an open mind and experiment at whatever pace is comfortable. In our early research, we are seeing people leave the camera on more often in Together mode than in traditional grid designs, and they report that the experience was pleasant. One thing to keep in mind is that when people become more able to interact expressively, then appearance matters proportionately less. If people are paying more attention to what you say and indicate non-verbally, then they’re paying less attention to how you look.
When a group tries Together mode for the first time, or even when someone sees a picture of it for the first time, the first reactions are often light-hearted. Would playfulness get in the way of people understanding that there are important benefits to the design? After all, Teams is for productivity. It isn’t Xbox.
After observing and analyzing many sessions, I’ve come to a new opinion. Playfulness is not a waste of time, even for adults. It is not a bug in human nature, but rather a fine-tuned process crafted over deep evolutionary time that transcends species. It is how we learn to interact with new people, how we build trust and comfort, and how we investigate our environment (consider Together mode as a new part of our environment.) I have stopped trying to get newbie groups to get right to business. Instead I wait for them to get initial, playful reactions out of their systems, and then meetings go wonderfully. It’s not that simple, actually; I sometimes still chastise them during the playful phase because it’s fun to watch people rebel against my exhortations.
What about the physical setup: the monitors, cameras, and so on?
Together mode works fine if you’re sloppy about where the camera, screens, and windows are placed, but here are some tips on how to get the most out of it.
The feature shows you how you present to others, and how you interact with them. People might see your head turn subtly to respond to them, for instance. If you put Together mode in a little window off to the side on a big monitor, then people will see you looking to that side a lot, which can look out of place; that means that they will not get as much in the way of appropriate head turning cues from you. Therefore, Together mode works best if the window containing it is placed straight ahead, in front of you, and takes up all or most of your screen.
Together mode works great on big monitors. I love using it on a Surface Studio. Some people have built up impressive multi-monitor setups for working from home. If you’re one of those people, please place the Together mode window on the same screen where the camera is centered and try to put boring content on your other screens during your meeting. If you look over to the side at a different monitor a lot, it can look a little off. If you want to track mail or text chat during a session, try placing the Together mode window at the top of the screen, centered under the camera, with other windows below it. Then people will see you looking down instead of to the side, which works better.
Together mode works best on a screen that is at least as big as a tablet; it is not optimized for phones right now, although they can work if you prop them up to face you at a head-on angle and aren’t moved around during the meeting. If you use a phone, please try to get the phone and you positioned so that other people can see you looking straight ahead, into the camera, through the duration of the meeting. Once again: much better if the phone is stationary.
Best if the camera is centered, which is true for almost all built-in cameras on laptops and PCs. Together mode looks bigger on tablets when the tablet is positioned horizontally, but then the camera is often off to the side, depending on the tablet’s design, so you might want to position your tablet vertically. Then the view will be smaller, but you won’t be seen looking to the side as much,
The first release of Together mode doesn’t have a reserved seating feature, so if you leave the meeting, you might come back in a different seat, which will disorient other people who thought they knew where to find you. This might not sound important, but the process of spatial/social perception is not entirely conscious, so the disruption can be jarring. Please try to stay in the call the whole time instead of dipping in and out. The design of Together mode will evolve – as will these tips – as new use scenarios are supported.
Because people intuitively adjust themselves to look like they fit well in the virtual space, you might find that you can use Together mode to trick yourself into having better posture. Just tilt the camera – or the camera+screen, if they are the same device – up a little. Then you might find that you raise your frame to look properly seated in Together mode.
We are learning a lot from customers about how to make meetings more engaging and effective; we have many more ideas. We would love for you to try out the first release of Together Mode and let us know what you think to help us shape what comes next. We are in this together.
I know I speak for the many people at Microsoft who have contributed to Together mode when I say we hope you find increased well-being and productivity as you use the new Teams, and maybe even a little fun during difficult times.