At its Build conference in May, Microsoft announced a new feature for its Teams videoconferencing platform that allows users to join meetings as avatars. Microsoft cited that “43 percent of leaders consider relationship-building to be the greatest challenge in flexible work,” and that avatars help “build thriving relationships with one another across distance.”
But why are avatars even needed on video calls? Do they take away the human connection? What are some of the benefits for using them in work meetings?
These are typically some of the first questions we get from clients who are intrigued and curious.
Benefits of Avatars
Having been on dozens of meetings with avatars at my work, here are some personal reflections.
Admittedly, the first time seeing an avatar on a call can be odd—most laugh in surprise. However, after a meeting or two in which everyone has them, the novelty wears off and they become standard (similar to virtual backgrounds pre- and post-pandemic).
Once they become normalized, they have several key benefits.
- Reduced video fatigue: One of the main advantages of avatars is reducing video fatigue, a common issue in our meeting-heavy world. With avatars, users can take a break from turning on their cameras and still show their presence, as well as personality, through clothing and emotional gestures. Users can use avatar gesture to convey their emotions and reactions in a more fun and dynamic way.
- Increased feeling of togetherness: While less intimate than live video, avatars provide a helpful upgrade to fully off-camera meetings. They provide a middle ground to the binary choice of video or no-video. Instead of speaking to a sea of static photos, for instance, seeing your team as avatars on the screen that talk and move create much more connection. This is even more helpful to presenters, giving them a feeling of an attentive audience vs. emotionless photos or names.
- Increased diversity and inclusion: The appearance of avatars is fully customizable. Users can choose from a variety of options for body shape, face features, hair style, skin tone, clothing, and accessories. This can help them feel more confident in expressing their identity and culture. Many users, for instance, get streaks of hair color to match their daily outfit—which may be challenging in real life.
Avatar Training and Use Guidelines
As more and more enterprises turn on this feature, having digital representations and identities will become normalized for employees across the business world. Talent leaders may need to update their policies and guidelines on how to use avatars appropriately and respectfully in different contexts. They also may need to provide training and coaching on how to create effective avatars that reflect one’s personal brand and professional goals.
Avatars for Teams are just the first stage of Microsoft’s Mesh rollout, which is part of a broader suite of immersive collaboration. Leaning into this first critical step will help talent leaders stay on the leading edge of innovation and the future of work.