Microsoft makes a game of Team building, with benefits

When a movie or TV director wants to show people wasting time at work, it invariably has them playing computer games. See Peter Gibbons in "Office Space" or the Dunder Mifflin employees in "The Office."

But that was then and this is now, a time of hybrid work, with employees working from their homes and companies wondering how they can continue to foster close and collaborative relationships among their workers in the these almost post-COVID times.

Microsoft says that computer games can play a role in that. The software giant this week is adding a slate of casual games - like Minesweeper, Solitaire, Wordament, and Microsoft's team-building game IceBreakers - on the Teams virtual collaboration platform.

Games that not long ago were seen productivity killers are now being viewed as essential to a healthy (distributed) work environment.

"Over 3 billion people around the world play games, serving a crucial role in bringing people together - especially during these last few years," Jill Braff, general manager of Microsoft's Integrations and Casual Games unit, which developed the Games for Work app, said in a statement. "Games promote creativity, collaboration and communication in powerful and unique ways."

The Games for Work app on Teams "inspires productivity and helps foster connections in the workplace," Braff said.

There's long been worry among bosses about workers using tech to waste time. In a CareerBuilder survey from 2015, employers pointed to cell phones and texting, the internet, and social media as top employee time-wasters.

Five years later, a study by gaming company Word.Tips found that 80 percent of workers - employees and managers alike - played a mobile or PC game at work an average of 2.5 days a week, losing about 50 minutes of time for five days of work.

The thinking has evolved. A 2019 study at Brigham Young University teams showed that productivity among teams that played short video games together was 20 percent higher than those using traditional team-building activities. And Microsoft found in its Work Trend Index in September that 40 percent of corporate leaders said building relationships was the top challenge in hybrid work environments.

Microsoft is betting that computer games can do that, according to Nicole Herskowitz, vice president of Teams.

"Games can be an easy way to connect and build trust with our teammates," Herskowitz wrote in a blog post. "Along with our morning caffeine, sometimes we need a brain teaser or some friendly competition to get relationships going, infuse levity into our workday, and build a sense of community."

The games in Teams are designed for multiple players, with Wordament supporting up to 250 players. An enhanced spectator mode allows even those not actively playing to participate and engage with the players, such as calling out answers as though they're watching a game show or helping a friend with a puzzle.

Microsoft wants to make Teams the collaboration hub for workers. It has been steadily building up features to make the technology more intuitive and easier to use. As with other collaboration platforms like Zoom and Cisco's Webex, use spiked sharply during the worst of the pandemic as employees en masse were sent home to work, with use of Teams jumping from 20 million users in November 2019 to 44 million in March 2020 and 75 million a month later. Use this year hit 270 million users.

The trend now is hybrid work and Microsoft is betting that games designed to foster relationships among workers will make it even more attractive to the corporate world.

Games in general have become a key to Microsoft's business. Along with the Windows-related PC games, the company also has its Xbox business, and is now trying to buy game maker Activision Blizzard - the creators of the popular Call of Duty game, among others - for nearly $69 billion.

While Solitaire, Minesweeper, IceBreakers, and Wordament are available in the Games for Work app, Herskowitz wrote those games will continue evolving and that more games will be added based on user recommendations. ®

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