In our hybrid working lives, an entire day of online meetings can be exhausting. Especially if you must worry about what happens in the background. Working from home can be unpredictable, and Microsoft knows that. Now you at least have an option: Avatars for Microsoft Teams.

© Microsoft Teams Blog
© Microsoft Teams Blog

Microsoft Teams Avatars were first presented in a private preview in October 2022. Since then, Microsoft has been working hard to improve performance and lightning for the avatars. The result is now more realistic skin and hair.

New options for wardrobe, headwear, and accessories make Avatars for Microsoft Teams even more inclusive and representative, allowing users from all cultures to represent themselves as they feel more comfortable, without having the camera on.

© Microsoft Teams Blog
© Microsoft Teams Blog

This feature is already being rolled out to public preview in the Microsoft Teams desktop app on Windows and Mac, and is set to be broadly available in May. Microsoft Teams Avatars are here to let people be on camera without actually having to be on camera. But is this really adding value to the Microsoft Teams experience? We tried it out and found that it raises some interesting questions.

Camera On or Camera Off? Avatars for Microsoft Teams Is the New Gray Area

According to Avery Salumbides, a Microsoft employee on the Microsoft Tech Community, in the official communication:

“Avatars for Microsoft Teams offers an alternative to the current binary option of video or no video. Avatars for Teams gives you that much-needed camera break, while still allowing you to collaborate effectively. Include more people in the conversation— whether they need a break due to video fatigue, are joining from a different time zone, or just feel more comfortable with their video off.”

Avery Salumbides, a Microsoft employee on the Microsoft Tech Community

Video fatigue and camera-on anxiety became a topic since the hybrid working model rose in popularity over the past few years. Video meetings take out too much energy for introverted and socially anxious people. I’m one of those people who sometimes struggle with being on camera all the time. It can feel like being under a particularly uncomfortable spotlight. That’s when the meeting-related). We perform under a particularly uncomfortable spotlight when we are on camera. That’s when the meeting-related worries kick in: “Where do I look? Directly into the camera or at their faces? Wait… Did I do something wrong? Is there something in the background?”

According to research by Technology, Mind, and Behavior (TMB) called “Nonverbal Overload: A Theoretical Argument for the Causes of Zoom Fatigue”, a bigger cognitive load could help explain why virtual meetings are more stressful for some people. The anxiety and fatigue seem to be tied to nonverbal cues. Some factors such as mirror anxiety, or anxiety caused by seeing your face on the screen, feeling trapped, and feeling watched by everyone else on the call may contribute to that sense of dread and exhaustion around meetings.

© Microsoft Teams Blog
© Microsoft Teams Blog

But that same nonverbal behavior may be essential for others to guide conversations and succeed at online meetings. Among my coworkers at panagenda, several report feeling uncomfortable around meetings where cameras are off as they are not able to see the other people’s reactions. Seeing each other helps them understand how the others feel, and how they react to what they hear. An interesting discussion and without rights or wrongs.

Regardless of how you feel about being on camera during daily meetings, it is important to acknowledge that they can be in general very tiring. Whether you experience video fatigue and camera-on anxiety or not, Avatars for Microsoft Teams may come in handy when you don’t want to be on camera.

How to Use Avatars for Microsoft Teams

According to the Microsoft Support page, Microsoft Teams Avatars are available as part of the public preview program and might go through changes before being released publicly. They are available in the Microsoft Teams desktop app on Windows and Mac. Not supported in Microsoft Teams for web, and supported as view-only in the Microsoft Teams mobile app.

The usage must be allowed by your IT admin, and you can find the technical details on a separate page here. You can find the complete guidelines, with all the details and how-to on the Microsoft Teams support page right here.

Interact With Others Using Emotes, Gestures, and Moods

We were curious to see how interacting with others would be with the Avatars so after customizing our own, we jumped right into some calls to test this all out. During meetings, you can use the already-known React button on the Microsoft Teams meeting menu to make your Avatar laugh, clap, and smile. The same thing goes for raising your hand: when you select Raise on the menu, your avatar will raise its hand.

© Microsoft Teams Support
© Microsoft Teams Support

It is also possible to adjust your avatar’s facial expression at the mood slider bar, although the mood change is very subtle. You can also provide more complex reactions such as amazed, confused, cute, “dap” and “thank you”, among other reactions. Microsoft got really creative here and it’s a fun experience to play with different reactions.

The Avatars are very expressive and there is a large variety of reactions available to choose from. But if you wish to react quickly on a Microsoft Teams Meeting, camera-on calls are still the way to go. The Avatars move their mouths as you speak but don’t “copy” your real-world hands and body movement. (Yes, we tested that out too!) They do look good, but while you are not talking, they seem just to stand there. They blink their eyes and have some level of movement, but not the same as a person moves.

This is not the real world, so there is obviously also a small delay. Finding the right virtual response during a conversation may lead to a late reaction. Reacting and speaking at the same time may also not be a good idea just yet. When you choose a reaction, your Avatar immediately starts a movement, but it doesn’t “talk” while you do it.

For the better or for the worst, this should allow users to somehow mascarade, or alter their real-world reactions. That wouldn’t be possible on a typical video call. So with Avatars, users lose a lot of spontaneity. Reading the non-verbal cues is then not really possible, as you can only rely on the reaction chosen by others. And that is likely to lead to moral or social considerations among users.

Etiquette: When to Use Avatars For Microsoft Teams Meetings

Before hybrid work was popular, only the most inventive and modern enterprises would allow employees to work from home. Once the lockdown “era” passed us by, we’ve all seen, and continue to see, desperate attempts to bring collaborators back to the old-fashioned ways. Now you can not only join a meeting from anywhere, but you can also use a 3D avatar of yourself instead of turning the camera on. Will companies push back in allowing employees to use this option? Will they claim that they “need to see your REAL face?” Will more traditionalist colleagues react positively to a cartoon-looking persona? Can an avatar be reactive enough to show virtual non-verbal communication?

Disruptive technology seldom comes without ethical discussion. Whether employees should be allowed to use Microsoft Teams Avatars or not is a discussion that will likely fall on HR and IT departments. However, not be restricted to it. Assuming the matter has passed the necessary criteria, one question remains: when to use an Avatar and when to have a camera-on meeting? Well, it will depend, of course, on the meeting and on the company you work for.

In one-on-one meetings, etiquette suggests showing up as yourself. The same rule of thumb may be valid for smaller and more intimate meetings. Using an avatar shouldn’t be a problem in larger team meetings with dozens of other colleagues. When in doubt, nothing beats a good old conversation. Once you are all set with your Microsoft Teams Avatars, make sure to clarify the rules internally and reach an arrangement with your colleagues.

Establishing new internal codes may be necessary, as technologies and companies mature. Microsoft Teams has already changed the way we work. And with new technologies come new responsibilities. Deep down, we all have a need for connection. One that not even the cleverest amongst us can simply drop outside the corporate world. But nowadays, connecting has multiple meanings and the technologies we use to connect must evolve and adapt. One thing is for certain: Microsoft is well aware that such a feature is needed for many of us that work remotely.

As Microsoft keeps working on improving the digital workplace, Avatars are expected to evolve. And how they will improve the lives of hybrid workers will soon be seen. Read more on the top 5 new features in Microsoft Teams Premium to improve your digital workplace here.