Is Microsoft Loop the Digital Workplace we've been waiting for?
Do you remember Google Wave?
This isn't it.
Or is it?
No it's not.
One of the biggest announcements at Ignite 2021 was the introduction of Microsoft Loop. This isn't a complete surprise, especially if you remembered Microsoft's announcement of the fluid framework back in 2020, and we have definitely seen elements of this framework in Outlook and in Teams since then, even if they were rolling out slower than expected.
However, with Loop, that framework has now come into its own - and the timing couldn't be better. As we grapple with the new way of working, the push into digital workplaces, remote workforces, and virtual collaboration, Loop promises, "a new app that combines a powerful and flexible canvas with portable components that move freely and stay in sync across apps— enabling teams to think, plan, and create together."
While at first glance it looks extremely cool, this isn't completely groundbreaking either. Notion.so was the first thing that popped into my mind when I saw the promo video for Loop, but to be fair, Loop does have a few extra components and is obviously tightly integrated into your M365 experience.
I'll get into the main elements and what I like and dislike about them, as well as what I like and dislike about Loop overall, but first I want to talk about the Digital Workplace movement.
When is an intranet more than an intranet?
When speaking with clients and prospects, the topic of "Intranet-vs-Digital Workplace" often comes up (even if it is because I bring it up) and I love discussing the broad scope of what a digital workplace brings to the world, especially compared to what I casually refer to as a "basic intranet". Simply put, I think of an Intranet as a set of mostly-static browser-based pages that contain these usual suspects; company news, announcements, people directory, documents, forms, events calendar, etc. It is a URL where departments can publish information, and employees can consume information.
And yes, I am aware that there are many readers who disagree with my broad stroke of an Intranet with a very boring paintbrush. That's fine; because I like to reserve the term Digital Workplace for the more advanced Intranets. The ones I would call an employee hub, where digital forms trigger workflows, where customized announcements and recent files and projects bubble up to the main page, and where there is a collaborative element available embedded in the intranet, or through Teams. A Digital Workplace is a simple, borderless, single interface between a person and their applications.
With the introduction of Loop, Microsoft has raised the ante on Digital Workplace, and I'll say it here: Whether or not Loop becomes mainstream, this will be a watershed moment in Digital Workplace history. Let's check out the main elements called Loop components, Loop pages, and Loop workspaces.
Loop components are specific objects that can be used across multiple applications while remining in sync. A simple example is that you can insert a part of a table from Excel into a Teams chat, and it will insert it as an editable entity. In addition, as anyone on that Teams chat updates the cells you inserted, your master Excel file will update as well. You can also create a Loop component directly in an app like Teams, as seen in the gif above.
What I like about it: While we theoretically always had the ability to collaborate in the cloud, people weren't actually emailing links to shared files to their colleagues. They were either attaching files, or pasting the content directly into the email body for the receiver to review. While my example is only one potential use for Loop components, it feels like this recognizes that it is easier to enable the current habitual way of working to be collaborative, rather than force users to do something different. As this rolls out, we will see much better collaboration in Office apps.
What I don't like about it: Collaboration always comes with a price, and that is governance. I really hope that we have the ability to manage ownership and user rights at a data-level, since we are no longer working at the file-level, and that we have the ability to track changes at a data-level as well. If one user made a few mistakes on a single cell while others updated their cells, I do NOT want to have to roll back my entire worksheet to a previous version.
Loop pages looks chaotic in the promo clip form Microsoft - there are simply too many people writing, commenting, and moving elements all at the same time. Hopefully this won't be the reality in most cases. Loop pages are flexible spaces where elements of text, links, files, and so on can be added, much like a digital whiteboard. While not being remarkably ground-breaking in the collaboration space, it makes sense that Loop pages exists within the Loop ecosystem.
What I like about it: Real time collaboration on flexible canvases is always a great idea. While there are many such solutions available today, I think the integration with the M365 universe is key to being able to bring in files and data that companies may not want a third-party app to access.
What I don't like about it: Notwithstanding the chaotic promo video, I'm concerned with the lifecycle of such brainstorming canvases. For example, Marketing might start a canvas to strategize branding ideas for an upcoming event. They start with a page six months before the event, and at some point it has split into five pages, each one focusing on a specific topic, each one with a table to track action items and status, and so on. Finally, when the event is at hand, how are the actions and ideas listed all over condensed into an easily-actionable guide? How do we close the pages, saving key information for the next event? I'm concerned that companies will have hundreds of useless, messy pages creating a lot of noise - much like the sticky-note ideas wall in the old conference room that nobody reads.
Loop workpaces elegantly slides over to alleviate my concerns with Loop pages, and essentially are shared workspaces for teams to see all the important elements of a project. Many of us do this in Teams today, but Loop workspaces gives us a better ability to see information, not files, and see what people are working on. Of course, users can comment and react to ideas and collaborate synchronously.
What I like about it: While this looks very, very much like Notion, I think again that the integration with M365 is going to be a major benefit to Loop. It's not immediately clear to me how Loop workspaces and Loop pages work together - can I have a Loop page in a Loop workspace (it would seemingly make sense)? - I hope Loop workspace gives the structure that Loop pages lack.
What I don't like about it: I honestly don't have much to say here - I'm excited to try out Loop workspaces and see what we can do with it. A slight concern I have is the overlap to how many companies are using Teams for project collaboration and whether this will cause confusion. I suppose that is an internal policy discussion to be had as well.
Thoughts on Loop overall
What I like about it: I feel that Loop brings about what Google envisioned with Wave, and I remember many of us struggled with grasping what Wave was actually supposed to be at the time. Was 2009 too early for the concept? Probably. However, in 2021 companies are completely rethink the traditional office location and hours, traditional files and storage, and even traditional hiring practices in light of remote working. Loop is right on the money and I'm excited to see where it goes.
What I don't like about it: There are two concerns I have.
The first one is with regards to the Digital Workplace and where Loop fits. Unfortunately, I feel that Loop is going to become yet another app that is used for specific point solutions. What I would love to see is Loop fully integrated into an Intranet/Digital Workplace as an element. Maybe this is yet to come.
The second one that makes me feel a little uneasy is the question, "is there such as thing as too much collaboration?" In our physical offices, we had our space, our cubicles, our monitors behind which we could hunker down and get work done. When we needed to collaborate, we had scheduled meetings, workshops, coffee chats. In other words, we weren't always "on". Apps like Loop might create an expectation of being 'always ready to jump in', which would create its own work-culture issues.
Thanks for reading - I'd love to hear
your thoughts on Loop, Digital Workplace and the future of work.