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END OF AN ERA?

Microsoft may have found the answer to the “you’re on mute” problem

A woman uses a laptop at a cafe in the Central Universal Department Store (TsUM) in Kiev, Ukraine
Reuters/Valentyn Ogirenko
Meet from anywhere.
  • Lila MacLellan
By Lila MacLellan

Quartz at Work reporter

Published

The scourge of mute-button incompetence has been troubling video calls for years, but the massive shift to remote work during the pandemic has made the issue that much more prominent. During digital meetings, it’s essentially a given that at least one person will begin talking and even gesticulating wildly while everyone else waits for someone to point out: “You’re on mute.”

A new Microsoft Teams feature may help fix the program.

A sound-to-be-released function on Microsoft’s video-calling system will allow users to hold down two buttons (ctrl + spacebar) to temporarily unmute themselves and speak when video conferencing. As soon as the person lets go of the buttons, they will be muted again, making the experience akin to speaking with a walkie-talkie.

According to Microsoft’s Windows 365 roadmap, the new temporary-unmuting feature could be available within a month. (The company also is creating a push-to-talk function for Teams phones.)

Will it be easier to unmute and mute this way than tapping a microphone icon?

Whether the feature takes hold will depend on how quickly users can train themselves to first press and hold the buttons, of course, which may take some practice.

Hopefully, people will develop muscle memory for speaking and holding, as opposed to switching a microphone on or off. We hold and speak in other settings: when using security systems in buildings, or when leaving voice memos (another form of communication that has entered the workplace, along with instant audio connections, aka “huddles” in the Slack team messaging app). People with experience in retail, event production, and hotel work may already be accustomed to walkie-talkie conversations, too. (Cisco’s Webex software was updated with a push-to-talk function earlier this year.)

Adopting a push-to-unmute function should, at the very least, dramatically cut “hot-mic” moments, when people forget to mute themselves at the beginning of a meeting or turn their mics off when they’ve finished speaking, giving the entire office access to your private conversations at home or, possibly, worse:

The most-used workplace phrase for the pandemic era?

Remembering to unmute, however, has been the larger problem, frustrating workers at every level of organizations—including CEOs and other C-suite executives. Last year, Quartz analyzed transcripts of earnings calls, conferences, and analyst and shareholder meetings compiled by Sentieo and found that mentions of “on mute” by executives and analysts spiked after the pandemic began. The phrase was uttered 100 mentions per quarter before the pandemic; in the second quarter of 2020, “on mute” was recorded 429 times.

Improving the audio experience during video calls will improve remote work

But not hearing the people you’re supposed to be listening to—or, in some cases, hearing too much of other peoples’ lives—are just the tip of the workplace-meeting-audio-problems iceberg. During group meetings, Zoom and other platforms stilt conversations by favoring one speaker at a time, which is not the way we naturally hold discussions.

Perhaps worse, every speaker sounds like they’re coming from the same place in space, whereas in person we are accustomed to hearing people from various points around the room. The lack of spatial audio has contributed to so-called “Zoom fatigue.” New meeting apps for virtual reality, like Facebook’s Workrooms, correct this problem while introducing others. Zoom itself, meanwhile, has just announced that it is adding a real-time transcription service that will work in 30 languages, and paid customers will have access to live translation features in 12 languages, by the end of next year, according to The Verge.

Considering all the companies now dedicated to building better solutions to enable organic “watercooler” conversations and seamless meetings for a work-from-anywhere future, it is likely only a matter of time before the “you’re on mute” and other audio glitches, and all the memes they’ve inspired, are consigned to early 2020s history, leaving us to find new ways to embarrass ourselves.

Editor’s note: This story was updated to reflect that Cisco’s Webex software recently added push-to-talk functionality. 

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