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The Icebreaker bot in action in Microsoft Teams. (Microsoft Photo)

As teams grow it can be harder to build bonds between co-workers. Microsoft knows all about this, and it just released a new bot for its chat-based productivity app Teams to make it easier to break the ice.

The new Icebreaker Bot for Teams sets up meetings between co-workers. People interested in these meetings join a group in Teams, and the bot pairs people every Monday morning at random. It can then search calendars to point out meeting times available to both parties.

Icebreaker Bot is a no-code tool that users can integrate into Teams. Companies can brand it and customize the experience.

The bot is another way to help companies whose employees aren’t all sitting in the same room forge a strong culture. Tools that make big enterprises feel like small startups are an important selling point for Teams as it competes fiercely against its now-public rival Slack and other work collaboration tools.

Icebreaker was born out of the desire of the employees who built Teams to get to know each other as the fast-growing app demanded more staffing. Nidhi Shandilya, a senior product manager at Microsoft, wrote about the struggle last week to build and maintain a tight culture among those working on Teams after it launched publicly in March 2017.

Since that day, the Teams team (we know..we know) has now grown exponentially, spread across multiple time zones around the world. At each all-hands meeting it became a ritual to welcome new team members with an ice-breaker tactic: have each person introduce themselves and share something unique about the person sitting next to them.

It worked well within the scope of the meeting, but outside it was becoming harder to bring a rapidly growing team to foster camaraderie and collaboration – a set of values that the Teams leadership placed high importance in.

An off-site in Hawaii in 2015 helped launch Teams. (Microsoft Photo)

An early engineer working on Teams built an internal tool, then called Meetuply, to help the originals get to know the new people working on the chat app. The idea was the same as Icebreaker today — pairing up people at random either remotely or in person — to answer one question: “Who are these new people and what are they working on?”

Meetuply caught on big time at Microsoft, beyond Teams, including within the groups responsible for bringing in new employees fresh out of college. Shandilya writes that she made a plan to expand Meetuply beyond Microsoft and teamed up with an engineering group that included the inventor of the product, setting in motion the eventual creation of Icebreaker.

The blog post also reminisces about the birth of Teams, which dates back roughly four years. Before it was in use by hundreds of thousands or large companies, Teams was just an idea percolating in off-site meetings in strange locations: a fruit farm in Hawaii and a hotel room in Las Vegas.

The fruit farm belonged to Teams Corporate Vice President Brian MacDonald. Employees used the separation to mimic office environments where workers are spread across the globe. It helped them figure out what areas to focus on when building Teams.

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