According to Microsoft’s research, the average number of meetings and chats has been steadily increasing over last year, with people now in two and a half times more meetings than they were pre-pandemic. Grabbing a meeting time with someone has become a considerable challenge.
This month, Microsoft announced a new meeting scheduler service as an add-on to its Microsoft 365/Office 365 software suite for Outlook.
The service is intended to help meeting participants find a mutual time for connecting by letting the meeting scheduler service do all the coordination.
Microsoft’s Gabriel Valdez Malpartida, senior product marketing manager on the Outlook team, said, “The time that employees spend trying to schedule meetings both inside and outside of their organization is climbing.”
He went on to add that the new meeting scheduler service for Outlook in Microsoft 365, dubbed Scheduler, is intended to recoup anywhere between six and 29 minutes – the time required on average to get a meeting scheduled.
This service uses the Cortana digital assistant to negotiate and find meeting windows between participants. This Cortana service is unrelated to Cortana on Windows 10 or the briefing email that Cortana can send on a regular basis to assist with multiple areas of work and engagement.
Here is a rundown of the new meeting scheduler service, Scheduler, and its key features.
Natural Language Scheduling Dialog
Users do not need to remember a collection of keywords that trigger the scheduling service. They can ask Cortana via email (the other participant must be included) using natural language just like in a conversation with any other person. Cortana will ask for clarification if something is not understood in the request.
Cortana Working with the Scheduler
Administrators must create a custom mailbox before the meeting scheduler service can work, as this mailbox provides Microsoft Scheduler access to the backend scheduling process and the workflow for scheduling meetings on participants’ Microsoft/Office 365 calendars.
Microsoft has detailed three scenarios where the Microsoft Scheduler is useful:
- Sending an email to request the meeting scheduler find a time among participants in the same organization: If the meeting takes place between participants all within the same organization, the meeting scheduler will have access to all participant schedules as detailed in their Microsoft 365 accounts.
- Sending a selection of meeting times to would-be meeting participants outside the meeting scheduler’s organization: Any meeting request to an individual outside of an organization will include multiple suggestions for meeting times based on the meeting organizer’s free/busy time. Outside meeting attendees can either accept one of those suggested times or propose alternative timing. Once a common time is found, Cortana sends meeting invites to all participants.
- Sending a selection of meting times to would-be meeting participants both within and outside of the meeting scheduler’s organization: When a meeting requires multiple participants within the company and from outside organizations, Cortana searches internal calendars the meeting scheduler service has access to in order to identify common free times for all participants within the organization first, then sends those suggested meeting times to outside participants to begin the negotiation process as described above.
If, for some reason, Cortana cannot find a satisfactory time for any of these meeting scenarios, the service will ask for human assistance from the meeting requester to resolve those conflicts.
Malpartida states that most of the meeting scheduler service requests are scheduled automatically without human intervention.
Licensing and Pricing
The following plans are required to use the Scheduler for Microsoft 365:
- Microsoft 365 (E3, A3, E5, A5, Business Basic, Business, Business Standard, Business Premium, Office 365 E1, A1, E3, A3, E5, A5, Business Essentials, Business Premium)
- Exchange Online (Plan 1 or Plan 2)
The cost for Microsoft Scheduler is $10 per user per month. Enterprise admins will have to decide if the additional cost ($120 per user annually) is worth any presumed time savings.