The pandemic completely disrupted work habits— Microsoft says it’s a promising sign for its new AI ‘copilots’


The pandemic changed the way we think of the workplace—and Microsoft is betting it shows the potential for an even bigger change for workers: the widespread adoption of AI helpers. 

The company’s AI-powered Copilot, which helps users do everything from writing emails to computer code, is being integrated into Microsoft’s lineup of office tools, including web browsers, Windows 11 desktop software, and Microsoft 365 productivity apps, Microsoft announced on Thursday.

The extent to which employees at companies embrace these new bots and use them in their day-to-day jobs remains an open question—human habits and longstanding job routines are slow to change. But Microsoft executives believe that disruptions from the Covid-19 pandemic, in which employees learned to work from home, are a promising sign for Copilot’s prospects.

“Over the last three years, people have become accustomed to a lot of change in their workplaces,” Colette Stallbaumer, Microsoft 365 general manager told Fortune after the event. “Humans are nothing if not adaptable, and if they see enough of the value, I think the habits will come.”

And, she explained, “The good news is that’s what we’ve researched more intensely than any other company—how do people form new work habits?”

Customers are “turning to us just like they did in the pandemic,” she said, describing the typical queries: “How am I going to get my people to use this? What are the new skills? How do I get people to adopt it? Who should I give the first seats to?”

The company’s plan to integrate Copilot into workplaces includes creating “Copilot champions” in individual companies that advocate for new ways of working, said Stallbaumer. It is also pushing for integration across all levels of a company, rather than solely being available to business leaders. Microsoft wants the use of Copilot to become a habit for employees, which will, of course, drive its own revenue.  Earlier this year, analysts at Macquarie Research said in a report that Copilot could add as much as $14 billion in new revenue for Microsoft in the first year if just 10% of current Microsoft 365 customers use it.

CEO Satya Nadella says AI like Copilot is a major milestone

Microsoft gave early access to Microsoft 365 Copilot to individuals and teams at Visa, General Motors, KPMG, and Lumen Technologies. Copilot acts as a virtual assistant in apps like Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, and Teams. In Word, it can help write and refine documents, for example. “We used Copilot in Word to write parts of this show,” Stallbaumer told Fortune after Thursday’s launch event presentation in New York. 

At the event in New York, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella framed the advent of AI tools like Copilot as a major milestone in the history of computer technology. 

“This is as significant as the PC was to the ’80s, the web in the ’90s, mobile in the 2000s, cloud in the 2010s,” Nadella said.

Copilot will become available to Microsoft’s biggest customers on November 1, priced at $30 per user per month. In the meantime, Microsoft extended the preview version to select consumers and small businesses on Thursday.

The companies that have been testing the technology have rolled it out to individual employees and teams rather than company-wide. In alignment with its integration strategy, Microsoft made sure it reached individuals in different roles and across various levels of a company, Stallbaumer told Fortune. Early feedback shows employees are using Microsoft’s technology to summarize their inboxes, write quick email replies, and ask questions about meetings.

“The pace and volume of work has gone up in a way humans can’t process,” Stallbaumer said. The frequency of Teams meetings has increased threefold since February 2020, Microsoft data shows. Some Copilot users see 250 emails per day, she said. Copilot intends to help workers manage the load. 

As for the applications that employees aren’t using Copilot for in the early tests, Stallbaumer had less data to share. It’s too early to tell, she said.

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