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Copilot for Microsoft 365 deep dive: Productivity at a steep price

Copilot for Microsoft 365 deep dive: Productivity at a steep price

The AI age has come upon us more quickly than anyone imagined. In just a year and a half, OpenAI’s generative AI tool ChatGPT and its offspring Microsoft Copilot went from a fad to must-have business tools in which the companies are investing billions.

Now the genAI frontrunner, Microsoft is building Copilot into its full product line. There’s a free version of Copilot in Windows and in the Edge browser. There’s a paid Copilot Pro subscription for individuals. There’s a Copilot for Security, a Copilot for Sales, a Copilot for Finance, and many more.

Several months ago, the company released the most anticipated Copilot of them all, the subscription-based Copilot for Microsoft 365, which integrates AI features into the business versions of Microsoft’s office suite. That signaled the end of the hype phase of genAI. It’s now time to see how much it can help businesses in the real world. The rubber’s finally met the road.

Is Copilot for Microsoft 365 right for your business? Is it right for anyone’s business? To find out, I put it through its paces, testing how well it works (or doesn’t work) in Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook, the core Microsoft 365 apps. I also tested its ability to help you get big-picture overviews that combine information from all those apps.

Based on those results, I made recommendations for whether it’s ready for prime time for businesses, and if so, which companies could benefit from it. Read on to see what I found.

In this article:

  • Copilot in Word
  • Copilot in Excel
  • Copilot in PowerPoint
  • Copilot in Outlook
  • Copilot for Microsoft 365: Getting big-picture information
  • Copilot for Microsoft 365 extras
  • Is Copilot for Microsoft 365 right for your business?

Copilot in Word

One way or another, many people’s work revolves around drafting text documents — reports, memos, planning documents, marketing materials, budget suggestions…the list is endless. So odds are that a significant amount of time you spend in Microsoft 365 will be in Word.

How much Copilot will help you depends not only on how much time you spend in Word, but also on the complexity of the documents you write and how comfortable you are with writing. Some people — think of them as the lucky few — sit down at the keyboard, and words start flowing in a well-organized way, everything phrased succinctly and to the point, with very little editing or rewriting required, even in complicated documents. For them, Copilot might not be a tremendous time-saver or productivity booster.

But then there’s the rest of the world. Those who stare forlornly at the keyboard when they’ve got to write a memo. Who feel angst when confronted with a deadline for a project proposal or a marketing document. Who live by the saying: “Writing is easy. You just open up a vein and bleed.”

Those are the people for whom Copilot in Word is designed. And while Copilot won’t solve all their problems, it does quite a good job making efficient writers of most people.

Creating document drafts from a description

Copilot’s help starts the moment you want to create a document. Press Alt-I and the Draft with Copilot screen appears. Describe the document you want to create, including an outline or notes if you have them. Copilot goes to work right away and produces a draft for you.

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Don’t expect anything flashy or unique; Copilot won’t wow anyone with its writing style. It’s workaday and often pedestrian. But for many people in many jobs, workaday and pedestrian is fine, as long as all the information is there, the writing is clear, the document is organized well, and there are no obvious grammatical errors. And I found every time — whether drafting a project proposal, marketing document, or sales pitch — Copilot turned out exactly that kind of document.

Making it more useful is that after it generates a draft, it asks if you want to change it in any way — for example, to make it more or less formal or to make it shorter or longer. You can keep iterating it like this until it reads the way you want it.

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After you draft a document using Copilot, it allows you to refine the draft in any way you’d like.

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And keep in mind that the hardest part of writing is often just getting a first draft written; you can add flash and pizazz afterwards if that’s what you want. So even experienced writers can find some use for it, because it can quickly generate initial drafts.

Beware of ‘hallucinations’

Copilot at times will do research on its own about the topic you’ve asked it to write about, and include that information in the draft. That can be both a good thing and a bad thing. It’s good when the additional information reflects what you’ve asked it to do. But it can be seriously problematic when it makes up information on its own — especially when that information is incorrect. In my tests, it did that on several occasions.

For example, I asked it to write an email memo to the Director of Data Engineering of an imaginary company I created (Work@Home, which I say sells home office furniture) complaining about data inaccuracies I’ve found. I didn’t provide specific details about what those inaccuracies were.

Copilot, on its own, wrote that I had found “missing values, incorrect labels, inconsistent formats, and duplicate records.” It added in the draft, “I have attached a spreadsheet with some examples of the data errors I have found, along with the sources and dates of the data.”

None of that was true, and I certainly had no spreadsheet that contained the imaginary errors.

I also found that Copilot for Word wrote different drafts for me when I asked the same question on different days. The second time I made the request I detailed in the previous paragraph, it made up far more details than the first, citing nonexistent problems such as “many rows with missing values for important variables such as customer ID, purchase date, and product category… incorrect labels for some variables, such as gender. Some values were labeled as M or F, while others were labeled as Male or Female.”

The draft also complained about outdated information, such as old prices. (Again, none of this existed.) It even added a section with recommendations about how to fix the problems — recommendations that I never made.

The lesson here: You need to very carefully review whatever Copilot creates for you. Copilot, like all generative AI software, is subject to what researchers call “hallucinations” – that is, making up things, and doing what we would call lying if a person did it.

So as always when using genAI tools, it’s important to check Copilot’s output for factual errors, whether you’re using it in Word, PowerPoint, or other apps. Even when it’s creating a draft based on an existing document, it may introduce new material that is incorrect.

I found in my tests that when I included a great deal of detailed information in my request, Copilot tended not to hallucinate like this. So keep that in mind when using it. Asking Copilot to list the sources where it got its information from can also help mitigate hallucinations.

I found another oddity with Copilot for Word. When you create a new document in Word, there are two ways to make a Copilot request: You can click the Copilot icon on the Ribbon or else press Alt-I. When you click the icon, a Copilot pane slides in from the right, and you type in your prompt there. The draft appears in that pane as well. You’ll have to copy and paste it into a Word document manually.

When you press Alt-I, there’s no Copilot pane. Instead, a small “Draft with Copilot” screen appears, and you type your request there. In that instance, the draft is created in the document itself. You’ll be much better off pressing Alt-I, not just because it simplifies your work by creating the document directly in Word.  When do it that way, you can also ask Copilot to use an existing file as a starting point for your draft. (Details about how to do that follow.) You can’t do that using the Copilot right pane.

In addition, I found that when you use Alt-I, you get a more comprehensive draft. Although that’s a good thing, I found that Copilot is much more likely to make up information on its own when using this method to create a draft.

Creating drafts based on existing materials

As I mentioned above, there’s another even more useful feature when creating a new file — having Copilot reference an existing file as the basis for creating a new one. You can feed it several Office file types, including DOC, DOCX, FLUID, LOOP, PPT, PPTX, and XLSX, as well as OpenOffice ODP and ODT files, RTF files, PDFs, and many image files, including GIF, JFIF, PJPEG, JPG, PNG, and WebP.

When you do this, Copilot can take existing information, reorganize and rewrite it, using new information that it finds. For example, I used my initial brief, disorganized notes about this review and created a file from it. Then I fed it into Copilot, which did a credible job of writing a brief description of what Copilot is, listed its pros and cons, and summarized what I wrote.

The more detailed the information in the file you give to Copilot, the better the new document will be. You can, for example, tell Copilot to write a sales pitch based on a marketing document. That’s exactly what I did: I had it write a sales pitch for buying office furniture for those working at home, based on a marketing document — a document that I had previously asked Copilot to create based on my suggestions. In the new sales-pitch document it did an excellent job of highlighting the product’s benefits and making a well-targeted sales pitch. As with everything Copilot creates, the prose wasn’t scintillating, but it did the job.

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This sequence of events showcases how Copilot, when used properly, can be a tremendous productivity booster. It took only about five minutes of typing in notes for me to have Copilot create the original marketing document, and once it was done, only a few minutes of my time to create an accompanying sales pitch. Add in another twenty minutes for checking the drafts and rewriting, and I came away with two well-done pieces of sales and marketing materials. All that took less time than it would take most people to write even a single initial draft of a marketing document.

There is one minor problem with the feature. When you click the “Reference a file” button to choose your existing file, you see only the three most recent files you’ve opened in Word. There’s no way to navigate to others. So if you haven’t opened the starting file recently, you’ll have to open it, then close it. That’s not a tremendous problem, but it’s annoying enough to notice.

Also, keep in mind the source file has to be stored in OneDrive, either locally on your PC, or in the cloud in your OneDrive or someone else’s in your business.

Summarizing documents

Copilot in Word does more than create new documents. You can also use it to edit or summarize existing ones. Open a file, then click the Copilot icon on the upper right of the screen. Copilot’s right pane appears. It will have suggestions for what you can do to the file — for example, summarize it, check it for a call to action, and so on. But you’re not just limited to that. You can also ask Copilot to rewrite it in a more or less formal tone, to reduce its length, and so on.

I was surprised at how well it worked. Summaries were succinct and on-target, it followed my directions for rewrite well when I asked it to make a more or less formal document. It even correctly identified the call to action in a marketing document.

Keep in mind that because it’s a chatbot, you’re not limited to pre-created actions. Ask it to do anything you want. The worst that could happen is it will balk at doing it.

There’s another use for Copilot in Word as well — not just working on your own documents, but getting information from one sent to you by a colleague. You can ask it to summarize the document, its most important points, and so on. You can also ask Copilot specific questions about the document, such as finding a particular data point. I found it surprisingly accurate.

Copilot in Word: The verdict

Copilot in Word surprised me — it was far more useful than I expected. It drafted documents according to my specification, did a very credible job creating new documents based on existing ones, and was quite useful when I asked it to rewrite. Those who have trouble writing will find it exceptionally useful. Even experienced writers may be able to reduce tasks they find unpleasant — for example, if they need to provide summaries of a document to others.

However, there is a significant caveat here. You need to carefully review everything it creates in case it includes inaccurate information. That brings up a larger point for enterprises. If they decide to deploy Copilot for Microsoft 365, they should offer serious training to their employees with a significant focus on how to detect Copilot-created errors, and how to use Copilot in a way that makes it less likely it will create errors in the first place.

Copilot in Excel

Word may be the most used application in Microsoft 365, but still, most of us need to create an Excel spreadsheet at one time or another. For people who aren’t spreadsheet jockeys this can be particularly problematic — how, again, do you create charts? How do you insert formulas? How can you make sense of complicated spreadsheets?

That’s where I hoped Copilot would help. In my tests, though, it didn’t. Unlike in Word, I wasn’t able to invoke Copilot when I created a new spreadsheet, describe what I wanted done, and have Copilot do it for me. Instead, I had to create a spreadsheet as I normally would and face the dispiriting vision of its emptiness laid out in front of me.

And I soon discovered another limitation when I clicked the Copilot icon on the upper right of the screen. The Copilot pane slid into the right part of the screen but said only: “You need an Excel table in this sheet to continue. If you want to see an example, I have one ready for you.” If I didn’t know how to create a table, I’d have to figure that out before I could start using Copilot in Excel.

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However, Microsoft recently announced some improvements to Copilot in Excel. The biggest one: Copilot will no longer be limited to use in tables. If you format your data with a single row of headers on top, you’ll be able to use Copilot on it.

This change is gradually rolling out to users, and I don’t have it yet, so I’m currently unable to test it. But it remedies one of the major limitations I encountered with Copilot in Excel.

Creating charts

Continuing my testing, I created a table that included revenue data, including monthly revenue. I asked Copilot the most basic of requests: “Chart revenue by month.” I wanted to see whether Copilot would choose the right kind of chart (a line chart), and whether it would then create it for me.

The answer was both yes and no. It knew enough to create a line chart and to select and chart the proper data. However, Copilot created the chart in its side pane, not in the spreadsheet itself. I couldn’t find a way to have Copilot insert the chart into the spreadsheet. I had to ask Copilot to create a new spreadsheet, and then asked Copilot to insert the line chart there by clicking “Add to new sheet.”

At that point I had a spreadsheet that had only the line chart and the small amount of data accompanying it. But I wanted the chart in the original spreadsheet. So now I had to manually copy the chart back to the original spreadsheet. I ended up spending far too much time doing something very simple: creating a basic line chart. I could have saved myself a lot of time by creating the chart myself. Copilot had made me less efficient and productive, not more.

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Again, though, a fix appears to be coming. Among the improvements being rolled out, Microsoft says, are “more conversational and comprehensive answers to a wide array of Excel-related questions.” So you should be able to do things such as getting step-by-step instructions for accomplishing certain tasks in Excel. These instructions can include formula examples. Copilot, Microsoft claims, will also be able to correct and explain formula errors it finds.

Because I don’t have the new features yet, I can’t say how well the improved Copilot lives up to these claims — but Microsoft is clearly working toward addressing a major shortcoming of the initial version of Copilot in Excel.

Finding data insights

Even testing its earlier iteration, however, I found one very useful application for Copilot in Excel. Instead of asking Copilot to do a specific task for me — say, create a specific chart — I asked it to find insights that I might not have found myself in an existing table. With a table opened in a spreadsheet, I clicked “Show data insights” in the Copilot pane. It created a bar chart that showed the total number of days that were required to finish each type of task in the table. I most likely would never have found that on my own — I wouldn’t have even thought of looking for it.

It was, however, quite a useful insight. It could help me do a number of things: more accurately put together a project schedule, identify bottlenecks in projects, examine tasks that took the most time to see if they could be streamlined.

I kept clicking “Can I see another insight” and saw other charts— some useful, some not. I still couldn’t directly insert the charts next to my original table — each chart was placed, along with its data, into a new spreadsheet on a new tab, and I would have to copy and paste them into a new tab or spreadsheet if I wanted to use them in other ways. Still, it’s a powerful tool that does a very good job of mining tables for useful, real-world insights.

Copilot is open-ended enough that you should be able to endlessly query data for useful insight and information in this way.

Microsoft claims Copilot can also help with creating complex, advanced formulas. However, I’m not a spreadsheet jockey, so can’t judge its ability to do this.

Copilot in Excel: The verdict

Copilot in Excel falls short in several important ways, especially for people who don’t have advanced spreadsheet skills. It can’t create spreadsheets from scratch based on a person’s needs, which can be the most difficult and time-consuming task for many people. And when you ask it to create charts, it can’t insert them into your existing spreadsheet — it can only insert them into a new spreadsheet in a new tab.

In its initial iteration, Copilot in Excel would only work with data in tables, and it was less than helpful when asked to perform basic spreadsheet tasks. Microsoft is gradually rolling out changes that address these limitations; you may or may not yet have them in your instance of Copilot for Microsoft 365.

All that said, Copilot in Excel can also be quite useful, notably in identifying insights that you might otherwise miss, no matter your level of expertise. And it may be able to create advanced formulas that could be quite useful. Overall, it seems more suited to people who are comfortable with spreadsheets, rather than those who don’t use them on a regular basis.

Copilot in PowerPoint

Could there be anything more dispiriting than encountering an empty PowerPoint screen when you’ve got to build a presentation for a product launch, marketing plan, or any other reason? A blank Word document is bad enough — but there, you’ve only got words to work with. With PowerPoint, there are visuals, slides, transitions, maybe even multimedia…what could be more intimidating?

Copilot in PowerPoint can help. It can draft an entire presentation for you from scratch, or by pointing it at a document. Will the presentation be perfect from the get-go? No. But it’ll give you a solid starting point.

At first glance, there appears to be no way to get Copilot to create a presentation. When you launch PowerPoint, the Copilot icon on the upper right is grayed out, so there appears no way to use it. Pressing the Alt-I key combination, as you do in Word to have Copilot draft a new document for you, won’t work either.

Instead, you have to create a new presentation or else open an existing one, then click the Copilot icon. When you do that, you’ll be asked if you want to create a new presentation from an existing document, create a new slide in the presentation you’ve opened, or create a new presentation based on your description of what you want done.

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Creating presentations from a description

Asking Copilot to create a presentation from scratch proved to be significantly problematic. Using the Copilot prompt, I asked it to create a marketing document in presentation form for my imaginary Work@Home business selling home office furniture. I didn’t provide a document as a starting point. Instead, I wrote a brief description of what I wanted: “Create a sales presentation for Work@Home home office products.”

Within minutes, Copilot created a comprehensive 15-slide presentation with a remarkable amount of granular detail and accompanying graphics. One slide, for example, touted the Work@Home line of chairs due to their “Ergonomic design,” “Variety of Styles and Colors,” and “Adjustable Features,” along with detailed, paragraph-long descriptions of each of those benefits.  Other slides did the same thing for Cable Management, Desks, Lighting, Optimal Illumination, Monitor stands, and many more.

It was impressive, given the bare-bones instruction I had given Copilot. Unfortunately, it was all purely a hallucination. Copilot had gone out to the web, done research on its own, and created a presentation that had nothing to do with reality.

In subsequent attempts, I provided more details, including the specific number of slides and what each should say. That led to a presentation without hallucinations. But it didn’t save me much time, if at all. I might as well have created the presentation myself without Copilot’s help.

Creating presentations from existing materials

A better approach is to feed an existing document with the appropriate information into Copilot for PowerPoint. (Copilot in PowerPoint can handle the same file types as Copilot in Word, listed above.) If you’ve got the right document as a starting point, that’s the way to go.

When I used the Work@Home marketing document that Copilot had created for me in Word, I got exactly what I wanted. Within minutes, Copilot built a well-organized, seven-slide presentation, complete with graphics and speaker notes, that closely mirrored the marketing document.

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The presentation flowed the way it should, starting with an opening slide and the tagline: Work@Home: The Perfect Solution for Your Home Office. The next slide was an agenda, the next was an introduction, and after that were several slides with the top selling points, another detailing how to order the furniture, and a conclusion. Copilot hit all the high points, made everything succinct, and chose suitable, if quite bland, graphics.

The speaker’s notes left much to be desired — they were just a rehash of what’s on the slide. The graphics were generic and dull. And there were no transitions between slides. Still, it was more than a solid start. For many purposes, you could consider it 75% ready to go; it just needed some polish, new graphics, and animated slide transitions.

As with Word, there was nothing unique here, nothing to knock anyone’s socks off. But it was serviceable. More important, it was a great jumping off point to a solid presentation.

Enhancing presentations, summarizing them, and more

Copilot does more than just create a draft of a presentation. You can also ask it to create new slides, after you describe what you want them to say. Particularly impressive is that it can also gather information by itself about a new slide. I asked it to create a slide explaining that a business might pay for someone’s home office furniture if they work from home. It provided details that I hadn’t suggested, such as asking HR for help in getting reimbursement.

You can also ask Copilot to improve a presentation, for example, asking if there are any slides that should be deleted. I found it was only partially helpful. When I added a nonsensical slide titled “Time to Buy a New Horse” into the presentation, Copilot flagged it immediately. However, when I added one that was off-topic, although peripherally related — “How to Improve Your Posture at Your Desk” — it didn’t flag it.

And as in Word, you can ask Copilot in PowerPoint for a summary or other information about a presentation shared with you by a co-worker in OneDrive.

Copilot can also offer design advice. When prompted, it will have Microsoft’s design tool Designer suggest several design alternatives.

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There are limits to what Copilot can do in PowerPoint, though. I asked it to create transitions between slides and it responded, “I’m sorry, but I can’t do that. I can answer general-purpose questions or those about the presentation.” I asked it to find royalty-free images I could add to the presentation without violating copyright laws. Here, too, it said that was beyond the scope of what it could do, but it did point to several web sites that it claimed were good places to find those kinds of images.

In general, I found a thin line between what Copilot will and won’t do in PowerPoint. My recommendation: Ask it to do anything you want, just in case it can do it. You can also type “View prompts” to get a sample of things it can do that you might not have thought of.

Copilot in PowerPoint: The verdict

Copilot can be a powerful tool for creating presentations, notably by creating presentations from scratch based on an existing document. It can be a tremendous time-saver, giving you a first draft of a presentation in minutes with surprising accuracy. Slides follow a logical flow. It also does quite a good job of creating new slides for an existing presentation when you describe what you want added.

That’s not to say it will do everything you want. It won’t add transitions between slides, for example, and it won’t find new graphics. Also, don’t expect knock-your-socks-off creativity. Rather, you’ll get a solid straightforward starting point, which you can then customize and improve.

Keep in mind that if you ask Copilot to create a presentation via your typed-in description rather than by using a document, you may end up with a presentation riddled with misinformation. So whenever possible, use an existing document. And the same caveat applies here as in Word: Double-check your presentation very carefully for errors and misinformation.

Copilot in Outlook

American may run on Dunkin’, if you believe the coffee chain’s sales pitch, but businesses run on email. So Microsoft made sure to integrate Copilot into Outlook to handle the many problems email causes for people — notably drafting emails, responding to emails, and keeping track of complex, often-rambling email conversations.

Composing emails

I started testing Copilot in Outlook by asking it to help me create new emails. To do it, click the Copilot icon on the Outlook ribbon, select Draft with Copilot, and describe what you want done. If you’d like, select the Generate options icon (it’s at the bottom left of the screen and looks like two sliders) to customize the length and tone of the email. You can choose short, medium, or long and a tone of direct, neutral, casual and formal. (There’s also an option to “make it a poem” that clearly is unsuitable for business communications.)

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Choosing options when drafting a new email.

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After it generates the draft and you’ve reviewed it, you can make changes yourself, ask Copilot to discard or retry creating a draft, or ask it to make specific changes — for example, to make it shorter or longer, more direct, or more casual.

I found in every instance that Copilot did precisely what I asked it to do, creating well-organized drafts that laid out all the points I requested. Copilot didn’t hallucinate or add errors at any point, even when I wrote an email complaining about data errors someone’s team had made — essentially the same request I had made of Copilot in Word. However, you should always double-check any email crafted by Copilot for errors.

 Although the emails were clear and to the point, they also tended to be quite stilted and came across as being written by an AI chatbot rather than a human being. This happened even when I asked that Copilot use a casual tone. So you’d do well to spend a few minutes editing the draft to make it sound more human and like yourself.

For my ultimate test of drafting new emails, I set Copilot a task every manager dreads: sending a stern message to a team member warning that his work has been subpar, he comes late to work too often, and he misses deadlines. I also asked that he come to my office for a meeting.

Copilot did an excellent job, not only accurately portraying the issues I asked it to address, but getting the tone right — in fact, likely better than I might have done. It’s easy in pressure-filled situations like these to let one’s emotions seep into the email. Copilot, being an AI, doesn’t have emotions, and so the message it sent was less confrontational and likely to be a better received than one that I might have sent. For example, Copilot’s email concluded, “I look forward to our discussion and finding a solution to these issues.” The language may sound stilted, but it was spot on for the task.

Replying to emails

Copilot shines when replying to emails as well, at least if you use it correctly. There are two ways to respond to an email: you can give Copilot specific suggestions about what you want the email to say, or you can allow it to automatically respond on its own, without your input.

I tested the feature by responding to an email sent to me that had a recommendation for new lines of business to help revive Work@Home’s flagging business. First, I had Copilot respond automatically.

It gave me four choices for general ways to respond: “Working on memo,” “Memo attached,” “Need more time,” and “Custom.” The first three ways resulted in a generic, stilted response whose recipient would know it was drafted by AI. I’d recommend never using the first three automated responses, because it could come across as almost offensive to the recipient that you didn’t bother to take the three or four minutes yourself to draft a simple email response.

The fourth choice, Custom, allows you to describe the draft you want Copilot to create. This choice is a winner. I asked Copilot to thank the sender, summarize his recommendations, and ask for a more detailed memo of 1,500 words by the following Tuesday.

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Within about 15 seconds, it created a draft that was right on target. Not only did it follow my request exactly, but it put in all the niceties that can make business communications flow smoothly rather than being misunderstood or fraught with tension. It noted that the recommendations “all seem like promising options,” for example. And its phrasing was similarly thoughtful throughout — for example, “I would appreciate your insights and further thoughts on how we can move forward.”

Yes, it’s true those are timeworn phrases and can feel like throwaway clichés. But there’s a lot to be said for simple politeness and directness in business communications, and in this instance, Copilot did a very good job of getting the tone right, even if the phrasing felt at times a bit wooden. That’s why I recommend that all email communications created by Copilot not just be checked carefully for accuracy, but also edited to make each message sound like a human being composed it, not a chatbot.

Before sending any email message drafted with Copilot, whether it’s a new email or a response to received mail, Outlook flashes a warning: “Check the message. AI-generated content may be incorrect, so be sure to check the message before sending it.” Make sure to follow the advice. In my testing, Copilot didn’t make errors, but that may have only been luck.

Copilot also warns you if you send a message without a subject, which can be useful for people who draft so many emails in a day they forget at times to do that.

Email draft coaching

There’s another Copilot in Outlook feature that I found quite useful: having Copilot analyze a draft of an email you’re planning on sending and suggesting recommendations to improve it. To use it, select Coaching by Copilot from the drop-down menu that appears when you click the Copilot icon in the toolbar.

I wrote a rambling, somewhat incoherent, clearly offensive email full of typos critiquing someone’s work, and had Copilot offer its recommendations. It was absolutely on target and pulled no punches, finding serious problems with the tone and clarity of the writing, as well as how the recipient would likely feel after receiving it. It went well beyond generic advice and offered concrete suggestions for improving individual words and sentences.

For example, about the tone it wrote: “Be more respectful. The email is very informal and casual and might make the reader feel like their work is not taken seriously. The email also uses language that is vague, dismissive, and insulting, such as ‘pretty good,’ ‘kind of,’ ‘suck’ and ‘do lot’s better.’”

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Summarizing email threads

Outlook also does a good job of helping solve one of the most problematic and time-consuming of email tasks — reading through a threaded conversation made up of multiple emails, and identifying the gist of what occurred.

In my tests, I created a thread between two people, one whom asked the other for recommendations on how to revive the Home@Work business, which was starting to flag because fewer people were working remotely from home. Copilot succinctly summarized every important part of the conversation, including mentioning that a spreadsheet with projected new revenue figures was sent in one email.

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Copilot was also able to separate the important topics from less important ones. Within the email thread, I had the two people discuss a concert by the guitar player and songwriter Richard Thompson, including a description of some of the finer points of Thompson’s technique. Copilot recognized that it was a side issue and included that information as a minor aside at the end of the summary. I also included typos in the emails to see whether Copilot would repeat them in its summary. It didn’t; it corrected them each time.

There’s one important thing that Copilot doesn’t do, though — look inside the attachments people send to one another and summarize the data therein. It’s a vital shortcoming, because frequently, more succinct detailed information is available in attachments than in the threads themselves. In this instance, each of the people sent revenue projections to each other. That’s important information that Copilot ignores.

Still, even without that, summarizing email threads is a useful and powerful time saver and productivity booster. For people who don’t need help drafting emails, it will be the most important Copilot feature.

Copilot in Outlook: The verdict

Used properly, Copilot can help you draft new emails and responses more quickly, be more precise in your use of language, and help you choose the right writing tone. It also does a good job of summarizing complex email threads. That being said, its emails generally have a stilted, somewhat artificial tone. You’d do well not to send them as is, but make them sound more natural and personalize them in some way.

Copilot for Microsoft 365: Getting big-picture information

One of Copilot for Microsoft 365’s more intriguing features is its potential to give you a big-picture view of your projects, and then let you drill down into any of them to get more granular information — for example, a specific spreadsheet that has revenue projections for the next five years for new lines of business.

It does this by looking through all your emails and files (including those shared with you by co-workers) based on your request, analyzing what it finds, and then giving you a succinct summary of it all. Based on that, you can ask for more detailed information or follow one of its suggested prompts that recommends data you might want to see.

You do this in the Copilot app itself, rather than starting in Word or another Microsoft 365 app. Make sure you’re signed into your business account in the Edge browser. (If you’re signed into your personal account rather than your business account, it will search the web, not your files and emails.) Then click Edge’s Copilot icon on the upper right of the screen and type in what you’d like it to do. (Note: Your organization may have set up this search differently, so you should check with your IT department when trying to do this.)

I tested out Copilot’s summarization powers with a simple prompt: “Tell me more about Work@Home.” It responded by giving me a clear and accurate description of the imaginary business I had created, and then noted, “There have been discussions on how to revive Work@Home in a post-COVID world,” and briefly and accurately summed summarized a memo I had written about how to do that.

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Copilot does a stellar job of giving you big-picture information and granular data by looking through all your documents and emails.

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So far, so good. It was an accurate summation. Next, I asked it to show me any emails that have details about new lines of business for reviving Work@Home. Again it was on target. It summarized the email and included a link to it. All I needed was to click the link to get to it.

I then asked for any presentations related to Work@Home, and once again it succeeded. It summarized the presentation, identified the presentation’s author and when it was last modified, and provided a link to it.

It wasn’t always perfect, though. I found that I had to offer as precise a description as possible when asking for documents, or it might not find them. But overall, the results were impressive.

Getting big-picture information: The verdict

Using Copilot to gather and summarize information from multiple documents and emails could eventually prove to be one of the most powerful uses of Copilot for Microsoft 365. In a typical workplace, you’ll be involved with multiple projects at a time, and can’t possibly know detailed information about all of them. An ability to quickly get updates on projects and find the specific information, email, or document could be a tremendous time saver and productivity booster.

Copilot for Microsoft 365 extras

Is Copilot for Microsoft 365 right for your business?

Copilot for Microsoft 365 can be an impressive productivity tool, especially for those who often use Word and PowerPoint. In Word it can draft entire documents merely by your prompting it or based on existing documents. The documents are generally well-organized and well-thought-out, and are excellent for first drafts, although editing and rewrites will be required. It’s particularly powerful for those who have a hard time getting started on creative content such as marketing documents. However, it has a tendency to hallucinate, and all its work needs to be very carefully vetted as a result.

It’s helpful in PowerPoint in much the same way as it in Word. You can create first drafts of an entire presentation by merely pointing PowerPoint to a Word document. It can also create new slides based on your prompts. Once you have a presentation, however, it won’t perform tasks for you such as creating transitions. Also, if you ask Copilot to create a presentation from scratch, rather than from an existing document, you may end up with one filled with hallucinations and misinformation. In all cases, as with Word, carefully vet Copilot’s output.

It’s not nearly as impressive in Excel, at least in its first iteration. For those who don’t frequently use spreadsheets, it won’t offer much help — and it has limited capabilities even for spreadsheet jockeys. It does, however, do a fine job of mining spreadsheets for insights you might otherwise have missed, and new features being rolled out may fix its most serious shortcomings.

Copilot for Microsoft 365 will likely be a productivity booster for almost anyone using Outlook, by helping to draft new emails and to respond to existing ones. As with Word, you’ll need to check it for errors, and you should rewrite its sometimes stilted language.

In my tests, Copilot also proved to be surprisingly helpful in providing big-picture information by searching through emails and files. It was equally useful when looking for a specific file or piece of information.

As for the extras, such as transcribing Teams meetings and summarizing notes in OneNote, those are nice-to-haves, not must-haves.

Also note that Copilot currently supports only about 25 languages. Microsoft says more are planned.

Keep in mind that, like the company’s other subscription-based products, Copilot for Microsoft 365 frequently gets new features. In addition to the important improvements to Copilot in Excel already discussed, upcoming Copilot enhancements include prompt autocomplete and rewrite features, as well as a Catch Up feature that can update you about meetings and shared documents. And Microsoft recently announced that users will soon be able to have Designer create images for them in both Word and PowerPoint.

So should your business use Copilot for Microsoft 365? If it were free or included in a Microsoft 365 subscription, the decision would be a no-brainer. It clearly boosts productivity, and for some people will boost it quite a bit.

But it’s not free — far from it. It costs businesses $30 per user per month, and that needs to be paid on an annual basis, not monthly. There’s also no trial version, so there’s no way to test it out for a few months and see whether it’s worth the price.

That $30 per month can increase the monthly outlay by more than 50% for subscribers to the top Microsoft 365 enterprise plan — and by a whopping 600% for subscribers to the entry-level small-business plan. The Copilot add-on fee adds up quickly, even for large enterprises. For a business with Microsoft 365 subscriptions for 500 people, it means an additional $15,000 per month — and enterprises typically have well over 500 seats.

All that said, Copilot for Microsoft 365 includes enterprise-grade privacy and security protections, including Microsoft’s promise that your company’s data and your users’ prompts are not used to train the large language models used by Copilot. These protections are not offered by consumer genAI chatbots.

For most businesses, it probably makes sense to start small, offering subscriptions to targeted users or departments that might get the most out of Copilot — for example, people or groups who most need help in drafting documents and presentations. Based on the results, a company can roll it out to others who might get good mileage out of it.

As for going in whole hog and buying it for everyone who has a Microsoft 365 subscription in your business, that’s an expensive proposition and likely won’t come close to paying for itself in productivity increases, at least for now.

Should you decide to try it now or sometime in the future, there is one caveat that I feel compelled to repeat: Copilot sometimes makes up false information and presents it as fact. You’ll need to very carefully examine everything it does before using its output, and will need to balance that step against any productivity increases you expect.  

You should also consider launching a formal training program for anyone in your business who uses Copilot, targeted primarily at making sure people are aware of potential hallucinations and errors, and teaching best practices for creating documents so they won’t be rife with errors.

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