Chat is nothing new in business (or even new to Microsoft), but it’s heading out of the technical department and the personal chat clients, and into the wider workforce. Microsoft Teams has some obvious similarities to Slack and HipChat and the other business chat services, but it has a different focus. This is chat for teams of people in your business who already use Office 365 tools and services and want to do collaboration around those, but it also integrates with over 150 third-party services to bring them into the conversation.
It’s designed as a hub where a team can find both the tools and content they need to get a collaborative task done — whether that’s jumping into a voice or video call, working with documents, or exchanging information via chat.
You can do that in the browser, or in the Teams apps for Windows, Mac, iOS, Android and Windows 10 Mobile. These all use the familiar Office 365 sign-in experience, including multi-factor authentication if your tenant has set that up. Features still aren’t yet identical across apps, and the web and desktop clients have the most tools. On iOS you can see files in each channel, and see incoming phone calls from team members; on Android there’s an extra recent files view, as well as audio and video calling, previews of URLs and deep links to the OneNote tab. In some cases the difference is what features each mobile OS offers, in others it’s a matter of what’s fastest to develop.
Teams are collections of people, and the content and tools to which they have access. Designed for bringing together people who work together closely, Teams can have up to 999 people if required.
The group of people comprising a Team are literally an Office 365 Group: there’s a SharePoint team site, a OneNote notebook and a calendar created for the team automatically. The Files and Wiki tabs that automatically appear for each team are SharePoint features. Embedding OneNote in Teams means you can have your shared and individual notes in the same tool, not different systems, without worrying about anyone else seeing notes in your own notebook. Oddly, the Notes tab for the team OneNote is no longer added automatically, making a very useful feature once more hard to find.
A manager can create a Team, but so can colleagues, for formal or ad hoc groups. Teams can be public or private; team owners control that (and can also choose whether people can join a public group or if they need to be approved). Team owners can manage the available tools, as well as adding and removing people — and promoting them to be team owners. You can create multiple channels in a team to discuss different topics, and choose whether team members can create more channels themselves, delete unused ones, or use features like Giphy animated GIFs, stickers and memes in chat.
That means you might find yourself getting added to multiple teams. You can’t stop that, but you can leave any teams you want to (or just add the ones you use to Favorites and ignore the others). Getting the right balance of who adds whom to what teams is more a management problem than a technology issue, and Teams (and the underlying Groups) takes a sensibly lightweight approach to this, backed up by all the Office 365 options for controlling who has access to files and services.
So even if someone in sales gets added to a finance team, that doesn’t give them access to any finance files stored elsewhere in SharePoint. The Files tab in the interface shows you files from all the teams you’re part of, with links to OneDrive for Business and your own downloads folder.
Chat and channels
There are multiple ways to chat in Teams. Each channel has a group text chat, which is threaded into individual conversations and works very well for helping you keep track of specific topics rather than the free-for-all of the chat stream. The way you can structure teams into channels and channels into conversations is particularly useful.
While threaded chat takes a little bit more discipline than just typing into a chat channel and letting everyone else sort out how the conversation is supposed to work, it more than pays off when you need to talk with a lot of people, or go back and pick up on an older conversation and not lose context. It’s a hugely useful feature that even Slack has quickly added as an option.
Markdown support in chat might sound esoteric, but it’s important for developers and ops who want to use chat discuss what they’re working on, and you can also share code snippets without the formatting getting mangled.
As well as group chat, you can have ‘private’ conversations with other team members. If you want to share files in chat they have to come from the team OneDrive, but there’s a button in the chat window to upload files to share.
On the web, desktop and Android apps, you can turn any conversation into a Skype for Business video call, or you can make those a bit more formal by scheduling meetings — which can also be public or private. In another nice bit of integration, you see the Team calendar and your own Exchange calendar in the meetings pane, plus free/busy information for the people you’re inviting, to make scheduling simpler, and the invites are sent through Exchange so they appear everywhere you’re used to seeing meeting invitations.
You can also integrate chat and email; each channel has an email address (click the three dots on the channel name to see the address and control who can send messages to it). So if you want to forward a message from a customer or an attachment from a supplier, you can send it to the channel and any attachments are uploaded to the team file area on SharePoint.
Click on someone’s avatar and you get a card with their contact details so you can email or use their normal phone number, or start a voice or video call straight to them. And unlike Skype for Business, when you make a call, your microphone and camera are on straight away instead of you having to choose to unmute and share video — because you’re contacting colleagues on your team, not people who might or might not be strangers.
Notifications mean you don’t have to keep looking at the Teams window; you can pick and choose what alerts you want to see, and you can look in the Activity pane to see what you’ve missed (or use it as an inbox to catch up on conversations). If someone @ mentions you, you’ll see just that comment in your feed, with a red @ badge so you know why it’s there; comments marked as important (a handy feature that’s tucked away in the extra formatting options as you’re typing into chat) get a red badge with an exclamation mark. Follow a channel if you need to see everything that’s new in your feed.
Channels with new content are marked in bold in the channel list, and there’s a handy ‘last read’ line so you can see when you get back to old comments. You can also mark up to five channels across different teams as favourites, for fast access.
The Windows app is a desktop app, not a UWP ap. That means it will work on Windows 7 and 8.1 for businesses who haven’t made it to Windows 10, but also means it loses out on integration options. The notifications that pop up aren’t rich toasts that you can reply to the way they are with the new Skype Preview app (and they don’t get tracked in the Action Center). The Windows Phone, iOS and Android apps do better at this, but you still have to manage notifications on each device.
Tabs, bots and connectors
Tabs let you customise the channel interface by adding links at the top. The default tabs move you between group chat, files and the Wiki, but you can also pin specific Office files, PDFs and websites, as well as SharePoint sites — and a long list of other Microsoft and third-party services from the Tabs gallery. You can embed Power BI dashboards, and Kanban boards from Visual Studio Team Services, Wrike workspaces, Polly for polls, Azure Streams or YouTube, Microsoft Planner or Asana for planning, and a growing list of others. You can also package up your own web apps with a manifest that adds them to the tab gallery. Tabs are how you turn Teams from a simple chat client into a hub of the tools and information your specific team needs to use.
For information you want in the stream of chat rather than a separate tab, Teams supports bots. The built-in T-Bot is a chatbot to answer your questions about Teams itself. Microsoft is also still building the promised WhoBot to help you find people in your organization with specific expertise. There are third-party bots like Hipmunk and Kayak for travel planning, Growbot for giving compliments to colleagues, Statsbot for posting stats from services like Salesforce, Backtrack for package tracking and Zoom.ai for calendar planning. Teams launched with over 20 bots, and you can also make your own chatbots; any bot made with the Microsoft Bot Framework will work in Teams.
Between the different integration options, there are over 150 connectors to third-party services, from Google Analytics Twitter to Zendesk; there are so many already because services that have a connector for Office 365 Groups already just work with Teams (since it’s based on Groups). What you get is a connection, whose level of integration varies.
Some features are superbly integrated on both the website and in the apps. Other Microsoft tools based on Office 365 Groups fit in beautifully when you add them as tabs; Power BI is a live dashboard of information, and Planner looks like it’s just part of the interface, giving you a structured to-do list. Wunderlist and Trello are available as connectors, but what you get from them is notifications of events that you click to open the service rather than a live view of the information in that service. If those services create packages for Teams, they could be embedded just as seamlessly.
Similarly, seeing your recent files from SharePoint and OneDrive for Business alongside files from Teams is very handy, so you can quickly add in project files you’ve already started work on.
When you click on a file, you get a preview and the chat window alongside that preview is in exactly the right place to have a conversation, although it’s annoying that it doesn’t show comments that are inside the document in either the preview or the chat window. If it’s an Office file you can edit it, always via a new window — either a web page for Office online or the native Office app.
For businesses, one big advantage of Teams is how it fits into the security, authentication and compliance they expect from Office 365. If you use access controls or DLP to block sensitive customer information from being shared beyond a restricted set of employees, that will apply to Teams as well.
If you have an E3 or E5 tenant, you get advanced compliance features for ediscovery, legal hold and searching audit logs, using the interface you use for all your other key business services on Office 365.
That control will extend to guest access when the feature arrives this summer. This will work like guest access in the Office 365 Groups service that Teams relies on, with IT admins getting the say on whether guest users are allowed. One reason guest access isn’t already available (because Microsoft clearly understands how important this is for collaboration) is that it needs to cover all the content that’s available to a team — you want guests to be able to see not just the chat, but also the files you’re sharing and the team meetings and calls you have. That level of integration with Office 365 is what makes Teams so useful. It’s not always there in third-party plugins, and it’s not likely to ever be quite as good for services that have their own platforms (like Google Drive). But Teams is hands-down the best way for working with some of the more complex and frustrating Office 365 offerings, like SharePoint, as well as a powerful tool in itself.
Microsoft Teams is serious competition for Slack and HipChat, offering a solid mix of fun, social ways to share information with co-workers. There are strong integrations with other Office 365 tools and services, as well as a growing number of third-party services, with the opportunity to add in-chat interactive bots as well as panes. Guest access is still the most serious gap in the service, but that’s on the way, and Microsoft is clearly working hard to keep adding and improving features. In the longer term, adding in the smart features of Outlook and Cortana in a team context could save a lot of time on planning and tracking what’s going on.
Teams might not displace Slack and HipChat in organizations where they’ve already become useful — although the cheapest Office 365 business subscription is only a dollar a month more expensive per user than paying for Slack on its own. But it’s an obvious choice for any business looking for a team chat tool, and a no-brainer for any business that already has a commercial Office 365 subscription.
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