By Bahar Ferguson
Microsoft Teams is a collaboration and communication platform that is a relatively new part of the Microsoft product lineup, launched worldwide in 2017. Although it has been around for a few years and has millions of users, many were not familiar with the service or its many functions outside of its use as a chat app. This changed during the COVID-19 pandemic, which made collaboration software essential for many organizations suddenly employing a work-from-home model.
From 20 million active users in November 2019, in April 2020, Microsoft reported 75 million daily users of Microsoft Teams. More and more companies began using it, particularly in light of some of the security concerns with competitive video-conferencing platform Zoom. Yet many companies are still not aware of the complete set of collaboration functions Microsoft Teams offers.
As it was initially launched to compete with chat app Slack, the chat function of Teams tends to be its best-known function, and that is certainly a key means of collaboration. Teams members can text chat with each other, but that isn’t the only way to collaborate.
Teams is available to most subscribers of the Microsoft 365 suite and integrates with most of its products. Teams are hubs of users, and within Teams, users can create channels. These channels organize conversations and tasks into project areas or topics and include chat rooms and conversations among members of a team. Multiple channels can be created to keep topics separate and easy to follow.
Within the channels, users can easily switch from text chat to voice or video chat, to enable whatever form of communication best suits the needs of the current project or topic. Two users could be having a text chat, for example, and then realize the subject would be more easily discussed via a voice call. They can easily switch to the voice call without leaving the app and add another Team member if needed. If they then decide to use the video function, it’s easy to switch to that as well.
Teams’ integration with Microsoft’s other apps and programs makes collaboration even more efficient. Users can share Word documents or Excel files, putting an end to the always-problematic email tree, in which one user emails a document to several other users for input. Each of those users makes changes to the document and emails it separately, and meanwhile all their comments are on separate emails — some of which they may forget to “reply all” on. In this type of scenario, there is almost no actual collaboration going on — everyone is working on their separate documents and one person ends up trying to put all the pieces together.
The collaboration tools enabled by Microsoft Teams put an end to these endless emails, as documents are stored in central files and one document is accessible by all Team members. To ask for input on a document, a user can simply notify the other users they want input from. Team members, upon logging in, will get notifications if a new conversation has taken place or if their input is required.
Documents that are shared in Teams are stored in SharePoint, a commonly used collaboration app for many organizations. Each Teams channel will have a SharePoint Team site, while every SharePoint Team site will have a Teams channel. This means that permissions can be granted to an overall Team site rather than needing to assign permissions on individual documents.
All these individual pieces — text, voice and video calls and file sharing — can then be put together to create a complete, unified form of communication. In addition to the impromptu communication allowed by the chat channel or voice calls, it’s possible to schedule meetings as well. This is where Microsoft Teams quickly became known as a more secure competitor to Zoom. While on a call, Team members can collaborate on a shared document in SharePoint without ever leaving the app, allowing for real-time, face-to-face collaboration from disparate locations around the country or the world.
In an age of remote work, collaboration has become more important than ever. Offices that once gathered in a conference room with a whiteboard or PowerPoint presentation now need to find new ways to maintain the efficiency and effectiveness of in-person collaboration. Software like Microsoft Teams is designed for just such a scenario, allowing users to continue to work collaboratively in remote environments, and ensuring that office staff and creative teams remain vibrant and productive even when they are physically separated.
Bahar Ferguson is the president of Wasatch I.T., a Utah company providing IT services to small and mid-sized businesses.