Microsoft has launched their new team messaging application, previously rumored to be named Skype Teams, but now called Microsoft Teams. Teams is positioned as a competitor to Slack, a company that Microsoft was at one stage considering purchasing. As a user of Slack for quite some time now, I was immediately interested to see what Teams could bring to the table.
The first and most obvious advantage to using Microsoft Teams is that it is included as part of Office 365, meaning it is tightly integrated with existing Office 365 identities and services, as well as offering the same level of security and data protection as the rest of Office 365. That’s something that IT folks care about, but users are more interested in functionality and usability. So let’s take a closer look at what Teams offers to users at launch.
Activating Microsoft Teams for Office 365 Tenants
Before your users can start to use Teams it will need to be enabled in your Office 365 tenant. Log on to the Office 365 admin portal with your global administrator account, and navigate to Settings, Services & add-ins, and select Microsoft Teams.
When you enable Teams there are a series of other configuration options to review. These options control things like email notifications, whether video and screen sharing is allowed, whether animated images are allowed, as well as options to integrate bots. You’ll also notice that Team creation, naming, and other settings are controlled using the Groups control panel, because Teams are essentially an add-on service to Office 365 Groups, much like Planner.
After enabling and configuring Teams your users will be able to browse to https://teams.microsoft.com and begin creating and using Teams.
After logging in to the Teams portal for the first time, users are presented with the option to create a new Team, or if they are already an admin for an Office 365 Group, they can add a Team to an existing Group.
I created a new Team called “Dev Crew” for this demonstration. After naming the new Team I skipped the step to add any more users, and was presented with my new Team. Within the Team are options to manage members, add channels, and so on. Team members can also access files and other integrated Office 365 apps like Power BI via tabs in the team channels.
The idea of a Team makes a lot of sense, as does the integration with Groups which Microsoft has made the cornerstone of their Office 365 collaboration efforts. If I were working in a sales, dev or ops team right now, having an Office 365 Group that also provided me with the communications features of Teams is a win, and eliminates the need to use a Skype chat or any third party messaging service (assuming that Teams integrates with everything else that I need).
Adding Members to Teams
A solo Team is not all that exciting to look at, although arguably you could set up a private Team and integrate a bunch of bots and notifications that only you are interested in. But since Teams is primarily a tool for communication with multiple people, I wanted to add one of my collaborators to this Team. Unfortunately, as they are an external user, I couldn’t add them using the Teams interface.
Adding the external user via the Group admin interface works from a Groups perspective, but when the external user logs into Teams they either can’t access Teams at all (if it hasn’t been enabled in their own tenant) or they can’t access my Team.
If Microsoft wants to position Teams against Slack, external access is something to address ASAP. I saw some chatter online that it may arrive by the time Teams moves out of preview and into general availability.
Working with Channels and Connectors
Within a Team you (or the Team members) can create multiple channels. Think of an example of a Team as being the IT Operations team. Within IT Operations there could be Exchange admins, SharePoint admins, DBAs, and so on. Obviously each of those teams with IT Operations would like their own channel with chat and file sharing, which Teams makes possible. You can then have “General” channels for broader communication. Everyone in the Team can see all channels, and mark their most relevant channels as favorites. If a particular team within IT Operations wanted a private space to chat, that would need to be a separate Team entirely.
Channels can be configured with connectors. Connectors allow a channel to be connected to services such as Twitter, Trello, Jira, GitHub, RSS, webhooks, and dozens more. Microsoft is expecting to have integration with more than 150 partners by the time Teams reaches general availability.
To test this functionality I added an RSS feed for a busy subreddit, a Google Analytics daily report, and Pingdom alerts for the websites that I monitor.
The channel sees notifications for each new connector that’s been added, and the first of my daily reports from Google Analytics has already appeared.
Speaking of channels and notifications, the user interface for Teams is actually very good. Both the desktop and web UI are identical. They’re similar to Slack, with the list of Teams and channels visible on the left, and the message stream occupying most of the space. There’s a few oddities, for example the amount of empty space on either side of the messages, and the time stamps floating way off to the right on their own.
I’d like to see that space used a little more efficiently. At minimum I’d like to see the time stamp and any other relevant metadata brought closer to the conversation threads themselves. There’s also an odd mix of names being displayed on some messages as the full name, e.g. “Paul Cunningham”, and on other notifications being displayed using the email address instead. On the iOS client there’s also some rather ugly display format for files that have spaces in the name.
Planner (another Groups feature) is a useful application that I’ve been using quite a lot lately. Planner has a 1:1 association with Groups (each Plan is a unique Group). That is one of the quirks of Planner that bothers me a little. I just feel like it would be neater if one Group (for my team) could have multiple Plans just as it now can have multiple Team channels.
Within Teams, each channel can have Planner plans added. In fact, they can have multiple plans per channel. So now we have one Group, with one Team, with multiple channels, each with multiple plans.
That’s actually a good thing on the face of it, until you realize that the Planner functionality within Teams is not the same as what you get when you use Planner directly, even if it’s all contained within one Group. Within Teams, each plan can have buckets and task, but there’s no charts available. Meanwhile, if you return to the normal Planner view, you can see the Group associated with the team, but the Planner view doesn’t display any of the plans, buckets, or tasks that have been created in Teams.
This creates a weird, fragmented experience for people who are actively using Planner and want to start using Teams. Hopefully this can be cleaned up soon. My personal preference would be to see the multi-plan capabilities of Teams extend to Planner as well, so a team can manage all their micro-projects in one place with full functionality rather than have them sprawled across multiple Groups.
At least the files functionality of Teams works nicely in a Group, with each channel getting a sub-folder of the parent Group’s file storage.
Microsoft Teams comes with other features that some people will love, and others will think are a bit silly. There’s all the usual social network features like threaded conversations, @replies/mentions, direct messages (private chats), and an impressive library of customizable graphics.
There’s also video chat. Of course, we already have video chat in Skype and Skype for Business. Video chat should definitely be a part of Teams, but it does raise the question of where exactly Teams fits in to existing communications tools that businesses already use today.
When I think about different teams (lowercase) that I’ve worked in over the years, it’s easy to see where Teams would fit in. Yes, we might have used Lync or Skype for Business to do IM, voice, and video chat, and it worked fine. In fact, it worked great. In the early stages of a critical incident an IM between two people would often expand to a group IM, and then group audio as the situation developed. It worked, but that conversation remained separate from other elements of the situation, such as alerts (which could be appearing in Teams while we chat) or document sharing (such as collating notes in the Team OneNote, or working through a list of servers in a spreadsheet).
So as far as Teams fitting in to existing orgs, I’d say it could very easily replace the tools that teams are using to communicate today.
To summarize, I’ve put together this short list of pros and cons based on my usage so far.
- Free/included with Office 365 plans
- Easy to enable and set up
- Usable via web and all major platforms (Windows, Mac, iOS and Android apps available)
- Good integration with a lot of third party services, and more to come
- UI needs some work to optimize the layout and use of space
- Fragmented Planner experience
- No external/guest access
To see more of Teams in action check out the Microsoft Mechanics video available on YouTube.