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Microsoft Teams: How to Use It and How It Stands Out

Microsoft's approach to collaboration, group messaging, and video is constantly evolving. Here's how Microsoft Teams fits into the booming collaboration software market, and what you need to know to benchmark it against rivals like Slack, Zoom, and others. [...]

Microsoft Teams is a collaborative workspace in Microsoft 365 / Office 365 that acts as a central hub for conversations in the workplace, collaborative teamwork, video chats and the sharing of documents and is intended to support the productivity of employees in a uniform suite of tools.

Launched in 2017 to compete with collaboration pioneer Slack, Microsoft saw Teams usage skyrocket to 75 million daily active users as the COVID-19 pandemic worsened, according to statistics released by Microsoft in April. The company called Teams the fastest growing business app in its history.

Since its inception - and fueled by its foray into work-from-home connectivity - Teams has continued to come into the spotlight as an important part of Microsoft's strategy for productivity and collaboration in the workplace.

"Teams has emerged as a top product rather than an add-on product embedded in a larger productivity suite," said Raul Castanon, senior analyst at 451 Research / S&P Global Market Intelligence.

Teams can serve as an alternative to email communication - or even replace it entirely - but it also serves to connect employees and their apps together, especially for remote employees. Think of it as "the digital equivalent of an open plan office," as a Microsoft spokesman put it.

The collaborative workspace serves as the connective tissue that links the Microsoft 365 apps together and fills a “critical gap” for Microsoft, according to Dux Raymond Sy, Chief Brand Officer, Microsoft MVP and Regional Director at Microsoft partner AvePoint. "Microsoft recognized early on that an integrated hub that brings together persistent chat, files and video conferencing would be the future of corporate collaboration," said Sy.

Teams is available as a desktop app, via the web browser and as a mobile app. It is supported by all major operating systems such as Windows, macOS, iOS and Android.

How to Use Microsoft Teams: Channels, Teams, and Messaging

Teams consists of one or more, well, “teams” - essentially groups of employees within a company, such as B. Employees in the marketing or design department. Teams can range in size and scope from an entire company to a more focused group with common interests.

When a team is set up for the first time, a Microsoft 365 group is automatically created, along with related services such as a SharePoint site and OneNote access. In a sense, Teams goes a step further than groups and acts as a more tangible thread connecting users and apps across the enterprise. “It's still the backbone of Office 365 in the background. But now Microsoft can center its productivity and integration history around teams, not groups, ”said Sy.

Each team consists of individual "channels" that usually have a defined focus, such as a work project or a topic. Channels are group chat rooms that are better suited for quick conversations than asynchronous communication via email.

There are two main types of channels: private channels are great for confidential conversations, which can be especially useful for legal or finance teams, while “standard” channels allow anyone within a workspace to see what's been written and access shared files .

One “generic” channel is enabled by default, and admins can then add more to suit their team's needs. Each channel has tabs with files and apps shared so that work can be done without changing screens. According to a Forrester report, teams can significantly reduce the need to switch apps, saving each employee an estimated 15-25 minutes a day.

In addition to using group chats within a channel, employees can send direct messages to colleagues in private or add others to an ad hoc group conversation.

Teams includes the usual instant messaging features you'd expect from a business chat app, including emojis, GIFs, rich text editing, @mentions, threaded conversations, bots, and the ability to share files. If necessary, users can switch from messaging to a video call with a click of the mouse. Discussions can be muted to prevent notifications, or an important conversation can be pinned to the top of the chat list.

The navigation should be familiar to anyone who has used a collaboration tool before, although first-time users switching from email may take some time to get used to the user interface.

The top bar contains navigation arrows, a search tool for finding messages, files, and people within a company, and a way to launch apps. The menu in the upper right corner gives access to various settings, including availability status.

A sidebar on the left (the desktop app) contains shortcuts to elements of Teams that users interact with most often. The Chat, Calls, Teams, and Files apps sit alongside an activity news feed for mentions, replies, and other notifications. There's also a shortcut to the Teams app store, where approved Microsoft and third-party software can be browsed and added to the sidebar for quick access. Third party apps and Microsoft 365 can also be added to customize the left bar.

How to use Microsoft Teams: Productivity

Teams isn't just focused on real-time messaging; Users can work together on documents within the app. Here, the strength of Microsoft's suite of productivity apps offers a decisive advantage over the competition, as it serves as a hub or connector for the broader portfolio of Microsoft 365 tools.

Without leaving teams, users can collaborate on Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and other file types in real time. Documents in the Files area are stored on OneDrive with the ability to back up and access files. (There are also options for using Box and Egnyte.)

Teams is synchronized with the Outlook calendars for quick access to schedules and to set up meetings. There is also deep integration with the enterprise social networking app Yammer thanks to the Communities app for teams and access to SharePoint content within teams.

Microsoft also unveiled new applications this year designed for use within teams.

“Tasks” was introduced at the beginning of the year as a team-specific replacement for “Planner” within teams and combines the functionality of the “Planner” and “To Do” apps. Tasks (still called Planner at the moment) helps users keep track of individual and team-based work, with the ability to assign tasks and monitor progress with a variety of views including Kanban-style cards.

Another new addition is Lists, which combines database and spreadsheet functions to manage information for planning events, tracking recruitment or onboarding new employees.

Teams isn't just for office workers. So-called "first-line workers", such as sales representatives, retail employees and hospital employees, have become more and more of a focus at Microsoft in recent years.

Various functions have been introduced for employees who rely on a mobile device rather than sitting at their desks. These include Shifts, an app for managing work shifts, and Kaizala, a simple messaging app similar to WhatsApp, but with security features for companies.

How to Use Microsoft Teams: Video and Audio Conferencing

Video and audio conferencing are an increasingly important part of teams that have effectively replaced Microsoft's widely used online app Skype for Business.

This was particularly the case during the pandemic, when companies rushed to enable virtual meetings between employees working remotely. Microsoft reported a 1,000 percent increase in video meetings in March as companies sent their employees home, as well as a huge increase in the total daily active Teams users, from 32 million in early March to 75 million in late April.

"The most important advantage of Microsoft Teams today is that it basically allows you to work from home," said Sy. "Features like video conferencing, screen sharing and easy collaboration on files help companies and employees to be even more productive in many ways than they were before the pandemic."

To capitalize on the rapid change in work life - and reduce the fatigue caused by video conferencing - Microsoft has quickly added new features to improve remote working opportunities, with video calling as a focus.

One of the most important innovations was the introduction of the "Together" mode in the summer of this year; it creates a virtual environment like a conference room or coffee shop by cropping users' video feeds and gathering them in a more realistic setting (at least when compared to the Brady Bunch-esque squares) to create a common space that is suitable for Conversations is more conducive. Microsoft added more such scenes and custom layouts in September.

Real-time noise cancellation has been added to reduce distractions. It uses deep learning algorithms to filter out unwanted background noise and only keep the speech signal.

Teams also has basic video calling features like custom backgrounds, screen sharing, raising hands, recording, and live captioning. Another feature that is in high demand - breakout rooms - should come by the end of 2020.

Aside from group video calls, customers can use teams for company-wide broadcasts and live stream videos for up to 10,000 employees (or 20,000 with the Advanced Communications license add-on).

Audio calling capabilities include cloud voicemail, call queuing, direct routing to existing telecommunications providers, and audio conferencing.

Microsoft Teams: integrations and automations

Microsoft's main focus is on integration with its own apps; Unsurprisingly, it lags behind Slack in terms of the sheer breadth of integrations with external apps. However, Microsoft has also developed an impressive line of third-party integrations and launched its App Directory in 2018.

The App Store offers a number of options: personal apps, bots, tabs, connectors, and messaging. These are used in different ways and interact with them. For example, “tabs” apps are installed in channels, while connectors post information from an external service into a channel.

Popular apps include project management tools like Trello, Smartsheet and Wrike, mind mapping and creative planning apps like Mindmeister and Mural, and IT and developer-centric tools like ServiceDesk, Bitbucket and PagerDuty.

Developers can also create and integrate their own in-house apps, bots, and tabs through Teams' developer platform. Microsoft also allows third-party app developers to integrate their own software into the Teams meeting experience before, during, and after a video call.

There are also easier ways to build apps and custom workflows in Teams, with no-code and low-code options.

Custom business apps built using Microsoft's low-code Power Apps tool can be integrated with Teams, while Project Oakdale enables users to create, deploy, share, use, and manage Power Apps solutions “- without leaving teams. And with Power Virtual Agents, users can create no-code chatbots.

Power Automate enables the creation of workflow automation capabilities that allow users to create “flows” to perform tasks such as: B. Approvals to automate from within teams.

How to turn off Microsoft Teams autostart

Do you want to disable Teams instead of removing it entirely? Many employees rely on certain Office 365 tools, but don't want the Teams app to start automatically when they turn on their computer.

To make this change, start the Teams application, click the icon in the top right corner with your initials and go to Settings. Under the General Settings section, remove the check mark next to "Start application automatically", "Open application in background" and "Let the application run when it closes."

For Windows 10 users it is also possible to stop the autostart via the start menu. Look for “Start-Apps”, which shows a list of all the applications that open when you log in to the device, then look for the “Teams” app and just “turn it off”.

Alternatively, for those who simply want fewer distractions from the application, it is possible to reduce the number of notifications you receive in Teams. Go to Settings and choose Notifications. From here you have a variety of options such as: For example, you can turn off notification tones and choose whether you want to receive notifications for certain actions, such as: B. Chat replies, mentions and reactions, or meeting reminders.

How to completely uninstall Microsoft Teams

Many Windows 10 users have complained that Teams mysteriously reappeared after they thought it had been removed. Apparently, this is due to the fact that users did not delete the application completely.

There are actually two pieces of software that must be removed in order to completely uninstall Teams; the Teams app itself and the Teams Machine-Wide Installer. It's the second software that Teams automatically restores once Windows restarts.

To delete this installer, go to the Windows Start menu and click Settings. Find Teams in the Apps & Features menu and you should see both the Teams app and the installer. Click the Uninstall button for both and Teams should no longer appear when you restart your computer.

The process is more straightforward for macOS users: go to the Applications folder, select Teams, and move it to the Trash. Removing the Teams app from mobile devices is also easy and only requires the standard app uninstallation process.

Microsoft Teams: Feature Roadmap

Microsoft has a website - UserVoice - dedicated to collecting customer feedback and suggestions for new features. Teams users post their ideas and Microsoft provides an indication of the status of feature development, e.g. B. whether it is actively being worked on, whether it is in the backlog or is about to be published.

The most requested changes from the end of 2020 include:

  • Reply to a specific message in chat in the Teams desktop app (29,674 votes)
  • Simultaneous access to multiple Teams accounts (27,915)
  • The ability to move a project or channel from one team to another (24,985)
  • Inclusion of group calendars in teams (19,340)

There is also a roadmap page that details the features under development. Currently in the pipeline for release are a new file sharing experience, integration with RealWear HMT-1 and HMT-1Z1 smart glasses, and the ability to pin messages within a channel.

Microsoft Teams vs. Slack (and other competitors)

Slack is considered to be the main competitor for teams. Microsoft reportedly considered buying Slack for $ 8 billion in 2016 before founder Bill Gates and CEO Satya Nadella abandoned those plans in favor of Microsoft developing their own application.

While there is certainly overlap in the functional areas, the focus of the two apps differs in a few key points.

Although Slack has video and voice capabilities, here it relies largely on partners and focuses on chatting and connecting the various communication and business apps that organizations routinely rely on. CEO Stewart Butterfield recently described the software as a "lightweight integration structure" that can be used across companies.

The clearest advantages of Teams are integration with Microsoft apps and availability within Microsoft 365 Business subscriptions at no additional cost. This makes a compelling case for existing Microsoft 365 users - of whom there are 258 million - to use Teams instead of spending money on a separate tool.

Just as Slack offers a best-of-breed chat application, there are numerous products that focus on other specific aspects of collaboration.

Zoom's CEO recently said he sees Microsoft as a partner rather than a direct competitor, but the video meeting software company has seen stratospheric growth during the pandemic and is a direct competitor in terms of video capabilities available on teams.

“When it comes to product functions, Teams has caught up quickly while it initially lagged behind Zoom and Slack and has a clear advantage over the competition, as it offers synergies and added value that results from the combination with other productivity and collaboration tools in Microsofts Suite results, ”says Castanon.

“For example, Teams offers tight integration with tools like Outlook email and calendar; that is a clear advantage over the competition. In addition, Microsoft is superimposing AI-enabled functions that further enhance these synergies. "

In a way, Google's Workspace serves as a more direct competitor. The recent renaming of Workspace to G Suite follows Google's ongoing efforts to unify its collaboration and communication capabilities - Gmail, Chat, Meet and Voice - and to streamline integration with its suite of productivity tools like Docs and Sheets.

There are other software suite vendors that compete with Teams. Zoho's Workplace Suite offers features similar to Teams, and at a lower price. And Cisco's Webex Teams resembles Microsoft's app in more than name, although the focus is more on Unified Communication capabilities than productivity.

Microsoft Teams pricing and licenses

Teams is available to Microsoft 365 account holders with the following license plans: Business Essentials, Business Premium, Enterprise E1, E3, or E5. Microsoft has also introduced its own free option. All subscriptions include access to a number of additional Microsoft applications as well as security and compliance functions within Microsoft 365.

The cheapest option - Business Basic - costs 4.20 euros per user / month, the more extensive option, Business Standard, costs 10.50 euros per user / month.

The enterprise options start at 19.50 euros per user for E3 licenses, the most expensive costs 34.40 euros per user / month for E5 subscriptions. Teams is also available as part of the A1, A3, and A5 licenses for students and in the G1, G3, and G5 packages for government customers.

In comparison, Slack offers a freemium payment plan for access to its software, with three pricing tiers for individual and business users, as well as one product - Enterprise Grid - aimed at large implementations. Google's collaboration tools like Chat and Meet are included in Google Workspace subscriptions; the prices range from 6.25 to 11.75 euros per user per month (prices for companies on request) and offer access to a range of applications.

Microsoft also has a number of payment options for specific use cases. A SKU that is priced at “first-line workers” was introduced at the beginning of the year: both Microsoft 365 F1 (EUR 3.40 per user / month) and F3 (EUR 8.40 per user / month) contain access to teams.

Other additional subscriptions include Advanced Communications (US $ 12 per user / month - for meeting organizers, prices are only known in US dollars), which gives access to features such as live event support for up to 20,000 employees and an individually branded video meeting. Lobby “offers. The Business Voice Subscription ($ 20 per user / month) is a cloud-based small business phone system package that bundles various custom add-ons, including audio conferencing, a domestic plan, and phone system features such as caller ID and call queuing.

For those who want to use Teams in conference rooms, there are several options for connecting to hardware devices. Teams Rooms Standard is $ 15 per device / month, and a new managed service, Teams Rooms Premium, is outsourcing hardware management to a Microsoft service provider for $ 50 per device / month.

Microsoft's priorities for teams

Microsoft has now overtaken Slack in terms of user adoption by Teams thanks to the legions of Microsoft 365 customers worldwide who have access to the collaboration app at no additional cost. One advantage that Slack maintains over Teams is the higher level of active engagement with the app throughout the day. Slack users tend to spend more time actively using the app, which in many cases is an integral part of their workflow.

Much of the actual use of Teams is due to video meetings - thanks to the migration of Skype for Business customers to the new platform - rather than realizing its full potential as a collaboration platform.

“Up until the beginning of this year, even many of the early adopters were still using Microsoft Teams as“ Skype 2.0 ″ or Zoom, ”says Sy. “They used videoconferencing and chatting, but they blocked the creation of Teams workspaces and missed the rich, contextual file collaboration. It was practically the equivalent of having a Ferrari with a Corolla engine.

"They were afraid that they would wake up overnight with a million teams scattered around with no good way to manage the lifecycle or the content within."

With the increasing spread of teams, the previously cautious companies are gaining confidence in the use of the platform and are expanding their use, says Sy.

"Today most companies are much more comfortable and mature to use the platform," he said. "Now we see companies looking to optimize their usage by customizing teams controls, templates and governance for different departments, or managing their external shares and guest users."

There's plenty of room to grow the number of Teams daily active users, which are still less than half of the total Microsoft 365 user base. Teams is the third most widely used tool in the Microsoft 365 portfolio, with Exchange Online, which Petri.com estimates will have between 175 and 185 million users in December 2019, and SharePoint Online with 100-105 million users.

“Despite the limitations that e-mail brings, Exchange is still number one from an acceptance and usage point of view - and it's not particularly tight,” says Sy.

A key challenge for Microsoft is to get its own customers to change their work habits and routines.

"Since Microsoft Teams is a new way of working, you will not experience any sustained acceptance or increase in productivity if you do not train your users in a context-related manner," says Sy. "It is not enough to show the users how the platform works, you also have to show them how it works specifically in their role."

Added to this is the constant threat from competition. Microsoft lists Slack - which went public last year - in its annual 10K report as one of Microsoft 365's competitors and is facing a legal battle over the bundling of teams within Microsoft 365. Slack filed an antitrust complaint against Microsoft with the EU in July, alleging Microsoft's alleged "illegal and anti-competitive practice of abusing its market dominance to eradicate competition."

Of course, Slack is only a competitor to Teams. With a multitude of alternatives to specific components of teams, one of Microsoft's top priorities will be to maintain the pace of innovation to increase adoption and encourage interaction.

“The biggest challenge is the speed with which competitors like Zoom and Slack continue to innovate and raise the bar for team collaboration, with a variety of immersive and asynchronous collaboration features announced at their respective annual user conferences earlier this month said Castanon in October 2020.

* Matthew Finnegan reports on collaboration and other corporate IT topics for Computerworld and lives in Sweden.