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Microsoft Teams: A Solid Collaboration Tool

Microsoft Teams: A Solid Collaboration Tool
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There’s no doubt that Microsoft Teams will improve collaboration for Office 365 enterprise users.

Microsoft recently unveiled its new chat-based workspace that makes collaboration easier within Office 365 and takes a swipe at Slack. Microsoft Teams, as its called, arrives as mature software you can use on day one, which isn't always the case with a first-generation product. It's well designed, comes with a lot of useful features you won't find in Slack, and is free for organizations that have an enterprise Office 365 subscription.

After a few days of putting Microsoft Teams through the ringer I found a lot that I liked. For starters, it's a viable alternative to Slack for businesses that have fully embraced Office. It offers deep integration with Office and other Microsoft tools, but conversely that may limit the appeal for businesses that rely on a more diverse set of third-party applications. But Microsoft did announce that it is starting to integrate with third-party offerings such as SAP, Trello, Hipmunk, Growbot and ModuleQ. 

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Strong Collaboration Features

Teams looks right at home alongside other Office products: it boasts the same clean interface you'll find in Word, Excel, Skype and Windows 10. If you've used Slack or Hipchat the concept behind Teams will be very familiar  ̶̶  you have a large, shared conversation space for everyone in your group. Users can create channels based on project or topic and they can share documents easily.  

Teams also taps into Microsoft Graph to bake in artificial intelligence. The service offers numerous APIs that enable one search to query multiple products and services.

The integration with AI goes further in Teams with WhoBot, which lets you find people in your organization based on their specialties. You could ask, "who's in charge of ticketing?" to get a relevant answer for your organization. There are already several bots available from the Microsoft Bot Framework worth checking out.

I was happy to see in-line replies available when responding to a message. This remains the biggest missing piece with Slack, and I found it was a more efficient way to talk to a colleague in the main discussion space. It offers threaded relies in the style of Facebook.

I also appreciate the notifications tab, which can keep track of your mentions or replies. This sidebar has a lot of other useful tabs, such as a place for meetings, your other teams and important files. This is another place where Microsoft's deep integration of its own services really shines. For instance, you can conduct these meetings via Skype from within Teams, and it supports OneDrive support.

Third-party functionality is on the minimal side at the moment, but there is integration with Asana, Hootsuite, ZenDesk and a few others. One service built-in by Microsoft worth trying out is T-Bot. Like other bots, you can ask it questions and (sometimes) get the relevant answer. This bot is best for giving you simple answers about how some features in Teams work and where to find specific features.

Getting developers on board will be key, and Microsoft is encouraging them. The company says it will have 150 integrations at launch time. So, it's just a matter of time before other services are integrated.

Teams supports audio calls from mobiles and video chat on Android. And you can now email a channel directly and you can send messages that include attachements. 

Teams does know how to lighten up, a little. For instance, you can throw in an emoji, GIF or sticker to spice up a conversation. It was smart on Microsoft's part because emojis are such a part of common conversation now that not having them available could mean that the meaning might be lost during some conversations. The stickers library is specifically targeted toward office humor, with such titles as dev, office drama and legal. Teams also features a custom meme generator where you can upload a custom image or choose from popular memes and then add text to the top or the bottom.

A Focus on Microsoft

Teams is available for Office 365 customers with a Business Essentials, Premium or Enterprise E1, E3 and E5 plan. Admins can enable it in their Office 365 admin center to enable anyone in their organization to access the preview by clicking Settings > Services & Add Ins, and then Microsoft Teams. EDITOR'S NOTE: Microsoft recently also added support for Teams to those with an Enterprise K1 account, which is the company's plan for kiosks and frontline workers. 

One downside is that organizations who have freelancers aren't able to give them separate access to Teams outside of adding them to Office 365. During Microsoft's event where it unveiled Teams, the company indicated it would be listening to customer feedback and hinted that guest users might be something added down the road. Given how much companies rely on outside contractors, enabling this ought to be a high priority. The ease of adding new users is part of what helped Slack explode in popularity.

In terms of platforms, Microsoft Teams is pretty much everywhere you work, with versions for Windows, macOS, Android, iOS and the web. Microsoft says all data is encrypted, using the same compliance capabilities as Microsoft Cloud. The service uses multifactor authentication and supports numerous compliance and data protection standards, such as the European Union Model Clauses, Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. I tried out the desktop versions for both platforms and the Android app, finding them to be very stable without a single crash or hang-up.

Bottom Line

In all, Microsoft didn't reinvent the wheel with Teams, but it didn't have to. The company took its existing suite of services in Office, Skype and other applications and essentially packaged them into one place that can be a hub for corporate communication. Given that Teams will be free for organizations to use, it's an appealing package that finally leaves behind past missteps in building an internal communications platform.