Microsoft Teams: The complete starter guide for business decision makers

For organizations that are settled into Microsoft's family of apps and services, the obvious collaboration platform is Microsoft Teams. And the killer feature is that Teams supports a robust API for add-ins.

ZDNet Recommends

The best online collaboration tools in 2020: How remote teams stay productive

Teams need tools to help them collaborate and stay productive while remotely working. Here's our top picks.

Read More

The more far-flung your organization is, the more your people need software to help them communicate and collaborate. It's easy enough to roll your own collaboration platform by deploying Slack for company chat and a video conferencing app like Zoom or WebEx for meetings and webinars. If you've leaped headfirst into the Google ecosystem, you've got GSuite and Google Meet at your disposal.

For organizations that have been using Zoom as their primary videoconferencing solution, the case for switching starts with Zoom's well-documented security and privacy problems, which were serious enough to require the company to freeze new feature development while it worked on the issues. (The company signed a wide-ranging settlement with the New York State Attorney General's office agreeing to "a comprehensive data security program [and] enhanced privacy controls.")

Assuming Zoom can assuage customers' security concerns, it has some significant advantages over Teams, including far better name recognition and a more mature feature set. For online classrooms and other settings where you need more talking heads than the nine that Teams offers, Zoom is a better choice.

But for organizations that have already settled comfortably into Microsoft's family of apps and services -- Excel, Word, PowerPoint, Exchange Online, SharePoint, and the rest of the Microsoft 365 family -- the obvious contender to bring your organization together is Microsoft Teams.

Teams integrates a collection of Microsoft 365 online services, making it possible for members of your organization to talk face to face, chat, hold virtual meetings, share files, and collaborate on documents, spreadsheets, and other projects in real time. The chat capabilities cover the same ground as those found in Slack, while the meeting and video conferencing features compare favorably with those available in Zoom and other videoconferencing tools.

And the killer feature for Microsoft Teams is that it supports a robust API for add-ins, which means you can extend its capabilities with the help of hundreds of third-party apps.

If you're already managing a Microsoft 365 (formerly Office 365) subscription, deploying Teams is as simple as flipping a few switches in your admin portal. If you're not a Microsoft 365 subscriber, you have options that start at free, as we explain in the next section.

Setting up Teams in your organization

Microsoft Teams is available in free and paid editions.

Microsoft Teams free includes the same core features as the paid editions: individual and group chat; audio and video calls (1:1 and group), a total of 10 GB of shared file storage; group meetings in a channel; and screen sharing. The maximum membership for an organization using a free Teams account is 500,000, and guest access is allowed.

To sign up for a Microsoft Teams Free account, you need to use an email account that is not already a part of Azure Active Directory. If your organization has an active Office 365 subscription, for example, they control your ability to use Teams with the email address associated with that deployment. You can still set up your own free Teams account, but you'll have to use an alternate email address to do so.

Email accounts associated with schools and other academic institutions are not eligible for this plan but can instead use a free edition of Microsoft 365 that includes the full version of Microsoft Teams. Similarly, accounts associated with U.S. Government agencies are ineligible for the free Teams version. For details about both restrictions, see this Microsoft Support article: "I'd like to sign up for Teams free, but I can't. Why?"

The full version of Microsoft Teams cannot be purchased as a separate plan but is instead included as part of a Microsoft 365 Business or Enterprise subscription.

Microsoft Teams plans that are part of a paid Microsoft 365 or Office 365 subscription include the following additional features:

  • At least 1 TB of OneDrive for Business storage per user for file attachments in chat
  • 1 TB of shared file storage per organization, plus 10 GB per licensed user
  • Online and video conferencing meetings for up to 250 people
  • Online events for up to 10,000 attendees
  • The ability to schedule meetings and to record meetings using Microsoft Stream
  • Multi-factor authentication support
  • 24/7 support via phone and web

Administrators of Microsoft 365 and Office 365 accounts can use the Microsoft Teams Admin Center to manage users and connected apps. They can also access usage reports and configure user settings and policies from this online portal. For example, guest access on paid accounts is disabled by default and must be enabled using the instructions on this checklist.

microsoft-teams-admin-center.jpg

The Teams Admin Center includes a huge number of policy settings, including these industry-specific policy packages

The least expensive paid plan that includes Microsoft Teams is Microsoft 365 Business Basic, at $5 per user per month; this plan does not include the Microsoft Office desktop apps, which are available in the Microsoft 365 Business Standard plan for $12.50 per user per month. Both plans can be used with the Microsoft 365 Business Voice service to support inbound and outbound calling and audio conferencing. The Office 365 E3 plan, at $20 per user per month, includes an array of enterprise-related features, such as deployment support, the ability to integrate with on-premises Exchange and SharePoint servers, and the option to integrate with third-party digital phone systems.

The Microsoft 365 Business plans are limited to 300 users, whereas Microsoft 365 and Office 365 Enterprise plans allow an unlimited number of users.

For full details about which features are in free and paid editions, see this Microsoft 365 feature comparison and a separate support document: "Differences between Microsoft Teams and Microsoft Teams free."

Using Teams to communicate and collaborate

At the highest level, Microsoft Teams is built around the members of your organization, based on each person's identity in Azure Active Directory. For a business that has an Office 365 subscription, those identities are already established, and you can manage them using the same Azure AD management tools your admins are already familiar with. Using Azure AD-based roles, for example, you can designate some people as Teams service admins, allowing you to share the management load.

azure-ad-admin-center.jpg

To manage Teams users, go to the Azure Active Directory Admin Center, which is part of every Microsoft 365 business subscription

If you're setting up a new Teams free account, your management options are far more limited: You can invite new members, promote one or more members to Admin, decide whether to allow members to invite outsiders to join the group, and create a public link that nonmembers can click to request admission. These features are most appropriate for informal organizations that aren't defined by a company and a domain name. You're a candidate for this kind of setup if, for example, you regularly manage projects with the help of a loose confederation of freelance contributors and contractors.

The members of your organization work with Teams services through the Teams web interface (at https://teams.microsoft.com) or using the Teams app, which is available for Windows, MacOS, iOS, and Android. (There's also a new Linux client; details on how to get it are here.)

Each app follows the user interface conventions of its platform, but they all organize Teams features using a group of tabs, available via a navigation bar on the left (desktop apps) or on the bottom (mobile apps).

ms-teams-windows-app.jpg

The Teams app has a similar look and feel on every platform (shown here: Windows 10).

Teams and channels

Much of the appeal of Microsoft Teams is that its features allow the members of your organization to divide themselves into smaller groups, called teams, which typically bring together groups of people working on the same project or as part of the same group (HR or accounting, for example). Teams can be private, invitation-only groups, or they can be public groups, open to everyone in the organization.

On the back end, every new team you create gets the following resources, dedicated exclusively to the members of that team:

  • An Office 365 group
  • A SharePoint Online site and document library to store team files
  • An Exchange Online shared mailbox and calendar
  • A shared OneNote notebook

If your organization uses other Office 365 apps, such as Planner and Power BI, the new team can link to those apps as well.

Within each team, channels are sections that keep conversations organized, so that team members working on a piece of a larger project can collaborate without bringing in the entire team. Within a channel, you can chat, share files, hold meetings, and share screens. Like teams, channels can be private or public. Conversations, files, and notes across channels are visible only to team members with permission to participate in those channels.

By default, all users have permissions to create a team. Team owners can manage settings for a team and its channels, including the ability to assign moderators to keep discussions on topic.

Chat

The Chat tab is where people talk to each other, without regard to projects and functional groups. All of the conversations that take place here are outside the context of Channels, which are associated with groups.

Chats can be one-to-one conversations or can bring together multiple people into informal groups that don't require the structure and overhead of their own team or channel. The chat window starts with a simple message box, with options to format text, attach files, and add emoji, GIFs, and stickers. (If you're tempted to crack down on those "fun" elements, you might want to think twice, as research shows they drive engagement and help your team members, especially the less technical ones, feel less intimidated by the software.)

With the click of a button, any member of the organization can transform a text-based chat into a voice or video call. They can also attach files, share screens, and schedule meetings for informal collaboration scenarios.

Chats are saved, and participants can pick up where the left off at any time. The contents of each chat are also available for search by anyone who was involved in the chat, making it possible to jog your memory about the contents of a conversation -- especially one that contains valuable information about a project. The Chat window can also be customized: Users can rename conversations, for example, to make their contents easier to find after the fact, and they can hide chats that are no longer needed.

video-call-teams.jpg

When you join a video call, you can see the video streams from up to nine other people in the meeting, arranged in a 3 by 3 grid. 

Audio and video calls

You can make 1:1 and group calls to people in your organization directly from your chat list, by clicking the Video Call or Audio Call buttons. If your organization has connected Teams to a phone system, you can also make audio calls to people outside your organization.

Up to 20 people can be on a video call. When you join a video call, you can see the video streams from up to nine other people in the meeting, arranged in a 3 by 3 grid. The streams shown in this grid are prioritized for people who have video turned on and those who are speaking.

When a person receives an incoming Teams call, they have the option to accept with audio, accept with video, or decline the call. If you don't answer, the caller can leave a voicemail.

Meetings and events

A Microsoft Teams online meeting supports audio, video, and screen sharing. In a free or paid plan, anyone can start an instant meeting by going to the Calendar tab and clicking Join Now. You can also start an instant meeting within a channel by choosing the Meet Now icon on the Posts tab.

In paid plans, meetings can be scheduled from the Calendar tab or from within Outlook; the Teams calendar is automatically connected to each user's personal calendar in Exchange Online. Meetings can be one-time or recurring and can optionally be associated with a channel. Meeting attendees can include people who are outside your organization.

Meeting attendees can join with audio or video or both, and they can mute the microphone and turn off video at any point. Each participant can blur their background or replace a messy personal space with one of Microsoft's stock backgrounds. (The option to add custom backgrounds is "coming soon.")

Teams keeps a record of every meeting. Attendees can access the meeting chat, the recording, and files that were shared during the meeting, even after the meeting has ended. You can rejoin a meeting at any time by clicking its entry on the Chat tab.

On paid enterprise plans, administrators can designate people to organize, produce, and present live events. These must be produced using desktop hardware, using either the lightweight audio and video tools in the Teams app or professional equipment via Microsoft Stream. Events use the same basic structure as meetings but are targeted at much larger audiences, which can include the general public. Attendees can watch the event live or on demand from any desktop or mobile Teams client or from a browser.

ms-teams-schedule-meeting.jpg

Teams meetings can be one-time or recurring and automatically appear on each invited attendee's calendar

Files and collaboration

In both paid and free Teams plans, users have access to personal and shared cloud storage space. That space can be used for creating and saving files for use by members of a team, including Office documents, PDFs, graphic files, and videos. The file storage area can also be customized to include third-party cloud storage services, such as Dropbox, Box, and Google Drive.

For Word and Excel documents, team members can share a document as part of a chat or meeting and can allow simultaneous editing (using Office desktop apps or their online equivalents, which are available with free Teams plans as well). From the Files area in the Teams app, users can also get a link to share a file via an email message.

During any call or meeting, a presenter can choose the Screen Sharing option to share their entire screen or a single app window. One app that has extra powers for this type of sharing is PowerPoint. Presenters can deliver a PowerPoint presentation as part of a meeting; using the default settings, other meeting participants can skip back or forward within the slide deck independently of the presenter.

Every team includes a shared OneNote notebook, in which members of the team can keep free-form notes, screen clippings, links, and other unstructured data.

Customization

Using a free Teams plan, you have access to an enormous library of add-ins, including apps, bots, and connectors. You can use apps in private chats and within channels. For example, you can add an app like SurveyMonkey or Salesforce as a tab within a channel so that all members of the team can quickly get to data shared in that tool that isn't stored directly within Microsoft 365.

Apps and bots can also extend the capability of Teams, adding custom messages or handling routine requests. The SurveyMonkey bot, for example, can create a new poll by chatting with a team member.

Finally, connectors can be used to extend notifications, updates, and content for channels.

Security and administration

Because Microsoft Teams is a member of the Microsoft 365/Office 365 family, it inherits all of the security infrastructure that is available for those products and services. For paid plans, that means administrators can enforce two-factor authentication and use a full range of compliance and reporting tools to meet requirements for managed industries.

Microsoft says all Teams data, including streaming video for conferences and meetings, is encrypted in transit and at rest:

Transport Layer Security (TLS), and mutual TLS (MTLS) […] encrypt instant message traffic and enable endpoint authentication. Point-to-point audio, video, and application sharing streams are encrypted and integrity checked using Secure Real-Time Transport Protocol (SRTP).

All data associated with Microsoft Teams resides in the geographic region associated with the organization's Microsoft 365/Office 365 subscription. The service's full privacy policy is available at "Privacy and Microsoft Teams."

As we mentioned earlier, administrators of paid plans can use the Microsoft 365 dashboard and the Microsoft Teams Admin Center configure user settings and set policies. One of the most important such policies is whether to allow guest access, but you can also fine-tune policies for members of your organization.

For example, you can create global policies that control whether users can discover private teams, schedule private meetings, invite guests, and share their screen, or you can set those policies using security groups. You can also apply sensitivity labels such as "Confidential" to channels so that members are reminded that they are in a restricted group as they chat or meet.

In all of these tasks, the most effective administrators are those who already have experience with Microsoft 365 and Office 365 deployments.