Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Working from home: The future of business is remote

Working from home? Stay connected using Microsoft Teams, for free

If your team has suddenly been forced to work remotely, keep everyone on the same page using Microsoft Teams. You can create your own organization for free, or add team members using no-cost licenses..

Working from home? Stay connected using Microsoft Teams, for free
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If your entire team has suddenly been forced into remote work, it's hard to get everyone on the same page. Management tasks that used to be simple are now a challenge without your familiar physical meeting spaces and tools like whiteboards and shared printers.

Even if you're a sole proprietor or a freelance contributor, your options are drastically different when you're unable to leave your home office. If you can't meet a client in a coffee shop, what's your best online alternative?

Software can help to make the remote transition easier, especially if it ties tightly with the programs you already use.

You could cobble together a group of disparate products and services into something that sort of works and doesn't cost too much. You find a chat app and something that lets you do meetings and conference calls, and you figure out how to collaborate on documents and spreadsheets and presentations without too much friction.

Or you find one package that does all that stuff, at a price that won't stress your fragile budget.

Disclosure: ZDNet may earn an affiliate commission from some of the products featured on this page. ZDNet and the author were not compensated for this independent review.

For anyone who uses Microsoft Office, Microsoft Teams has suddenly become that package. It's especially appealing for small businesses that already have an Office 365 subscription.

What is Microsoft Teams?

Microsoft Teams is a collection of online services that you can access through a web browser (at https://teams.microsoft.com) or through 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.)

That combo of apps and services gives you the ability to invite people to join your organization and create teams for different groups; everyone in your organization can chat, with Slack-like channels within each team for group conversations; and private chat capabilities allow 1:1 and group conversations, with the option to add audio and video and share screens.

Teams does online meetings well, with features that rival those of as Zoom, WebEx, and other popular video conferencing platforms. Video meetings can include up to 250 participants, and live events scale up to 10,000 attendees. Your organization has a shared mailbox and calendar and a shared OneNote notebook, as well as a SharePoint Online site and a document library where team members and guests can collaborate on shared documents.

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You don't need to have an enterprise IT staff to run Microsoft Teams.

Microsoft

The Teams app also integrates with third-party services, including Adobe Creative Cloud and (soon) Slack, as well as third-party online storage services like Google Drive and Dropbox. An impressive collection of third-party apps allows you to customize the Teams environment to integrate with your existing workflow.

The good news, in a time when we desperately need good news, is that this won't cost you anything.

Create your own Teams organization, for free

If you're not part of an existing organization and you don't have an Office 365 Business subscription, you can install the Teams app and use it in the "freemium" mode. That version, which never expires, gives you unlimited chat, built-in group and audio or video calling,10GB of team file storage, and 2GB of personal file storage per user. You also get real-time collaboration with the Office web apps (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote). There is no end date.

To sign up, go to this link, sign in with a personal email address, and choose the For Work option. You don't need a credit card, and all you have to do is respond to a verification email to complete the setup.

After that's complete, you can sign in and then click the Manage Org link on this menu to begin inviting additional people.

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The freemium edition of Teams doesn't require a Microsoft account.

You can use a Microsoft account, but that's not a requirement. In fact, as part of my testing for writing this article, I created a free Teams account using a paid Google G Suite email address. I then sent an invitation to my personal Gmail address, which is now a part of my team.

You can add up to 500,000 team members, so don't be shy. Your management tools are limited compared to the paid version, but you can use all the Teams features without restrictions.

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Get Teams for your business, also for free

If you already have an Office 365 subscription, you don't have to buy Office 365 licenses for everyone on your team. Instead, you can create free accounts in Azure AD and dole out up to 100 no-cost licenses for Microsoft Teams, good until January 2021. (Details are in this Microsoft blog post.) You can use those licenses for members of your team as well as for contractors and freelancers.

To take advantage of this deal, you need to be the administrator of an Office 365 Business or Enterprise subscription and control the administration tools. Note that this offer does not apply if you have an Office 365 Home or Personal subscription. And if you're already a member of an organization that has an Office 365 subscription, you'll need to talk with your IT department to see whether Microsoft Teams is even an option for you.

But if you have even a single Office 365 Business or Premium license, you hold in your hands the power to build a pretty impressive team right now.

As I mentioned earlier, Teams is built on the Office 365 infrastructure, which uses Azure Active Directory for identity and Office 365 groups for collaboration. That means you'll want to bookmark these two tools to handle administrative tasks.

In both locations, you need to sign in with your Office 365 administrative credentials. If you're the owner of the subscription, that's the email address assigned as the global administrator.

Step 1: Enable guest access, if you need it.

By default, guest access is off. To allow guest access, go to the Teams Admin Center, click Org-wide Settings, and then click Guest Access. The explanatory text at the top of that page has a link to a checklist that has complete instructions. I recommend that you read that page and watch the video to make sure you don't skip a step.

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Use the Teams Admin Center to allow your team to invite outside guests.

It might take a few hours for that configuration to kick in, but when it does, you can add guests to a team by entering their full e-mail address.

Step 2: Create new user accounts as needed.

For members of your organization that already have Office 365 licenses, you don't need to do anything special. They just need to open the Teams app and sign in.

But if you have team members or partners that you want to add as full-fledged team members rather than guests, you need to go through an extra step. Sign in to the Office 365 Admin Center, click Users > Active Users, and then click Add A User.

Follow the prompts to give the new user their own username in your organization; let Office 365 auto-generate a password and email it to their current email address. Then assign a free Microsoft Teams Exploratory license to them.

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These Microsoft Teams Exploratory licenses are good until January 2021.

You can repeat this process for up to 100 users.

Step 3: Have each new team member sign in to Teams and get started.

You'll want to get the ball rolling with some ready-made teams and channels, and you might also consider passing around some of Microsoft's training materials.

But after that short setup, you should be ready to begin collaborating remotely.