Your employees can’t work in silos. Fortunately, software platforms make it easier than ever for your organization to collaborate and share information — and not just by emailing file attachments. One of the most powerful but often overlooked tools is Office 365 Groups, Microsoft’s streamlined approach to connecting and organizing their diverse range of software.
For organizations making the transition to Office 365, Groups provides an automated and less administratively burdensome way to collaborate. Co-workers and external partners can quickly band together with shared virtual gathering spots for conversation, scheduling, file storage and notes.
Let’s take a look at how your teams can better organize files and collaborate using Office 365.
A More Collaborative Experience
The general idea behind Office 365 Groups is similar to Outlook distribution groups, which you have likely used before. While an Outlook distribution group ensures multiple people receive any email that’s sent to one general inbox, an Office 365 Group extends the concept far beyond email.
When you create a Group — inside Outlook, Yammer or Teams — and identify who should be a part of it, you initiate a series of actions that generate shared connections across multiple applications.
So Groups is not an app, and you won’t find it in the Office 365 grid of software tools. Instead, it forms an integral foundation to coordinating the activities among a collection of people.
What Office 365 Groups Provides
There are actually three main types of Groups. Depending on what application you use to create your group — Outlook, Yammer or Teams — you get a slightly different mix of tools. Outlook Groups may be a comfortable starting point for the average Office 365 user, although we do recommend Teams for improving communication and collaboration.
When starting a Group in Outlook, for example, Office 365 automatically provisions multiple applications:
- Outlook inbox — Record conversations between Group members
- Outlook calendar — Post meetings, events and appointments for Group members
- SharePoint library —Save/edit folders and files
- OneNote notebook — Collect all notes in a central repository for the group
- Planner — Organize or allocate tasks, project plans, provide access to project status
If you start your Group in Teams, Office 365 provisions all of the above, plus a Team chat for real-time conversations, and a Teams wiki for collecting notes and knowledge.
You can connect much more as well, including a Power BI workspace if you have premium licenses for all members, or a Stream portal to upload and share videos. Office 365 Groups also enables you integrate a wide range of other cloud services, such as project management tools (Asana, Jira, Trello, etc.), Google Analytics, social management platforms (Hootsuite, Twitter, Facebook pages), and more. You can find out more about Connectors here.
Behind the scenes, Office 365 Groups consolidates your group’s member list in Active Directory and links it to the apps and tools your team uses in its work.
The real power of Office 365 Groups is in its seamless automation. Previously, you could, set up each of these applications separately for a group of co-workers. But that also required quite a bit of manual administration that quickly became cumbersome. This was a disincentive to collaboration with more than just a few key teams, and it often lead to a patchwork of applications and information sharing channels.
Office 365 Groups greatly simplifies things in the digital workplace. From a user’s perspective, a big issue is the sheer number of different siloed applications that require multiple logins and make it hard to share and find information consistently within a team. This leads to a lot of wasted time, searching for information, contacting each other, and switching between applications in order to complete different tasks. Office 365 Groups offers a unique approach to bringing together all of the right digital tools and services a team uses into one place to reduce duplication.
In doing so, it also combats the “shadow IT” of staff using non-approved software platforms and all the inherent security and compliance risks that come with it. By automating and coordinating a distinct set of digital tools the team needs, Office 365 Groups provides a clear incentive to keep data in its proper place.
For example, in Outlook, each team has a shared calendar as well as a mailbox that lets you capture a complete record of conversations — handy for compliance, but also for staying organized.
File Management Made Simple
A similar major benefit of Office 365 Groups is file management. All organizations face the challenge of keeping track of documents in the blizzard of digital information. Rather than mandating team members follow specific processes for uploading files or naming files to track versions, Office 365 Groups clears away a lot of that imposed structure. Collaborating on files becomes simple enough that it’s a no-brainer for everyone on the team to adopt without.
Inside Outlook, you get a tab called “Files”. This presents the default document library powered by the SharePoint site, but displayed inside Outlook (this works in a similar fashion in Teams). When you share, attach or upload a file to your Groups, the files are not stored in Outlook — never the best use of your Outlook folders anyway — but in your SharePoint library. With no additional effort or thinking, everything relevant to your Group is placed in a single shared location.
Sharing Without Duplication
Equally important, you do not have to download a shared Word doc, PowerPoint or Excel from Outlook in order to work on it. Files appear as tiles inside an email message; clicking them open up a browser window for Word Online, for example. You can still then click “Edit in Word” to edit the same file inside the desktop application (which you’ll need to do if you want to track changes, for example). The same goes for spreadsheets and presentations. Changes are automatically saved, and always to the same file in the SharePoint library.
This one simple change makes document collaboration much simpler, especially in a team context. Instead of each person downloading a copy of the file to their desktop machine, saving it under a modified name to signify a new version and then emailing it back, everyone views, comments and edits the same file, which never actually leaves SharePoint. Of course, you can change permissions to control who can view the file and who can edit it, and see the full the version history in SharePoint.
Files in Outlook, SharePoint and OneDrive
The only quirk is that although you can structure your SharePoint library with folders, in Outlook Groups, files are displayed without folders. While that might seem like a shortcoming, in reality, teams are more likely to actively work on a small number of current files. Also, a Group member can always jump into SharePoint to find a specific document in the folder hierarchy.
Office 365 also offers users OneDrive for Business, but Groups do not affect it. Instead, OneDrive acts a personal storage space — a good place to draft files before sharing and collaborating with others in a Group.
What About Teams and Yammer?
As noted, Groups can also be created in Teams and Yammer, which work in similar fashion. (Again, we’ve written about how chat tools improve collaboration.) In each you’ll get tabs for Files, for instance, and in many ways, Groups makes it easier for teams to adopt this style of digital interaction and move away from formal Outlook channels.
If you have a collaborator external to your organization (i.e. have an email not hosted in the same Office 365), an Office 365 admin will need to grant guest access, and your collaborator will need to create a free Microsoft Account associated with their email.
With Great Automation Comes Great Responsibility
As much as Office 365 Groups provide critical infrastructure for team collaboration, IT admins need to be ready for it.
To begin with, Groups empowers users to create their own ad hoc digital spaces, which will naturally result in sprawl and/or redundant Groups. You will need some ground rules and policies in place and enforce them. Who can create a Group, or approve its creation, and what necessitates membership? What can be shared, and with what permissions and privacy policies?
It’s also important to note that by default, users can create Groups through several clients and applications, including SharePoint team sites and Planner. But admins can (and probably should) restrict this, using Outlook Web Access mailbox polices and Azure Active Directory configuration settings.
Finally, to automate retention of important information, Office 365 employ labels so you can systematically categorize different kinds of emails, files and content. As teams work inside Groups, they should apply these labels. Admins create the rules and retention policies based on these classifications so, for example, employee credit card details can’t be modified or deleted, or tax forms are retained for a specific duration. Admins can establish these labels and their rules in the Office 365 Security & Compliance settings.
Take Control of Collaboration
For organizations looking to get the most of out Office 365, Groups is a powerful, automated approach to encouraging collaboration. With some careful administration, your teams will spend less time pushing digital documents, and more time focused on being productive together.
We can help make managing Office 365 simple. If you have questions about the software tools you use, or want some advice, get in touch.
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