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Microsoft Teams - Review 2021


Teams, the business messaging app from Microsoft, reminds me a lot of IKEA’s self-service section. It’s an insider’s space. If you work there and know how the system is arranged, like how the aisles and bins are numbered, you probably navigate it with ease. If you’re a customer coming down from the showroom, however, it could take a while to find the right aisle, bin, and shelf where you’ll finally find a nondescript box that hopefully contains what you need. Everything is in its place, so long as you know how to find it. Once you know what you’re doing, Teams can be a powerful tool for staying in touch. Teams and other remote-work collaboration tools are especially important to master now that many people are working from home and connecting with colleagues remotely.

Whether its structure agrees with you may set the tone for your relationship with Teams. If it clicks, you’ll love this chat app for everything else it has to offer, from its long list of integration options to its ability to work seamlessly with nearly any other Microsoft 365 app. For added attraction, Microsoft has done significant work outfitting teams with video conferencing and voice over IP (VoIP) telephony features. Given its potential, Teams is a top choice, but only for groups already using Microsoft products. It’s not for everyone, though, and like a lot of Microsoft products that are highly customized before rolling out to an entire organization, how well it works depends a lot on the unique specifications.

Like the IKEA warehouse, Teams is orderly, but also hyper compartmentalized. You may have to dive four layers deep (Teams > Team > Channel > tab) to find a conversation. Every time you create a new Team within Teams, the number of places you might have to go to find information or answer a question increases many times over. If you can’t get over this arrangement, the rest of the app will never make an impression on you. That first hurdle is just too high. With Teams, there’s a love-it-or-leave-it sensibility. Those in the leave-it camp might look to Slack, the Editors’ Choice in the team messaging category. Its design makes communication faster, more open, perhaps messier, but also more fun.

Microsoft Teams general interface

What’s New in Microsoft Teams?

Since we last reviewed Microsoft Teams, the product has seen a few little upgrades.

One that saves people time and hassle is the ability to use templates to create new Teams. These templates come with premade channels, user settings, and installed apps for specific use cases, such as event management, crisis response, and so forth. Microsoft supplies templates that you can use out of the box or customize, and there’s an option to build your own templates, too. One thing missing is the ability to create private channels in the templates.

You’ve long been able to set a personal status to let other people know when you’re available, busy, or temporarily away from your workstation. Now there’s an option to appear offline even when you’re logged in. That way, you can access information in your Teams account without telling anyone you’re online.

Another recent update for multilingual folks is language-aware proofing. Teams figures out which language you’re using when you type and applies spellcheck for that language. It’s available in the desktop app only at this time. There’s also a simplified global notification setting, the ability to muffle background noises, and read receipts, which are enabled by default in group chats of up to 20 people. Admins can disable it.

Finally, Teams has also beefed up its integrated video conferencing service, Meetings, which this article addresses in its own section.

Microsoft Teams welcome screen

Microsoft Teams Pricing and Plans

There are two ways to get a Microsoft Teams account. One is to sign up for a free account, which requires a Microsoft account, and the other is to have a Microsoft 365 Business or Enterprise account, where the app is included.

The free Teams account requires a Microsoft account or ID of any kind, such as a login for Outlook.com. With this account, you can invite up to 299 more people to join you, although everyone must also have a Microsoft account to use the app. You get all the primary features and only miss out on unique integration with business Office apps, such as scheduled meetings, SharePoint access, and things of that nature. You also don’t get a full roster of support or security and compliance tools for admins. Due to demand during the covid-19 pandemic, Microsoft allows free users to have video calls on Teams that last up to 24 hours. That limit will revert to 60 minutes on July 1, 2021. Up to 100 participants can join a virtual meeting, and you get all the standard features such as screen sharing and custom backgrounds.

The paid version of Teams that comes with Microsoft 365 adds all the tight integrations with Office apps, plus 24/7 support and business-grade tools for administration, security, and compliance. You can have up to 300 team members, unless you have the enterprise edition, which is good for as many people as you need.

There are three versions of Microsoft 365 that include Teams; all require an annual commitment:

  • Microsoft 365 Business Basic: $5 per person per month
  • Microsoft 365 Business Standard: $12.50 per person per month
  • Microsoft 365 Business Premium (enterprise): $20 per person per month

Comparative Pricing

Comparing these prices to the cost of other business messaging apps isn’t an apples-to-apples affair. The prices above are for bundles of software, not just Teams. In any event, to get a sense of the market, the average price hovers around $5 to $6 per person per month. That’s roughly what Flock and Glip by RingCentral cost. Twist by Doist is free, with upgraded paid accounts running $5 per person per month. Zoho Cliq is the budget pick in this category, charging around $1 to $3 per person per month, depending on the total team size.

Slack costs more than just about any team messaging app we’ve reviewed, charging $8 to $15 per person per month, with discounts offered if you pay for a year upfront. Teams and Slack have other differences besides price, of course.

Microsoft Teams basic interface layout screen shot

Microsoft Teams’ Interface

Microsoft Teams is easiest to use as a desktop app or web app. There are mobile versions for Apple and Android devices that work fine when you’re on the go, but the desktop and web apps are easier to navigate.

In the desktop or web app, you see a far-left rail with primary navigation, a secondary left rail with additional navigation, and a large center window for interactions. The first layer is Activity, Chat, Teams, Meetings, Calls, Files, and any apps you’ve installed. There could be more or fewer options depending on your organization’s configuration, and you can customize the sidebar a little more by pinning your favorite apps and chats to the top. Activity shows a summary of activity in your account. Chat is for direct messaging. Teams is where you access the interactive space for messages. Meetings opens a space where you can either start a video meeting or schedule one for later (there are several other ways to start a meeting). Calls opens yet another space to make calls, whether video or audio. And Files is where you find files that you and others have uploaded.

Let’s focus on Teams, since it’s the heart of communication for a team messaging app.

When you click Teams, you see a list of teams, or different groups of people. This setup is unlike Slack, where Channels are in the primary navigation bar. Microsoft Teams instead has you first compartmentalize people into Teams. You might have a companywide team, a Sales team, human resources (HR) team, and so forth. You can create any teams you want, but fair warning: the more teams you create, the harder it becomes to navigate the app, so it pays to plan your team structure out in some detail and restrict the number of users who can create new teams.

Within each team you have channels. One might assume that the channel is where people on the same team communicate via text chat synchronously or asynchronously, but no. A channel is merely the next layer of organization. Each channel has tabs, which you can customize, too.  A tab called Posts is likely where most team communication happens, but you can also have tabs for wikis, Word documents, OneNote notes, and more.

To understand the extent of Team’s compartmentalized nature, we must dive yet one layer deeper. When you write something in Posts, it shows up in a feed. Anyone who reads your post will see a little Reply link at the bottom of it. Using the Reply function to a post creates a thread, whereby all additional comments to that post become contained below it. Visually, it’s quite different from Slack’s threads, which shoot off to the right, or even Twist’s set up, which packages conversations into an email-like view.

In any event, Teams collapses long threads to minimize the amount of space they use. You can toggle open a thread any time, but they collapse by default at a certain point. The result is a highly organized interface, but one that feels like it has a lot of rules. By contrast, Slack often feels like a place where people are less inhibited to speak up (not that everyone uses that lack of inhibition wisely). Teams doesn’t have that vibe. Instead, because of its structure, it feels like there are rules to follow.

Microsoft Teams polls feature screen shot

Customizing Team Spaces

Any time you create a new channel, you get three default tabs: Posts, Files, and Wiki. You can keep all three, delete some, or add new tabs. The number and type of tabs you can add is tremendous. In addition to those already mentioned, there are tabs for Excel, PDFs, YouTube, Evernote, Trello, Zoho CRM, and many more.

The list of options looks plentiful, but some of them, such as educational apps JogNog and Quizlet, seem unusual among all the business apps.

You can customize these spaces to a fine level, creating a space to store all the knowledge, raw information, and insight your team collectively keeps. Let’s say for example an ad-sales team has a Posts tab for ongoing discussions, a Wiki filled with talking points for selling clients, an embedded Excel sheet showing rates for ads, and one more tab that points to a web page showing real-time news related to the business. That could all be in one channel. The ad-sales team could in fact have multiple channels within their team, like another one for brainstorming and a third for watercooler conversations.

The downside of this arrangement is a risk that people may not see all the conversations that are relevant to them because they have to check several tabs within each channel to make sure they aren’t missing anything. The new global notifications helps with this a little, but there’s always a fine balance between allowing all notifications and simply being able to keep one eye on an ongoing conversation.

No matter how you view it, the fact of the matter is that Microsoft Teams gives you tight control and the power to organize team interactions, which is in stark contrast to the free-wheeling group stream-of-consciousness you’re likely to find in a Slack channel. Is that good or bad? It depends how your team members communicate best.

Microsoft Teams mobile app screen shot

Important Features

As a team messaging app, Teams has many features you’d expect to see, plus a few that are unique. Among the ones you’d expect are things like being able to turn any word into a searchable tag by adding a # to it. Additionally, after you write and post a message, you have an option to edit it, which most messaging apps let you do, but that wasn’t always the case. Adding a pin (some other apps use a star instead) to any post saves it to the top of a sidebar, letting you keep important details in view. If you want to keep a channel private, it’s easy enough to leave it as invite-only. Those features are all fairly standard.

One of Teams’ more unusual features is the ability to write one message and then post it to multiple channels. For people working in internal communications, it helps to broadcast important information quickly to those who need to see it. Another nice feature is calendar integration because here in Teams, it’s complete enough that you can actually schedule appointments from the view in Teams, whereas in some other apps, you get a read-only view.

Microsoft Teams meeting gallery view screen shot

Video Conferencing, Audio Calls, and Screen Sharing

Most team messaging apps now offer video calling, audio calling, and screen sharing, either natively or through third-party add-ons. Microsoft Teams does, too. It works on desktop, web, and mobile devices, though on mobile devices, you must install the Teams app to join a call. You can’t do it from a mobile browser.

You can make one-on-one calls or group calls with audio only or video, with screen sharing and group whiteboard options, too. In Teams, you can start a call anytime you see a video camera or phone icon. Click someone’s name and there it is. If you call someone and they don’t answer, you can leave a voicemail. When viewing Posts, there’s a camera icon in the upper right corner to start a call and invite everyone in that Channel to join you.

When you see a video camera icon next to a conversation, it means there’s a video call in progress that you can join. No one has to dial you in, so to speak. Just click or tap and go. Video calls in Teams are different from Skype conversations, so you don’t have to worry about the back-end server implications of your Skype or Skype for Business accounts.

For scheduling calls, Teams has some nice tools and integrations with Outlook not found in most other team chat apps. You can schedule a call in advance, for example, and get an alert before it begins. You can schedule recurring calls, too. With the appropriate permissions, you can view someone’s Outlook calendar to find a good time for a meeting. There are also options to designate an organizer or host prior to group calls.

While participating in a video meeting, you can choose whose video feed you want to see and pin it in your view. It works for multiple speakers at a time. So if you join a large group meeting and you want to watch your manager’s reactions, you can.

Teams has several features that are less common in team messaging apps and more typical in video conferencing software, such as Zoom Meetings and our Editors’ Choice winner in this space, ClickMeeting. Two simple examples are 1) participants can virtually raise their hands during a meeting and 2) Teams offers virtual backgrounds, both some premade options and custom ones if you upload an image. While some people see virtual backgrounds as a purely fun or aesthetic feature, they also help protect people’s privacy.

There are a few more video calling features that we consider advanced for a team messaging app. For example, you can record meetings so people can watch them later as videos. Teams also has a virtual whiteboard where participants can brainstorm together. There’s an option to make the whiteboard read-only and use it more for presentation purposes, too. Another example is that you can give control of your keyboard and mouse to another person when you’re sharing your screen, which is helpful when you want someone else to control your slides while you present. You can also use it for light tech support. Teams also has an option to set up breakout rooms, a feature generally used in big meetings to send smaller groups into private pow-wows and then have everyone reconvene as one large group. A more advanced accessibility feature is live captioning with speaker attribution. Another accessibility feature worth pointing out is that the app is available in 53 languages.

You can’t live stream to a social media site, such as Facebook or YouTube, “yet” according to a Microsoft representative, though there are other ways to leverage social media in Teams at large. For example, let’s say you have a training video hosted on YouTube that you want to share with a Channel. You can connect Teams to YouTube and create a tab that hosts the video for colleagues to watch right in the Teams interface. There used to be a Twitter integration for keeping tabs on activity and hashtags there, but Microsoft eliminated it in 2020.

Microsoft Teams meeting spotlight screen shot

Other Options for Meetings and Calls

For offices that have been with Microsoft for a while, it might take some time to figure out how you want your call system to work, as there are multiple options. For example, some features from Skype for Business are being rolled into Teams, and at some point, the Skype app will do away with its business-class VoIP features, according to Microsoft. Currently, you can connect Skype and Teams to some degree.

Teams does support VoIP calling features, in that you can call anyone with a phone using Microsoft’s cloud-based PBX. When you click the Calls tab in Teams, you have a choice to open a dial pad and dial a number. The calling feature supports softphones on desktop and laptop computers and on iOS and Android devices. It also supports a limited number of desk telephones. Be sure to read the company’s document about Microsoft 365 Business Voice if it’s a particular concern.

There are more advanced options for producing video calls in such a way as to turn them into professional looking broadcasts. Tap into the Network Device Interface support, and producers can convert each presenter’s or speaker’s video into a discrete video source that can be used in the video streaming production tool of your choice. According to Microsoft, other advanced back-end changes in the works will give administrators more options as to how video is managed, such as restricting outgoing or incoming video and managing bandwidth.

Video calling capabilities in most team messaging apps doesn’t match everything you get from a dedicated video conferencing service, though Microsoft Teams Meeting comes close. If you’d rather use another service, you can integrate your Teams account with Zoom, BlueJeans, Cisco Webex Meetings, and others. PCMag’s Editors’ Choices in this category are Zoom, Webex Meeting, and ClickMeeting, which isn’t currently supported by Teams.

If instead you’re looking for a full-featured cloud PBX for your company, where our current top picks are RingCentral Office and Intermedia Unite.

Microsoft Teams whiteboard collaboration screen shot

Notifications and Curbing Distractions

As with other team chat apps, whenever someone mentions your name with an @ symbol or sends you a direct message, you receive a notification. You can also receive notifications for replies to conversations you start, replies to conversations that you’ve joined, any activity in channels that you follow, when certain team members appear as Available, Unavailable, Offline, and more. You can customize any option you enable so that you see a banner message, banner message and email, or only an update in the feed.

Microsoft Team’s notification settings aren’t bad, but Slack has richer options, and they are a huge selling point for the app. You can enable and disable dozens of options. There’s a Do Not Disturb setting that you can run on a set schedule, like every day from 7 p.m. to 8 a.m. the following day. Another option tells Slack to push notifications to your mobile device instead of the desktop when you’ve been inactive on desktop for a period of time, and you get to choose how long.

The ability to selectively silence notifications is crucial for a team chat app’s efficacy and an individual’s ability to focus. With both Teams and Slack, you can turn notifications on or off for each channel. You must go to each channel to change it, however, rather than the application settings where all the other notification options live.

Speaking of distractions, Teams supports GIFs from Giphy, embedded images and polls, and other screen candy that makes the space more interactive, visually stimulating, and either fun or terribly annoying. Without leaving the app, you can create memes by clicking on a design, cartoon, or image and plugging in text. You can use emoji in your channel names if you like. Slack doesn’t even allow for uppercase letters or spaces.

Apps and Integrations

Teams can integrate with a long list of other apps and services, bolstered largely by the company’s long-standing ecosystem of value-add partners. However, it offers especially tight integration with other Microsoft apps. With Office apps, Teams supports integrated real-time content creation with Office Online for free accounts and Office desktop apps for paid accounts.

Integrations work differently depending on which app you choose. For example, if you connect to Asana, you can get updates about activity happening in the work management app as well as create new tasks from the Teams interface.

With other apps, such as those by Microsoft, you can pull them into your interface as a new tab. Connect a Microsoft OneNote account, for example, and you can add a tab to a Channel that contains one of your notebooks. It’s completely interactive as if you have OneNote open in a browser tab.

Squarely a Microsoft Product

Microsoft Teams earns points for being highly customizable, supporting a wide range of apps and services for integration, and hitting all the major features notes one expects to see in a business chat app. The growing capabilities of its video conferencing are also attractive. How well it functions comes down to how your organization sets it up and customizes the software as well as how the people in your organization use it.

The only organizations likely to ever use Teams to its full potential are those already heavily invested in a Microsoft workplace. Many of the points of differentiation between Teams and competitors is the extent to which you can connect it with other Microsoft apps. If you’re a Microsoft house, you probably already have Teams, so it’s really more a question of whether you and your teammates want to use it.

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