April 06, 2021 Feature

How to Use Microsoft Teams Channels

Catherine Sanders Reach
Find out if Teams Channels can help your firm with communication, collaboration, and efficiency.

Find out if Teams Channels can help your firm with communication, collaboration, and efficiency.

scyther5/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Introduced in March 2017, Teams added internal chat and video/audio conferencing to Microsoft 365. In the early days, sorting out the different use cases for Microsoft’s Groups, Teams, and Yammer applications was a little confusing, but Teams seems to have come out ahead as the place for communication and group work. In addition to communications, Teams also lets law firms build Channels that incorporate other Microsoft 365 tools such as Wikis, file sharing, and task management to help create work spaces for collaborating on matters or projects. It can also function as a firm intranet.

Teams is a collaborative space that lets law firms easily share files, chat, assign tasks, hold online meetings, and share notes. Because Teams can provide videoconference hosting for up to 250 people and is already available in most Microsoft 365 business plans, Teams has become very popular as a communication platform during the work-from-home environment created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Teams has elements of the functionality found in the popular platforms Slack (for group messaging) and Zoom (for videoconferencing). Users can chat, share files, and instantly move into an audio/videoconference with screen and document sharing, as well as interact on whiteboards, add breakout rooms, use virtual backgrounds, and more. Teams has an installed application for your desktop as well as a browser version and an app for iOS or Android.

All Microsoft Business plans except Microsoft 365 Apps for Business come with Teams. Teams is available as a stand-alone application but is primarily useful for conferencing. Teams in the full Microsoft Business plans provides deep integrations with the other Microsoft applications.

Teams and Channels

The labeling is a little confounding, but in Teams there are . . . Teams. On the left navigation panel in Teams there is a button called Teams. The Teams inside Teams are designed for more focused work, either by project, practice group, or functional group such as HR or finance. Teams are made up of Channels. For instance, create a Team for a practice area. Then create Channels for specific clients or matters. Teams and Channels leverage SharePoint as the backbone architecture without getting bogged down in having to use SharePoint.

Creating a new Team. When you create a new Team, you get options to create one “from scratch,” “from a Group or Team,” or “from a template.” Creating a Team from an existing group or Team lets you use the existing Team as a template. You can choose what is included from the original Team you set up. Groups are created when you create a SharePoint site, so if you want to incorporate elements of that, you can use it to create a new Team.

Creating a Team “from scratch” is just that—you set up all the elements through a guided wizard (script). The process is quite simple, and much can be altered if you decide you want to change it. Decide whether the Team is private (only seen by those in your firm you add) or public (seen by everyone in your firm so they may ask to join). Give your Team a name and a description. Add some Team members. You can add people from within your firm or guests from outside the firm. Because guests will need a Microsoft 365 account, examples of guests may include consultants, outsourced roles, or co-counsel. Team member roles are either “member” or “owner.” You can have more than one owner if the person is in your firm. Guests cannot be members or owners.

After you create a Team you can manage or edit it. Mouse over the Team name and click on the ellipses. Choose “Manage Teams.” Manage Teams lets you add guests or members, add and refine Channels, change settings such as member and guest permissions, see analytics, and add apps. To edit the Team name, description, or privacy, click Edit from the ellipses menu. Remember, the private setting allows only Team owners to add members, while a public setting allows anyone in your firm to join. If someone else created the Team, you can join it if it is public, but if it is private you will not be able to see it unless you are invited.

Channels in Teams. When you create a Team, the software automatically creates a “General” Channel. You cannot rename the General Channel, but you can create additional Channels with names you choose. Every Channel consists of “Posts,” “Files,” and “Wiki.” Although you cannot remove Posts and Files, you can rename or delete the Wiki.

Posts. In each Channel the Team can hold conversations via Posts that are threaded and stay within that Channel (so you are not hunting for old e-mails). Posts also record activity within the Team for a quick view of any activities such as new files added, new Team members, and other activities. In Channel settings you can set up notifications, as well as make the Posts moderated and approved by owners or named moderators.

Files. Upload files/folders to share with the Team in the Files area. If someone updates the file, the Team will see when and by whom the file was updated in Posts. You can also create new documents, spreadsheets, presentations, and more directly within the Files area in a Channel. Everyone who has access to that Team will be able to open the file within Teams and edit it. Members of the Team can also check out and check in documents to protect them from editing and overwriting. If you need to assert more controls, you can open the Files in SharePoint. Because Files are SharePoint libraries, you can click to open the Files in SharePoint and add automation, set up alerts, add workflows, and more. You can also view the version history, manage access, and share the document.

Wiki. The Wiki tab in a Channel functions as a notes area. Members of the Team can use the Wiki for anything from phone notes to checklists to brainstorming and anything in between. The Wiki consists of pages. Each page can have sections. Each section has content including inserting hyperlinks, tables, bulleted and numbered lists, and more. Each page shows when it was last edited. You can also link to a Wiki page and rename the Wiki tab to something more descriptive.

Organizing your Teams Channels. You can add many Channels to a Team (up to 200). For a solo or small firm, structuring the Teams for managing matters will depend on whether you tend to have more clients with singular matters or if you have clients with multiple matters. For instance, if you have a residential real estate practice where you tend to have a single transaction for a client, you could create a Real Estate Team and then create Channels for each client. Or, if you represent companies that have multiple matters, you could create a Team for that client and create a Channel for each matter. Of course, you can create Teams for functional groups in your firm (HR, Operations, Accounting) and project-based Teams (Marketing, Professional Development, Community Involvement).

Adding Other Tools to a Channel

Clicking on the plus symbol (next to the Wiki tab) lets you add any other Microsoft tool, including Lists, Tasks by Planner, OneNote, SharePoint, Forms, Whiteboards, and more. For instance, you can incorporate a OneNote notebook that the firm is already sharing so that everyone can easily access it from the Teams Channel. You can create a new shared Notebook.

OneNote creates a new Team notebook when you create a new Team. You can create new Notebook sections to match your Channel names and incorporate those. Or create a List to track client requests, intake procedures, or other workflows that need to be tracked for completion.

If you want to add a project management element to track tasks, assignments, and deadlines, you can add the “Tasks by Planner and ToDo.” You can incorporate an existing Planner project or create a new one. Any tasks assigned to you will also appear in your ToDo. People who have tasks due will get e-mail reminders as well. Planner is organized like a Trello project using “buckets,” but you can choose to view your project as a list, in a chart, or plotted on a calendar.

Tools not from Microsoft. You can also incorporate, through API integrations, other products you might be using into a Team Channel. If you are already invested in using Asana for project management, you can add it to a Channel so you can view and interact with it from within Teams. Trello is also an option. Do you use Cisco Webex instead of or in addition to Teams for videoconferencing? Incorporate it into a Teams Channel. Do you prefer Evernote to OneNote? Use both? Add a note from Evernote to your Teams Channel. Or incorporate Adobe Sign to send documents for signature and track activity directly from within your Teams Channel.

Depending on the integration, you may find new right-click options. For instance, if you incorporate an Asana project into a Teams Channel, when you click on the ellipses from a Post and choose “More Actions,” you can add the post as a Task in Asana.

What legal applications have Teams integrations? Clio, LawToolBox, and NetDocuments are all offering Teams Channel integrations. There is no doubt more will follow.

Expect some limitations. While you have the ability to add other tools into Teams, both from Microsoft and other vendors, you will need to manage your expectations. Depending on what you are adding, the integration may be quite limited. With some of the Microsoft products, you may find that certain features are missing when viewed through Teams, so to get the full functionality you may need to use the stand-alone application to create or edit an item, and then incorporate it into Teams. For instance, you can create a List in Teams, but you will not see all the powerful features Lists offers for conditionals and custom actions unless you open the List in the List application. If you need to see more options/features in Microsoft applications, you often can just click on “Open in” to open the integrated tool in the full application.

Another way to add at-a-glance information from Microsoft and other tools is to incorporate a Connector. Mouse over the name of a Channel and click the ellipses, then choose “Connectors” from the menu. Connectors function differently than incorporating an application into a Teams Channel as a tab. Connectors will update the Posts tab with information when someone acts in another application. For instance, if your firm has a blog, you can make sure everyone knows about the latest post by incorporating the RSS feed into the Teams Channel. Or connect Microsoft Forms so that it will send an alert to Posts when someone fills out a Form.

Permissions

When you set up a Team, you can make it public or private. Likewise, you can make Channels public or private. If you create a private Channel, only shared with certain people within a Team, you cannot go back and change that setting. In Settings for a Team, you can enable or disable member permissions, such as enabling the ability to create Channels or adding apps. In a Channel you can set moderation preferences for post, allowing or disallowing Team members to post, manage tags, even control if members can use Giphy, stickers, and memes.

Automations

You can create simple automations in Teams, such as pop-up notifications when someone adds a post, and you can also add sophisticated automations by leveraging another Microsoft 365 tool, Power Automate. Power Automate is like Zapier or IFTTT. The best way to get some ideas about how to use Power Automate is to go to Office.com, log in with your business account, and navigate to the Power Automate application.

Power Automate has many templates to help you get started. Click on Templates and then search for Teams to see what other people have come up with to add automations. For instance, get started by sending an e-mail when a new message is added in Teams or alert the Team when a specific document is uploaded. You can notify the Team when a new item is created in a List. With Power Automate you can create your own automations as well. You can forward an e-mail from a specific person as a post to a Teams Channel. You can save attachments from an e-mail from a specific person to Files in a specific Channel.

Channel Meetings

If you are in a Channel, look in the upper-right corner and click “Meet.” You can invite Channel members and start an instant videoconference or schedule a meeting just with the members of that Channel. Meeting notes will automatically be shared in the Channel, as well as conversations (chat) and recordings.

Conclusion

Channels in Teams are powerful, functional, and extensible. This overview merely scratches the surface. The best way to learn about Teams is to start with a small project and be curious. Click on buttons, look at settings, and always click on the ellipses to see what other options are available. Microsoft offers Teams training through videos, written documentation, and courses through LinkedIn Learning. Get started to see if Teams helps your firm with communication, collaboration, and efficiency.

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Catherine Sanders Reach is director of the Center for Practice Management of the North Carolina Bar Association. Formerly she was director, Law Practice Management and Technology for the Chicago Bar Association and the director at the American Bar Association’s Legal Technology Resource Center. She served on the ABA TECHSHOW Board 2007–2009 and 2014–2016, was co-vice chair in 2019, and was co-chair in 2020.