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Microsoft Teams: the channel that Internal Comms can’t ignore

Rugby scrum.

Microsoft Teams: the channel that Internal Comms can’t ignore

You can no longer ignore Microsoft Teams as an internal communication channel. The sudden shift in working patterns due to the coronavirus has led to a dramatic rise in daily use of Teams. So much activity is now happening there that it cannot be ignored, particularly as the new limit of 10,000 users for a single team takes it far from its origins as a closed-group collaboration tool.

Communicators need to think carefully about how it fits into their channel mix, and the smart ones will do more than just replicate news on a channel.

Teams is not an intranet replacement

A question I’m hearing regularly at the moment is “Will Teams replace our intranet?”. It won’t.

However, it will replace some things that you may have done on an intranet in the past. And for a small company, you can probably get by using just Teams if you want to make some compromises.

Microsoft Teams will most likely become the start point for many digital workplace tasks, simply because it is the app that’s often always open on a desktop. In this role, Teams is helpfully taking over from a task that often fell to email, and which email did terribly.

Some people have positioned their intranet as the start point for a digital workplace, but I always felt that was a unicorn-spangled aspiration on a strategy deck, rather than a reality in most organisations.

The main role that remains for an intranet is to be a source of structured, reliable news and information. Intranet pages allow much richer presentation than announcements on Teams. They also come with more editorial controls, such as the ability to schedule when news gets published. For reference information, too, you need the kind of templates for consistency and options to match layout to information structure that comes from an intranet’s web-based approach.

Strengths of Microsoft Teams

The strength of Teams lies in its immediacy and ease of access. This makes Teams good for quick updates, such as operational announcements. Unlike an email that can get lost or quickly pushed down in an inbox, announcements on Teams can be made to stand out, and crucially, updated if needed.

Teams is also good for localised updates, because each department can engage conversationally with a specific group. The readiness with which people can react and reply makes it a more natural way to have a dialogue, than, say, commenting on a manager’s blog post. Perhaps surprisingly, moderation options in Teams channels are more versatile than in Yammer, for example only permitting members to reply to messages and not create new ones.

Weaknesses of Microsoft Teams

These same qualities of ease and immediacy also have some drawbacks for internal communications, though: items are easily missed, navigation is poor, and access reinforces silos.

Teams has a habit of marking items as read if you so much as breeze past a channel with a new post. This can make it very easy for most active Teams users to miss updates. Note too that announcements can’t be pinned to the top in a channel. People will only know if they exist because they see a notification and, like an email inbox, the notifications are only in chronological order, so easily missed.

Navigation in Teams is simple, because it is just a list of teams and channels, but ultimately hard because there is little information scent. Team names can be opaque, and long channel names that could add clarity are undesirable because they lead to long filename paths.

When you add in tabs as a third navigation dimension, the whole thing only really works for sections that a user would visit regularly, and not as a way to browse reference information.

Couple that with a terrible search interface, and it becomes clear why intranets are complementary rather than competition for Teams.

My third concern with Microsoft Teams for department or country communications is that only members can see them. This creates silos, the kind that other digital channels have been trying to bridge for years. Even if department teams are open for anyone to join, it would be a laboured process to join a dozen or more teams and then conscientiously visit each one looking for updates. This is exactly the scenario that SharePoint hub sites address well instead.

Finally, analytics in Teams is very limited from a communications perspective. Don’t expect any easy reports on which articles were most read, or which types of user are more engaged.

Using Teams for corporate communications

I recently wrote a ‘What to use when in Office 365’ guide for crisis comms, and the same principles can be applied to regular comms.

Blueprint for crisis comms.

As a start point, consider:

  1. An ‘All company’ Team for quick announcements. These can generate alerts and will reach firstline workers effectively if used sparingly. It is best to keep these short and link to an intranet article for details, as these will be easier to search and find later on.
  2. A ‘Q&A’ channel if you’re able to resource this adequately. If not, you could schedule ‘Ask me anything’ times when the channel is in use. Common questions can feed into more enduring content such as guides and policies on an intranet.
  3. Live events in Teams is a webcast facility that pulls together video conferencing, Stream for recording, and Teams or Yammer for live question submission.

One conundrum to think through is how much you should cross-post the same article between, say, a newsletter, intranet, and Teams. Some intranet tools, such as LumApps give an option to cross-post into Teams when creating articles in their own CMS, for example. You can also add SharePoint team site news to a Teams channel, or even embed your whole intranet homepage as a tab.

My advice is that internal comms should see themselves as a guest on Teams, not the owner. If messages intrude too much they risk the same gripes as over-use of mailing lists. By all means give people the option to stay on top of news via Teams if they want to, but most people will see Teams as the place where they go for productive work, and we should always respect that.

Originally published at CMSWire.

Sam Marshall

I'm the director of ClearBox Consulting, advising on intranet and digital workplace strategy, SharePoint and online collaboration. I've specialised in intranets and knowledge Management for over 19 years, working with organisations such as Unilever, Astra Zeneca, Akzo Nobel, Sony, Rio Tinto and Diageo. I was responsible for Unilever’s Global Portal Implementation, overseeing the roll-out of over 700 online communities to 90,000 people and consolidating several thousand intranets into a single system.

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