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Viva Connections & SharePoint 101

Viva menu bar.

The announcement of Microsoft Viva has certainly made a splash, but it hasn’t been clear about what is new and what is a repositioning of existing tools. For example, several people have told me recently that they “don’t intend to use SharePoint anymore because they’re moving to Viva Connections”. I want to help clarify some of the basics around Viva Connections, including how to prepare for it, what the app does, and some of the pros and cons compared to a SharePoint-only intranet.

Many organisations should brace themselves for a substantial re-think of how their SharePoint intranet is structured if they intend to move to Viva Connections

What is Viva Connections?

Viva Connections is one of four elements launched under the Viva employee experience umbrella, and is the one that focuses most on employee communications. (See also: Microsoft Viva – Who is it for?)

Viva Connections inside Microsoft Teams, annotated.

Viva Connections surfaces a SharePoint site in Microsoft Teams (image credit: Microsoft).

Like other Viva modules, it is designed to work within Microsoft Teams. Users see a new button on the left-hand menu bar, and this can be branded to be your company or intranet logo. In effect, it embeds a SharePoint intranet into the Teams experience on the desktop.

The main components are:

  1. A global navigation menu so you can access multiple sites from a left-hand fly-out pane.
  2. A SharePoint home site as appearing as the main ‘landing page’ within Teams, along with the site’s own sub-menu (so usually this would be the company-wide intranet home page).
  3. A search bar lets you search all of SharePoint and not just content in MS Teams for the first time.
  4. The ability to share content easily, such as posting about a SharePoint page in a Teams message.
  5. A new ‘dashboard’ feature that integrates other applications (not shown as this isn’t live yet, see below)
  6. A new mobile experience (also not live yet).

The difference between SharePoint and Viva Connections

It’s worth reiterating that Viva Connections doesn’t replace a SharePoint intranet, it merely makes it accessible within Microsoft Teams and adds some extra functionality. The relationship between Teams and SharePoint is a complex one, but all along Teams has acted a new interface with SharePoint doing the grunt work underneath. For example, every time you create a Team, you also create a SharePoint team site behind the scenes. All your files and folders still reside within SharePoint (see the screenshots below).

Annotated screenshots showing relationship between SharePoint and Microsoft Teams.

SharePoint powers many parts of MS Teams behind the scenes. Every Teams area has a SharePoint team site tied to it.

When you add Viva Connections to Teams, you tell it which SharePoint site you want it to show, and which global navigation to use (either the navigation for that site, or one defined separately).

What Viva Connections adds to SharePoint was originally called the Home site app, and the main innovations are that it includes a fly-out panel with global navigation, recent files and ‘My News’. The global navigation could be better. Users have to click each drop-down in turn; there is no megamenu-like experience to make it easy to scan.

There are also some new web parts, most notably a ‘Company feed’ that combines targeted corporate news with Yammer content into one stream. There’s no reason why this web part can’t be used without Viva Connections too though.

Annotated screenshots showing relationship between SharePoint and Microsoft Teams.

A new Company feed web part for SharePoint (image credit: Microsoft).

Viva Connections Dashboard

The dashboard component is a way to customise and target resources to different audiences, such as frontline workers. It isn’t available yet, so there’s not been a great deal shared publicly, but it promises to be a set of quick-access tiles that are not just links but also live information, such as when your next shift starts so you can clock-in.

This element certainly has great potential as a microservices layer if the right connectors become available.

The new Viva connections mobile app

A new Teams mobile experience is due out later in 2021 that will bring Connections to the fore. From an intranet perspective, most notable is that the button can be branded like the desktop app with your company name, and this will take you to three tabs:

Dashboard | Feed | Resources

The dashboard is the same quick access panel described above, rendered as touch-friendly buttons. The feed looks to be the company newsfeed, which will be driven by algorithms and audience targeting settings. Resources are recent sites and pages but could also be a way to pin reference material such as a company handbook.

It’s great to see Microsoft supporting a mobile intranet experience in this way, but what is very striking compared to dedicated employee apps for communications is that the start page is not the SharePoint home site, so it won’t look like an intranet homepage and communicators won’t have the same degree of control over what gets seen.

Annotated screenshots showing relationship between SharePoint and Microsoft Teams.

Viva Connections mobile experience (image credit: Microsoft).

How to get ready for Viva Connections

Viva Connections is already live and included in Office 365 licences, so there are very few technical barriers to getting started. You basically just need admin access and then follow their step-by-step PowerShell script to point to the right SharePoint site.

What will take more planning is moving an existing intranet into a Connections-ready state. In particular you need to ensure that your intranet homepage is a SharePoint ‘home’ site (or at least a communications site). A home site is a site that has been set to be the default site when users open the SharePoint application from the Office, and it is also where the global navigation is configured.

The way navigation works is rather messy. Users will have to deal with multiple layers and orientations of navigation, including buttons on the Teams icon bar, vertical menu items on the Connections fly-out, and then layers of horizontal navigation on the SharePoint sites (particularly if hub sites are involved). Think carefully about how you might streamline this before proceeding.

Note that Connections won’t work with a classic SharePoint site such as a publishing site, on-premises SharePoint or a non-SharePoint intranet.

Should you add Viva Connections?

Intranet owners have noticed for some time that Teams is getting all the attention and I’m sure they will welcome the ability to integrate their intranet into it. The planned mobile experience and dashboard elements also show great potential.

However, enthusiasm should be tempered with the reality that all the things that were needed in the past to make an intranet successful will still be needed. Indeed, I expect very few companies will take their web-based intranet away as there will always be user groups that don’t routinely have Teams open on a desktop and will see Connections as just “adding more clicks”.

Moving to Connections will also probably involve more work than first appears. Home sites are relatively new, so not many intranets have been built around them. Many organisations should brace themselves for a substantial re-think of how their intranet is structured if not. In particular, modern SharePoint is very non-hierarchical, relying on there being numerous sites, loosely strung together with hub sites and search-based web parts to aggregate things like news. There’s no ‘news central’ from an internal comms point of view, and this may not suit every company’s way of working.

Finally here’s a checklist of key questions to ask before moving to Viva Connections:

  1. Are most of your users already in MS Teams?
    How will you support users that are not in Teams?
  2. Is your intranet already built around a SharePoint home or communication site?
    If not, can you-redesign it that way?
  3. How will you keep navigation simple and avoid multiple layers of menus?
  4. How will you roll-up news to the home page to keep it relevant across employees?
  5. What tasks would be most useful on the Dashboard and how will you integrate them?

A version of this article was originally publisher over 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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