Online team collaboration is the new norm as companies spread their workforce across the globe. Gone are the days of primarily relying on group emails, as teams can now work together in real time using an instant chat-style interface, no matter where they are.

Microsoft Teams is one of many collaboration tools designed to bring company workers together in an online space. It’s not designed for communicating with family and friends, but instead provides a platform for video conferencing, real-time discussions, document sharing and editing, and more for companies and corporations.

If you want to know more about Microsoft Teams, read on!

What is Microsoft Teams?

Microsoft Teams is a chat-based workspace initially introduced in 2016 for customers subscribing to the Office 365 Enterprise and Business plans, serving as the successor to Microsoft’s Skype for Business platform. It also replaced the Microsoft Classroom service in Office 365 Education.

Microsoft Teams became widely available on March 14, 2017, for all Office 365 subscriptions. A free version arrived on July 12, 2018, providing most of the subscription-based features while limiting storage capacity and user count. The mobile version received family-friendly features starting in March, though Microsoft Teams is still not designed for personal use.

Overall, Microsoft Teams breaks down into five main components:

  • Team – A virtual “building” where all invited members enter to collaborate.
  • Channel – An individual “room” within the “building” that may be open to all team members or locked as invite-only. Administrators can create multiple “rooms” with specific themes, such as Editorial, Gaming, Accounting, HR, and more.
  • Channel Tabs – Allows you to “pin” posts, files, apps, and more to each channel you frequent. They are not universal, so one channel may have different tabs from another.
  • Activity Feed – Connects all channels like a makeshift hallway so you can receive mentions, replies, and other notifications associated with the channels you frequent.
  • Chat – Private chats between you and other team members.

Administrators first create a team followed by individual channels. For large organizations, multiple teams with a handful of channels may be necessary. The client supports more than one team, allowing members to access multiple teams through a single interface.

Most input is through instant messaging, but members can conduct VoIP calls and video conferences. With the latter,  Microsoft increased the maximum limit to 10,000 participants in April, up from 5,000. Members can add others to a “speed dial” list or create a group for a multi-user conference. There is a voicemail feature too.

Members of a team have access to a pool of shared documents by clicking Files in the client, including images and videos uploaded in channels. Members can open these files in a browser, download them to their PC, or retrieve a link to share with others. The OneDrive feature enables users to create shared folders, Word documents, Excel workbooks, PowerPoint presentations, and more.

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Finally, Microsoft Teams integrates with third-party apps, including Trello, Zoom, Asana, GitHub, Evernote, Adobe Creative Cloud, Salesforce, Google Analytics, and many more. It even works with social apps like YouTube, StubHub, and several others.

What separates Microsoft Teams from other platforms?

Microsoft Teams is one of several team collaboration tools. Its biggest competitor is Slack, and we pit the two against each other in a separate in-depth article. Both have their strengths and weaknesses, but if you need a tool that works alongside Microsoft 365, Teams is your best bet.

Workplace from Facebook is a similar business-oriented collaboration tool. One of the major differences is that direct messaging takes place within Microsoft Teams while Facebook’s alternative relies on a separate Workplace Chat app. Meanwhile, Facebook’s platform is mobile-first whereas Teams puts the desktop worker first. Workplace also places a heavy emphasis on Live Videos, but its compatibility with other apps is significantly lower than Teams.

Another popular team collaboration tool is Discord. It targets gamers offering free voice and instant message capabilities. In this scenario, gamers create or join public and private “servers” rather than “teams.” Like Microsoft Teams, each building (server) hosts multiple rooms (channels), only these rooms are dedicated to either text or voice, not both. There is a Go Live feature as well that automatically detects your game and allows you to stream it directly to your Discord server. Want to make a video call to friends or family? Discord has your back too — all for free.

Microsoft Teams at a glance

Microsoft Teams Breakdown

The interface presents three basic components. On the left is the navigation bar hosting multiple tabs: Activity, Chat, Teams, Calls, and Files. You will also see a three-dot ellipsis icon that opens to a pop-up window hosting additional apps, like OneNote, the Teams wiki, and Help. Here you can click the More Apps link to connect your favorite third-party apps like Trello and Zoom.

Information in the second column is determined by the tab you select in the navigation bar. Click Activity and the second column lists all the mentions, replies, and other notifications. Select one of these activities and the third column displays the related conversation. Click the filter button in the second column and you can reduce the list to just mentions or replies.

Likewise, if you click the Chat tab, the second column lists your private conversations by the recipient. Select a listed recipient and the third column displays the entire conversation. Click the three-dot ellipsis icon next to the recipient and you can pin the conversation, add the individual to your contacts, receive a notification when the individual signs on, and more.

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Finally, click the Teams tab and a list of your connected teams and their channels appears in the second column. Channels with new activity are highlighted in bold text. Select a channel and the messages contained within that channel appear in the third column. Any mentions within an unselected channel are highlighted by an exclamation point next to the channel name.

What’s interesting about Microsoft Teams is that you can collaborate with individuals who speak a different language. When a comment appears in a channel that’s not your native language, simply click the More options icon next to the comment and select Translate on the drop-down menu. Microsoft Teams supports 44 languages.

When typing a message, you’ll find formatting tools similar to Slack, such as setting the font size, creating a bullet list, setting a specific subject, using a highlight, and more. You can also mark a message as a new conversation or announcement, lock responses only to you and moderators, and post the message to multiple channels (if allowed). Other tools include adding emoji, stickers, GIFs, and files.

To conduct a video meeting, you can simply click the Meet Now camera icon on the message toolbar in the third column. Scheduling requires a paid plan, which appears as a calendar icon on the message toolbar.

How much does Microsoft Teams cost?

The free model includes the following features:

  • 10GB storage for each team plus an additional 2GB per person for personal storage.
  • Unlimited and searchable chat messages.
  • Unlimited app integrations.
  • Audio and video calling within the Teams platform.
  • Real-time content creation with Office web-based apps.
  • 500,000 maximum user count.

Microsoft 365 Business Basic costs $5 per user per month whereas the Business Standard plan costs $12.50 per user per month. Here are the included Microsoft Teams features:

  • 1TB storage per organization, 10GB per license, 1TB per person for personal storage.
  • Unlimited and searchable chat messages.
  • 300 maximum user count.
  • Scheduled meetings.
  • Audio and video calling within the Teams platform.
  • Real-time content creation with Office desktop apps (Business Standard only).
  • Business apps including Bookings, Invoicing, and MileIQ (Business Standard only).

Office 365 E3 costs $20 per user per month. It adds:

  • Audio conferencing.
  • Phone system and PSTN calling.
  • Unlimited personal cloud storage.
  • eDiscovery.
  • Access to on-premises Exchange, SharePoint, or Skype for Business servers.
  • FastTrack Deployment support.

Ultimately, if you need a tool to communicate with friends and family, Skype is your better solution, not Microsoft Teams. Small businesses could get away with using the free model, but large businesses and corporations should investigate the three paid plans.

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For a more detailed view, Microsoft lists every feature across all four free and paid models on its website.

Where can you get Microsoft Teams?

Microsoft Teams is available on the following platforms:

How to get started with Microsoft Teams for free

If you want to sample Microsoft’s collaboration platform, here’s how. For the free version, the only requirement is a Microsoft account, which you can create during the setup process. You do not need a Microsoft 365 subscription to use Microsoft Teams for free.

Step 1: Go to teams.microsoft.com and click the Sign up for free button.

Step 2: Enter a Microsoft account email address. If you use a different email address, it will be used to create a Microsoft account.

Step 3: Select your intent — use Teams for school or work — and then click the blue Next button. Do not select Friends and Family, as you will be forced to use Skype.

Step 4: Click the blue Create Account button if you are not using a Microsoft account. Otherwise, use your Microsoft account password and skip to Step 8.

Step 5: Create a password and click the blue Next button

Step 6: Enter the verification code emailed from Microsoft and click the blue Next button.

Step 7: Repeat another code shown on the screen and click the blue Next button.

Step 8: Finally, enter the required credentials and click the blue Set Up Teams button.

Step 9: Follow the initial setup process and start inviting team members.

You can invite members three ways: Copy a link to your PC’s clipboard, invite them through contacts stored in your Microsoft Account, or send an invitation by email.

What’s new in Microsoft Teams?

The April 2020 update brought many additional features to better support teams working from home. These include:

  • The Teams meeting stage now supports nine participants who can be viewed simultaneously, up from four.
  • Background effects allow you to add a pre-generated background, hiding your messy kitchen.
  • Background blur arrives for the iOS app.
  • Live captions arrive for iOS and Android.
  • Raise hand feature signals that you want to make a comment in video conferences.
  • The live event attendee count increased to 20,000.
  • Concurrent events increased to 50.
  • Event duration increased to 16 hours per broadcast.
  • You can now share system audio in live events.
  • Support for the Yammer app is now included.

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