Microsoft Teams logo on a phone and a screen.
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Microsoft is hoping Teams will not just be how business users collaborate on day-to-day work but also a simple way for smaller businesses to build communities for employees or customers.

The personal version of Teams is free and built into Windows 11, and millions of people already have the free Microsoft account they need to use it on Macs, iOS and Android devices. Now Microsoft is adding a new community experience to the existing chat and calendar features in personal Teams.

What are Communities in Microsoft Teams?

Communities in Microsoft Teams are invitation-only group spaces for chat, meetings, sharing information and generally organizing and collaborating. This Communities feature (Figure A) could be useful for small businesses that want to connect and communicate with groups of customers or for coworkers to manage work-related events like team lunches or company parties.

Figure A

Communities is a new feature in the existing free Microsoft Teams app.
Communities is a new feature in the existing free Microsoft Teams app.

Communities are available now in iOS and Android clients and are “coming soon” (to quote Microsoft) to desktop Teams clients. You can use Communities in the free version of Teams, Microsoft 365 Personal, Microsoft 365 Family and Teams Essentials if you sign in with a Microsoft account.

How to use Communities in Microsoft Teams

You can create a community from scratch or choose one of the eight templates in the app, although these just prepopulate an appropriate emoji as the header, and icon and you could just as easily pick an emoji or photo yourself.

Like teams in the enterprise version, communities are based on Microsoft 365 Groups, but the features are simplified: A community has a chat channel and a calendar where you can organize events (which can be Teams meetings but don’t have to be – you can fill in the address for a real-world event and get a map showing the location) plus a file list.

Any photos, web links or files that people attach to their chat messages get added to the community, and you can quickly filter to see just those using the Events, Photos, Links and Files buttons at the top. Currently, there isn’t a button for filtering just to videos, but Microsoft says that’s coming (and the videos we uploaded didn’t show up in the Files filter).

You can pick a file from inside Microsoft Teams by adding it as an attachment when you write a chat message from your local device or connected cloud storage, or you can pick Teams as a share target from another app and then choose the community you want to post it in. Share a PDF or an image, and everyone can see it and save. Share an Office file like a letter other people in your business need to use as a template or an Excel spreadsheet with the details of something you’re all working on and other community members can see it, and then open it to edit. Changes someone else makes will show up in the file for everyone, so you can use this as an easy way to collaborate on documents.

SEE: Microsoft Office Professional 2021 for Windows: Lifetime License (TechRepublic Academy)

What you need to know about using Communities and OneDrive

Microsoft Teams uses OneDrive for storing files in communities, and you can also see the files from a community in the Shared with your folder in your own OneDrive, so you can work with them outside Teams, but this may not work exactly the way you expect.

If you share a file from your own OneDrive rather than sharing your file directly, Teams makes a new copy of it in the root of your personal OneDrive and shares that. This means that, while you will see any changes people make to the community file, your original file in OneDrive won’t get updated with those changes. This avoids what could be complicated issues of managing permissions as people enter and leave a community, so it’s probably the right choice here, but it’s something to be aware of.

Most businesses will want the management options that come with the commercial versions of Teams, Office and OneDrive. But if you’re working with a small group of people, and you want an easy way to share, talk about and collaborate on files that doesn’t end up with lots of different copies of the file the way email does, Microsoft Teams Communities is worth trying out.

Curated connections through Microsoft Teams Communities

There are a lot of community tools that the people personal Microsoft Teams is aimed at are using and, like enterprise Teams, personal Teams will start integrating those into Communities. The first of those will be SignUpGenius, a service that replaces paper signup sheets or email chains for small businesses and volunteer groups: Next year, you’ll be able to add a signup option to a Microsoft Teams community to organize more structured things like carpooling to work or who’s bringing what to the company picnic.

Microsoft says it will add more integrations in the future, and there are other Microsoft services that would make sense here, like Microsoft Bookings for arranging appointments or the personal version of Microsoft Lists or PowerApps Cards that let you make microapps for entering information like a customized voting or rating screen.

And all this information will stay in a group environment that you control, with more management and moderation options than you’d have with Discord, Facebook or even Microsoft’s own GroupMe group chat service.

“Community owners have the ability to manage settings, set community guidelines, and add or remove participants and posts,” a Microsoft spokesperson told TechRepublic. “Additionally, community owners can add new events or meetings to your community calendar, invite guests, track attendance, and follow up with attendees through direct private chats.”

You have an invitation to join a community: it’s up to the community owner whether they are the only person who can send invites – which can be a link to click or a QR code to scan – or if people who have already joined can invite their friends. Community owners can invite people directly using their email address or phone number, which makes it harder to spam people with invitations they’re not interested in, or remove someone who’s disruptive. If you’re using the community to share information with subscribers, students, employees or another kind of group that naturally changes over time, you can remove people who no longer qualify.

Anyone can edit their own messages to update details that change (or fix the annoying typo you see right after you press send) or delete them; community owners can also delete messages posted by community members if they’re off topic or unhelpful – or just clean up the discussions about planning an event or dealing with a problem once it’s all over.

There’s also an option to report concerning content directly to Microsoft, which should give businesses the confidence that using Teams won’t expose employees or customers to anything distressing.