One of the fastest growing apps of the pandemic, Microsoft’s comprehensive chat-based collaborative workspace integrates closely with Microsoft 365 as a single place to find people, content and tools, as well as make calls and have meetings.

This TechRepublic cheat sheet for Microsoft Teams is an overview of the platform, and it will be revised periodically as new updates are released.

Executive summary

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When was Microsoft Teams released?

Microsoft Teams launched five years ago on March 14, 2017 during a company event in New York.

What are popular features of Microsoft Teams?

Often thought of as competing with Slack and Zoom, Teams is more than just Microsoft’s take on chat, communications and video meetings: It’s a hub for collaboration that covers file sharing, business process automation and a workspace that puts apps and information where you’ll be talking about work. That’s similar to the way that Microsoft integrated SharePoint lists and information from Microsoft Dynamics into Outlook in the past, but designed for real-time as well as asynchronous collaboration.

Teams isn’t an open enterprise social network the way Yammer is: It’s designed for conversations between relatively small numbers of people who work closely together in a team. That’s why there are limits on the numbers of people in a Teams team or meeting – even with a paid subscription, the maximum number of participants in a regular Microsoft Teams group video chat is 300. If you need to work with customers, suppliers or other partner organizations, shared channels allow users to work together.

Commands and bots give you extra functionality, whether that’s setting your status or looking up information about colleagues. Connectors bring in updates from services like GitHub, Evernote, Zendesk, MailChimp, SAP SuccessFactors, Salesforce and many more to Teams’ channels, and an API framework allows more to be built, enabling businesses to link their own internal apps.

A steady stream of new features are designed to improve remote and hybrid work, like Together Mode, which places users in a shared virtual space (think an auditorium or coffee shop) to help create a better sense of togetherness without the exhaustion that usually comes from looking at people on video. There’s also Presenter View, which allows presenters to view their slides alongside any notes they’ve made, see thumbnails of upcoming slides at the bottom of the Teams meeting Window and pin one or more presenters so people can see them all the time.

Microsoft Teams supports live transcription and recording meetings, although they’re only available to people in your tenant, not any external guests you’ve invited to the meeting. Meeting recaps comprising a recording of the meeting, transcript, chat and shared files are also available. AI automatically cleans up your video and removes background noise, and there’s a new high fidelity mode for playing music.

For live events and webinars you can have larger groups, but for the bigger online events you will need an Advanced Communications license. In addition to live events and interactive meetings with large numbers of participants, this gives you branded backgrounds in the lobby and custom Together Mode scenes.

Teams is part of Microsoft 365 and the deep integration with other Microsoft tools and services is a key part of the experience, whether that’s storing and sharing files through OneDrive and SharePoint, editing Office documents inside Teams, searching for colleagues through the Microsoft Graph, getting your Planner tasks inside Teams, collaborating in the Whiteboard app, viewing Power BI dashboards, retrieving customer information from Dynamics 365, seeing the wider conversations from Yammer inside Teams or driving workflow in teams with Power Automate.

Any web app can be pinned inside Teams for easy access, but the new Live Share functionality allows software developers to create collaborative applications where you can watch a video or explore a 3D CAD design with colleagues, and everyone can pause, rewind or change the viewpoint in the diagram as well as edit the design together.

App developers can use Microsoft Loop to create chunks of functionality like Adaptive Cards that bring in content from an application like Zoho Projects or ServiceDesk that users can view and edit inside a Teams chat or Outlook email.

There are versions of Teams for specific industries such as education and healthcare. Versions also exist for frontline workers, where users need slightly different features, and various Microsoft government clouds.

Microsoft Teams is designed to meet the same security and data protection standards as Microsoft 365 and is Microsoft 365 Tier C compliant. The service enforces two-factor authentication, single sign-on through Active Directory and encryption of data in transit and at rest. One-to-one Teams calls also have end-to-end encryption.

Microsoft is also adding controls to help organizations protect sensitive information from being shared or leaked. Information barriers allow firms to limit which team members can communicate and collaborate with each other. Secure Private Channels let organizations control which team members can see conversations and content in a specific Teams channels.

What does Microsoft Teams integrate with?

Teams is part of the Customer Lockbox in Microsoft 365, which adds an approval workflow for Microsoft to access your tenant when you need support.

If you want to build your own applications that do voice and video calls (and potentially integrate those into teams), you can use the Azure Communications Service, which gives you the same voice, video and chat infrastructure that Teams uses as a service.

Teams support is also integrated into Windows 365 and Azure Virtual Desktop to improve video performance by making peer to peer connections.

How do I use Microsoft Teams?

When you sign in to Microsoft Teams, your organization may have already set up different teams that you can access, or you can create a new team and invite colleagues to join it. These are based on Microsoft 365 Groups, and each has one or more channels with tabs for chat, files (stored in OneDrive for Business), a wiki and possibly – if you used a template to create the team – relevant OneNote notebooks and other apps. You can have text, audio and video conversations and share your screen with everyone in the team, or just one to a few people.

To help keep chats easy to follow, conversations are threaded, flow from top to bottom and notify users of updates. Meetings get automated captions, transcriptions and translations, and those are saved into OneDrive for Business for people to catch up on later.

The Teams view shows you the teams and channels you’re part of; other buttons on the left rail of the Teams app show you notifications, files, chats and calls from all your different teams, plus your calendar and apps you’ve chosen to pin, whether those are Microsoft 365 apps like OneNote, Viva Insights, or Planner (which is called Tasks by Planner inside Teams), workflows and apps you or colleagues have created in the Power Platform, or one of over 1,000 third-party apps you can find in the Teams app store.

To help users track and prioritize tasks, Microsoft Lists is available in Teams. Similarly, users can create, manage and share project sign-offs directly within Teams using the Approvals function.

If you’re using the personal version of Teams, you just get the activity, chat and calendar buttons. Teams for consumers also sports a new collection of live emoji reactions and GIFs, which people can use to liven up their calls.

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Many apps open in their own tab (either at the top level of Teams or inside a team) but some apps are more like bots that work inside a channel: You can drop Power BI dashboard or a Microsoft Forms form into a chat and pull in notifications from integrations like GitHub – or turn a teams discussion into a new issue on GitHub. Each team has an email address you can use to have emails copied right into the Teams conversation where everyone can see it.

The Office apps are integrated in Teams so that you can open a Word, Excel or PowerPoint file from a chat or the Files tab and read or edit it in the Teams window. If you need to do things the web version of the Office apps can’t do, you can click to open the document in the desktop Office app.

Use @ mentions in Office comments and people will get notifications in email or Teams depending on their preferences. With the new Cameo feature in PowerPoint you can also add a stream from your Teams video right into your slides so you’re visible when presenting remotely. If you have a Microsoft 365 account that gives you access to Teams, you can also use some services you’d normally need an extra licence for, like Visio and Dynamics, inside Teams .

You can make voice and video calls to colleagues with Teams or use it as a full VoIP phone service with Teams Phone (with the appropriate subscription) with features like speed dial, call history, hold/resume, speed dial, transfer, forwarding, caller ID masking, extension dialing, multi-call handling, simultaneous ringing and voicemail. Teams users can also chat and call with Skype users and vice versa.

The Teams mobile apps have many of the same features as Teams on the desktop, like blurring the background in calls so health workers don’t have to worry about confidential patient information being visible, but there are also some industry-specific features like the Teams Walkie Talkie app that integrates with rugged handhelds used by retail and warehouse staff.

Teams also works in physical conference rooms, with Teams Room and Surface Hub integration, as well as support from many third party meeting room devices. As Skype for Business Online was retired on July 31, 2021, most organizations who were using the service have already been migrated to Teams (if you haven’t, expect Microsoft to schedule an assisted upgrade that doesn’t affect Skype for Business Server, which has Mainstream Support through January 9, 2024).

Microsoft has also integrated Teams with its augmented-reality headset HoloLens to enable a Remote Assist feature. This feature allows a worker in the field wearing the headset to share video of what they’re looking at with an expert back at the head office using Microsoft Teams.

Who are Microsoft Teams’ competitors?

The free consumer version and the fact that it’s included in Office 365 and Microsoft 365 subscriptions made Teams widely used even before the pandemic, and it was one of the fastest growing apps during the Coronavirus lockdowns. Teams had 20 million users in November 2019: By April 2021, there were 145 million daily active users and 270 million monthly active users by January 2022. Viva, which is built on Teams, had more than 10 million monthly active users of its own by April 2022.

In March 2019, there were 500,000 organizations using Microsoft Teams; now there are more than 270,000 educational organizations using the service. By July 2021, 124 organizations had more than 100,000 people actively using Teams and almost 3,000 with more than 10,000 users. Microsoft says all that adds up to more than 270 million users across home, school and work.

There are several chat and collaboration services that compete with Microsoft Teams, although none of the alternatives are as robust and full-featured, and you may need to use multiple services to match all the functionality in Teams.

Slack is widely used as a chat and collaboration service; it includes video conferencing, file sharing, automated workflows for common tasks and integrations that let you get notifications or retrieve information from apps from inside a channel. You can even integrate Microsoft Teams Calls.

Zoom is a video conferencing service used by business and home users alike that you can use to run webinars and events, use as a PBX or combine with physical meeting rooms, but it has far fewer integration options than Teams.

Google Workspace includes Google Meet for video and voice meetings and Google Chat for messaging.

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Webex is more expensive than Teams and is best known for video meetings, although it also supports file sharing, whiteboarding and messaging.

GoToMeeting is an online meeting software with options for integrating with physical conference rooms, but to get team chat and PBX and calling features with integration to apps, you’d need to upgrade to GoTo Connect.

How much does Microsoft Teams cost?

Microsoft Teams is free for personal use (you just need a Microsoft account) for chat, voice and video calls, but if you have a Microsoft 365 Personal or Family subscription you can have larger and longer group calls – up to 30 hours and 300 people rather than 60 minutes and 100 people.

There’s also a free version of Teams for small businesses with the same meeting limits but extra features like scheduled meetings and Together mode and limited admin features. You get the same longer and larger meetings with the $4/month Microsoft Teams Essentials subscription, but if you want more administrative options, breakout rooms, meeting recordings, guest access or the broader collaboration, you need one of the many Microsoft 365 subscriptions that include it. For small business users that’s Microsoft 365 Business Basic, Business Standard or Business Premium – all but the Basic plan let you host webinars.

For enterprises, Teams is included in Office 365 E1, E3, E5 and F3, and Microsoft 365 E3, E5, F1 and F3. The latter includes extra frontline features like Walkie Talkie, Tasks Management, Shift Management, and Approvals. Live events and webinars are included in Office 365 E3 and E5 and Microsoft 365 E3 and E5. Office 365 E1 only has live events. There are separate add-on licenses if you want to integrate physical meeting rooms with Microsoft Teams.

Enterprises can also add audio conferencing to let people join meetings by dialing in at no extra cost in North America with any of these subscriptions, but if you want Teams Phone VoIP calling and PBX features like call control, or to be able to host meetings from a phone call, you need Microsoft 365 E5 or an additional Microsoft Teams Phone subscription.

Microsoft Teams for Education has specific features for teachers and students like integration with OneNote class notebooks, getting the school timetable, submitting assignments, supervised chat, the Reflect tool to support Social and Emotional Learning and tools like Reading Progress and Insights to help teachers data about student activity, progress or problems.

When and where is Microsoft Teams available?

Microsoft Teams is cross-platform, with clients for Windows, Mac, Linux, Android and iOS, or you can use it in the browser. It supports 53 languages and dialects (50 for voicemail and 38 for text to speech). Audio conferencing is available in 11 countries worldwide.

How do I get Microsoft Teams?

If you use Windows 11, the consumer version of Microsoft Teams is automatically installed with the operating system, but you can only use it with a personal account, so if you’re using it with a Microsoft work account you’ll need to download the client or use Teams in a web browser just as you would on other operating systems and devices. Sign in with your work, school or personal Microsoft account, and you’re ready to go.

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This is your go-to resource for the latest news and tips on the following topics and more, XaaS, AWS, Microsoft Azure, DevOps, virtualization, the hybrid cloud, and cloud security. Delivered Mondays and Wednesdays