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Microsoft Teams: This is how To Do and Planner combine in the new Tasks app

Ponderous naming disguises a major step unifying tasks in the Microsoft ecosystem.

How to add third-party cloud services to Microsoft Teams

For many years, Microsoft has had isolated tasks in different systems: Outlook, OneNote, Project, SharePoint and Azure DevOps all had separate task lists with no single place to see everything you needed to do. Even when Microsoft introduced new task management tools -- Planner for team tasks and To Do (based on Wunderlist) for individual tasks -- that used the Exchange task format from Outlook rather than creating yet another task format, connecting the different task lists meant extra work: installing the To-Do app or Planner app in Teams, or creating Power Automate flows.

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The new Tasks app in Microsoft Teams combines To-Do and Planner tasks.

Image: Microsoft

The integration of Planner and To-Do into Teams as the Tasks app, announced last year at Ignite, is now finally starting to roll out, creating a single place to see tasks from multiple sources. It includes a new way for firstline workers and personal users to get tasks and some other Planner features, and marks significant progress in unifying tasks across different Microsoft tools and services.

SEE: Office 365: A guide for tech and business leaders (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

But the name for the new way to look at tasks in one place is going to change several times, in an attempt to help people who are familiar with the separate Planner and To Do tools get used to the new option. This approach should also reassure everyone that Planner and To Do aren't going away in favour of a new Tasks app, because while you can see tasks in the same place, they will continue to have different features depending on the app in which they were originally created.

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The name of the desktop Tasks app will change several times.

Image: Microsoft

Tasks surface in Teams

The Planner app is already available inside the Teams client, but previously it showed a board view of all your Planner tasks, plus new tasks assigned to you in the main Activity feed and the full Kanban board and calendar views if you added a Planner plan to a specific channel as a tab. The new Tasks app is really an update to the Planner app, with new features and (eventually) a new name. So if you already have it installed, you should get the new features by September, but you will still see the Planner name in the Teams desktop client.

"Rather than building a brand-new experience inside Teams, it's really about evolving Planner and To Do and bringing those existing experiences inside Teams," Angela Byers, director of product marketing for Microsoft 365, told TechRepublic.
 
After a few weeks, the app will be called Tasks by Planner and To Do, which is one of Microsoft's typical 'does what it says on the tin' names that should make it less of a surprise that your tasks from To Do are showing up. Later in the year the name changes again to Tasks.

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The mobile and desktop tasks app in Teams.

Image: Microsoft

Tasks will come to the mobile Teams app later (after it's finished rolling out to Microsoft 365 and Office 365 tenants), so it doesn't have to go through the name changes and will just be called Tasks as soon as it shows up. You won't have to install it separately; if you have Tasks in the desktop client, you'll see it on your web and mobile clients too. Mobile is the only place that guest users will see Tasks as an app; on desktop and web, they will only see Tasks tabs.

Planner tabs in Teams channels will still have the board, chart and calendar views, but they also get a list view of tasks, where you can view, edit and create new tasks. Because it's a list you can filter it to show only a set of tasks, or select and edit multiple tasks at the same time (using Ctrl Shift) to change the due date or other options that all the selected tasks have in common. The tabs only show team tasks; the main Tasks app shows all your individual, team and channel tasks from both Planner and To Do, in a list view that's organised into smart lists as well as by different Planner plans that you're involved with. Unlike the existing Planner app, you can also see your tasks in the Boards, Charts and Schedule view here.

To Do tasks show up if you use the same account for Teams and To Do; if you use both a work and personal account for To Do, you won't see the other account in Teams. And the only way organisations can stop users seeing their To Do tasks in Teams is by removing their Exchange Online licence -- and their access to email

Common but not converged

Although both Planner and To Do tasks show up, they're not exactly the same in Tasks, because Planner and To Do have different features.

You can star tasks in To Do to prioritise them and check them off when they're complete, but in Planner you can mark tasks as Urgent, Important, Medium or Low and track progress as Not started, In progress and Completed. When you create a new task, you get all the Planner options if you're putting it in a plan (including assigning the task to a colleague) and some of the To Do options if you're putting it in a To Do list. You can name a To Do task, set the priority and due date and add a note or a checklist of secondary tasks, but you can't yet attach a file, assign a task to someone else, add a reminder or make it a recurring task.

Tasks doesn't have a single view of all your tasks together. The Tasks list (which is labelled To Do) shows tasks from To Do and Outlook (but not flagged emails); Planner tasks are shown in their specific plans under Shared Tasks (which is tagged as being from Planner), as are your different To Do lists.

The To Do priority options are used to create smart lists: Important shows tasks in To Do that you've starred; Planner shows tasks that have a due date in To Do; and Assigned to me shows your Planner tasks, but only if you sync them to To Do (which will also add Planner tasks to the Important and Planned smart lists). If you create a new task in one of the smart lists, you pick the list or plan that it will live in from the Source column.

Notifications for Tasks inside Teams are also separate from notifications in Planner and To Do, so if you have a task with a deadline, you can choose what notifications you get from each app separately (and you might get both email and Planner notifications for tasks that get assigned to you).

There will be more ways to get tasks into Tasks over time. Word and Excel for web (and, soon, PowerPoint on the web) let you send tasks to colleagues by @ mentioning them in comments in documents; those tasks will start showing up in Planner and To Do at an unspecified point in the future. (Microsoft wouldn't confirm when @ mentions in desktop Office apps will work the same way, or when the My Day pane for creating and managing To Do tasks in Outlook on the web will appear in desktop Outlook).

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These are the task options in the new To Do API.

Image: Microsoft

Organisations (and developers) can use Graph API and Power Automate integrations for Planner and To Do to surface tasks created in other apps in Tasks in Teams; that will soon use the new To Do API that links a task back to the app it was created in to make it easier to bring together tasks from different sources without losing track of them in the original app. 

More planning powered by Planner

The Tasks app in Teams also brings Planner to more people than had access to it before, because they don't need to have a Planner subscription to use the Planner features like boards and schedules: that includes firstline workers like retail staff, as well as personal Teams users who couldn't get Planner before.

They still don't get access to the full version of Planner. "Planner as an app itself outside of Teams remains only for commercial and education users, and it's included in all Office and Microsoft 365 subscriptions," Byers said. "At this point, Planner is not included in any Microsoft 365 or Office 365 subscriptions for consumers, but we're bringing a similar task experience inside Teams for personal use."

"That's currently in preview in mobile Teams. You will have one place inside Teams, when you're logged in with your personal account, to see the individual tasks that are powered by To Do, and shared tasks that you have with your family or friends in that same experience that is powered by Planner."

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With task publishing, managers can assign and publish tasks to firstline workers who do not otherwise have Planner access.

Image: Microsoft

Firstline workers might create tasks for themselves, but Microsoft mainly sees Tasks as a way for managers and groups like head office or HR to create tasks for them, using task publishing, Byers explained.

"Task publishing is designed for companies with geographically dispersed teams, so that a central team at headquarters can create a list and publish it to hundreds or even thousands of firstline workers. The firstline worker team manager will get the list, along with critical information like to do dates and priorities and attachments and notes, so they assign tasks on the list to the individual firstline workers," she said. 

"The workers get a simple, clear list of to dos with priorities, and due dates and instructions, so they can efficiently knock them off the list and move on to the next. And as they complete their tasks their manager gets the status on the completion rate, and also the headquarters team can see how well those task lists are being completed across the different locations that they published a list to. It's really useful for a retailer that's trying to execute a promotional campaign and needs to make sure that all the locations are implementing the same steps and creating a consistent look to support the store campaign."

That uses a hierarchy of which groups can assign to which staff (and creating that is currently a rather laborious process of building a schema manually). That seems like a core part of company organisation and task and project management, so we expect to see better tools for creating these hierarchies and more ways to use them in other business processes and workflows in future.

Core collaboration  

Although the individual features in Tasks are still fairly small, they're a clear step towards making sense of the messy mix of tasks across different Microsoft products.

"Tasks is super important because we think of it as the core component of work," Byers noted. "It is the key component to collaboration, to teams getting things done. So we'll continue to be thinking about how we realise that vision of having tasks be connected to one another, so that we can deliver more intelligence and insights, and that it will feel integrated."

That integration is the kind of thing that Microsoft 365 is there to deliver. "One of the key values of Microsoft 365 is its connectedness; when you use them together, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Tasks are just everywhere and it's hard to prioritise and keep track of all of them and when tasks, and other signals are stored in the Microsoft Graph, the graph can deliver relevant insights, starting with something as simple as alerts for tasks that are due."

In fact, tasks are going to start popping up even when you don't look for them: just selecting search in Outlook mobile will show you your top three tasks before you start searching.

Also see

By Mary Branscombe

Mary Branscombe is a freelance tech journalist. Mary has been a technology writer for nearly two decades, covering everything from early versions of Windows and Office to the first smartphones, the arrival of the web and most things inbetween.