Can Microsoft Teams deliver your intranet?

Update: as well as reading this article you can also check out our webinar video: Can you build your intranet on Microsoft Teams?

When customers first started asking us if it was possible to build an intranet inside Teams we were pretty adamant that it was a bad idea. However, since then a lot has changed: there is now a Teams intranet app and other apps we can use; there are new and more sophisticated developer tools for Teams; and the Teams platform itself has matured giving us useful features we can use in our task. So whilst before we said, no you cant, were now saying, yes you can. There is a but: its clear that what you build on Teams is going to be different to your standard browser-based or mobile intranet experience. An intranet built on Teams will inevitably have a different structure and a different user experience to a conventional intranet but that doesn’t mean it can’t work. In this article we are going to explore the different tools, apps and techniques you can use to build your intranet on Teams.  Before we get into this we will also cover off a few important points and sub-questions as the way the you answer these will determine how you approach the task:

Why would you want to build an intranet on Teams?

First, its because of the tremendous levels of Teams adoption. The fact youre reading this article means its likely that Microsoft Teams is well adopted within your own organisation. People are spending less time in email and a lot more time in Teams. Furthermore, the Covid-19 crisis has led to a mass and accelerated adoption of Teams. This has also been helped by Microsofts free Teams licence during the crisis. Creating an intranet in Teams seems like a no-brainer: why not try to piggyback on these high levels of adoption? In fact, many companies have struggled to drive traffic to their traditional browser-based intranet and so a Teams intranet might seem like a good way around the eyeballs problem. Its worth considering however, that whilst Teams has great appeal for an office-based and desktop-using workforce, for the frontline and field-based worker that appeal is likely to be more muted. If youve got a mobile workforce you will have to work harder and smarter to gain good levels of intranet adoption, or you might need to look at a separate tool to reach them, such as a mobile intranet or employee app.

Second, weve also seen Microsoft invest heavily in improving Teams and in pushing it out to the market. This twin strategy has made it Microsofts fastest ever adopted tool with over 44 million daily active users as of March 2020. Its entirely consistent for digital workplace professionals to continue to want to extend the capabilities of Teams within their own organisation, confident that Teams is only going to get better and better via Microsofts own roadmap. Microsofts continuing investment in making it easier to integrate different elements of Office 365 is also a factor here.

The third reason why you might want to build your intranet in Teams is because youre looking to save on costs and effort. This theme goes way beyond Teams thanks to the ease with which citizen developers with only moderate technical skills are now able to spin up all manner of apps (built with Powerapps), intranet pages (built with SharePoint communication sites) and workflows (built with Power Automate). With its structure of channels, apps and tabs, Teams seems like it would be pretty easy and quick to build something at least half decent. If this is a key driver for you it is important that you are realistic: doing it yourself is going to take time and a lot of trial and error. And you should definitely not overlook building an intranet on SharePoint, whether you end up building an out-of-the-box SharePoint intranet or turning to an intranet-in-a-box.

 

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What services do you want your intranet to deliver?

Before diving into what Teams can and cant do you really need to put the technology discussion aside and explore what you need your intranet to actually do and what you want it to contain. Running a research and discovery exercise with end-users and stakeholders and developing an intranet strategy is an essential place to start. Have a look at some intranet screenshots and examples or read some digital workplace case studies to see what other companies are putting on their intranets. Having carried out these activities most intranet projects end up with a requirements list that include the following pillars:

  • Communication corporate news, departmental and team news and noticeboards.
  • Collaboration and social tools to support people search and expertise finding, file sharing, working on files collaboratively and peer-to-peer conversations. On the surface it might seem that Teams covers this pillar really well but it does have some major gaps which well come to later.
  • Business processes tools and workflows for delivering common business processes such as HR processes as well as more bespoke operational processes.
  • Knowledge, resources and search places and tools for the storage of more static information and knowledge. This would also include the information sources that might underpin business processes above, including policies and procedures libraries, FAQs and I need to… links.

As we go through the options for a Teams intranet well discuss how well they deliver on the high-level requirements list above. Of course the devil is in the detail so you do need to do your own research and testing or speak to us about your project. Weve also got a tonne of articles and blogs and videos on intranet research and planning so do take a look.

Problems and challenges with Teams

Teams has some glaring gaps most users and organisations that have been using it for some time will be aware of these. There are also inherent issues that make building an intranet within it somewhat challenging. Most of these can be overcome to a certain extent but you definitely dont have a blank slate on which to build such as you have on SharePointyou have to work with or around Teams issues and quirks (yes, I know SharePoint has its own quirks but there are more options for overcoming these). Lets look at the main challenges youre going to have to think about:

  • Flat structure all the teams in your organisation are displayed in a single list. Theres no hierarchy or nesting. When you get into a team youve only got channels and single-level tabs. This compares poorly with an intranet which can have many different types of menus, mega-menus and navigation aids. When you consider that workspaces form a key part of modern digital workspaces, even a small organisation is going to struggle to help users find relevant collaboration spaces. A good intranet will contain a sophisticated index of available workspaces.


    The flat structure in Teams makes it hard to find relevant teams. It lacks a workspaces index page such as this example built inside an intranet

  • Intranets help employees find things and often requires users to explore via navigation, either through a mega-menu or through elements on a homepage or landing pages. Teams is not designed to do this and for users to navigate will require largely physical clicking through tabs, for example, which ends up becoming very clunky and slow. There isnt the convenience of features such as mouse-overs and expanding menus. This means if we are going to use Teams as an intranet we need to avoid making employees feel like they are navigating through a series of files and folders, a concept that modern intranets ditched a long time ago.
  • Content governance – the successful publishing of content requires governance around it to ensure that pages and items are accurate, up to date and relevant. This is essential not only to sustain employee interest and adoption but also to ensure that content can be relied upon, for example to support customers. The kind of governance that needs to be put in place includes having clear ownership of every page, approval workflows, automated reminders to review pages perhaps every six months, restrictions on who can publish where and more.  Teams is simply not going to give you this and organisations may find that a more conventional SharePoint intranet is the better option (well find out later that there are ways to bring your SharePoint intranet into Teams).
  • Content management Teams lacks common CMS and publishing functionalities. Everyday content management tasks such as publishing a news item or retrieving analytics on a page might make a comms professional progressively frustrated having to use Teams as their main comms channel.
  • Branding the Teams canvas is blue and grey and you cant change that unfortunately. You can use your own logos for apps and teams but these end up looking more like icons than branding. You cant change the colour of the team or channels. Any branding that you do put in place is going to be buried within the Teams interface.
  • Teams governance there are some controls to help manage how Teams works in your organisation but there are some gaps. Controlling Teams provisioning is an obvious one and is leading to companies Teams environments quickly growing to hundreds if not thousands of Teams. This can cause the overall experience to seriously deteriorate as users struggle to find quality and relevance. There are some bespoke things we can do to help reduce Teams proliferation, by adding approval workflows so that users have to request a team, for example.
  • Office worker focus – Teams is a knowledge workers tool, not a frontline workers tool. Using Teams as your main channel for frontline workers is probably not going to be effective, even though there is a Teams mobile app.

What not to do when building your intranet in Teams

Theres one trap that Ive seen people fall into when considering a Teams-based intranet. This trap pretty much encompasses every weakness of Teams that Ive highlighted above so it is one to avoid: dont be tempted to create a complex structure of Teams, channels and folder structures for your Teams intranet. This makes for slow, clunky and frustrating user experience and you will get very low levels of adoption because of this.

Furthermore, intranets in large organisations can become extremely complex and in reality, are often a series of locally run intranets or microsites, tied together with a navigation and a homepage that aggregates and surfaces content in ways that make sense to different groups, and presents global and local content together side by side. Currently it is going to be nearly impossible to reproduce this complexity within a Teams hierarchy in a way that helps employees find what they need and also delivers a good and relevant user experience.

What are the good options for building our intranet in Teams?

So far weve looked at what services an intranet needs to deliver and then the challenges and traps to avoid with Teams. Thankfully we are left with multiple options for us to explore and use. What I would say however, is that it is unlikely that any one option on its own will be right for you. The right solution is going to be made up of a variety of options layered together. In some ways this makes Teams less than perfect because your intranet is going to be somewhat fragmented across the Teams environment. As we present the different options to you below well start with the simpler ones and move to the progressively more complex ones where you are going to need some development skills. Lets look at the different options:

Option 1 – Org-wide teams

Teams has a feature which allows you to set up an org-wide team (or convert an existing team). Org-wide teams have one key characteristic: when you set them up, every employee in your organisation will be placed into the team and they cant leave the team. This means that as an internal communications professional you can push messages out to the posts tab along with a corresponding notification. This means that Teams can be more like the All company group in Yammer whilst also giving you more controls for governance and moderation which you dont get in Yammer. You can also maintain a set of channels and tabs and know that everyone will have access to them. As previously stated, dont fall into the temptation of creating too many channels in your team and building deep and complex file structures.

You might think that having everyone in a single team is going to cause things to rapidly deteriorate with noisy and uncontrolled chat and a free-for-all chaos. There are controls you can set to limit posting to teams owners; to set up moderation; to limit channel creation and so on. Some of these controls are found at the team level and others are found at the channel level. There are some controls which youd expect to find but are not available such as limiting file uploads to team owners only.

There are some sensible limitations with org-wide teams but also some gaps:

  • You can only have five org-wide teams in an organisation. This seems like a good thing as too many is likely to overwhelm your staff.
  • You cant pin your org-wide team to the top of the list or make it stand out against other teams. This is likely to frustrate internal comms who will want to maintain a highly visible presence.
  • You can only have 5000 users in an org-wide team which is going to restrict larger organisations. I am not sure that there are going to be many use cases for an org-wide team for companies larger than 5000 so this is perhaps not a bad thing.
  • You need to speak to your Teams service admin to set up an org-wide team for you and make you the owner.
  • Guest users arent added by default but can be added manually.

Microsofts help page on org-wide teams contains best practice tips and other information to help you get started.

 

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Option 2 – Showing your existing intranet in Teams

If youve already got an intranet and you want to bring it into Teams you can do this really easily. You simply create a new tab in a team channel and add the Website app and paste in a link to your intranet. If youve decided to go for an org-wide team then adding your intranet to the General channel would augment the experience nicely. Effectively what youre doing here is creating a browser window inside a tab. If your organisation has a large mobile workforce this solution would work really nicely with the Condense frontline mobile intranet because it provides desktop browser version which would work well in Teams whilst you would also be giving your frontline workers a fully featured mobile app and not pushing them through to Teams.


How a Condense intranet looks inside Teams

A different yet similar approach could be to set up a few tabs and deep link each one into the main pages of your intranet that are likely to be useful to a user inside Teams. Perhaps a Policies and Procedures tab; an I need to… tab for common employee tasks; etc. This borrows the philosophy found in mobile intranet development where you dont simply deliver all of your pages inside the mobile app version of your intranet but rather focus on those that are likely to be useful for people on the move

Option 3 – Creating a simple corporate news page inside Teams

If you dont already have an intranet but are looking for somewhere to publish official news within Teams then you could create a SharePoint Communication site fairly quickly and easily. Once youve done that simply add it to a tab with the Website app as described above. This will take a little bit of time to figure out how to use SharePoint communication sites but these are pretty simple and getting into that might even tempt you into doing more with your SharePoint environment. We come across a lot of people who have been really put off by SharePoint because of bad, clunky experiences from yesteryear. The SharePoint Modern experience we have today is a pleasure to use comparatively. You shouldnt overlook it and any pages you do end up building can be brought into Teams using the same technique described here.

Option 4 – Using the Wizdom for Teams app in the side rail

Weve touched on Teams apps in the options above where apps can be added to channel tabs. This has some uses but is perhaps a little limited in that any app you choose is potentially going to end up lost inside a channel inside a tab somewhere. Another option is to use special intranet apps on the Teams side rail. The side rail is the vertical rail which you see in the desktop version of Teams. Any app that you put there is effectively pinned and is always visible. There are various Teams admin controls to allow you to push and pin apps to peoples side rails. Annoyingly the Website app isnt available to use in the side rail so you cant add your existing intranet or news here without getting a fair bit more technical. However, the Wizdom for Teams app is one good option that we have started to use more and more with our customers. It allows you to create a mini intranet inside Teams and use it to display news, links, tasks, policies, forms and so on. Wizdom for Teams news is also really quite neat and uses the sophisticated Noticeboard feature found in the main Wizdom intranet-in-a-box product. Noticeboard allows you to create news channels. Users can then subscribe to the channels that interest them, or you can make certain important channels mandatory. Its easy to use so you can hand out channels to different departments and groups across your organisation. If you already have a Wizdom intranet then you get Wizdom for Teams for free. If not, then you can buy the Wizdom for Teams as a standalone without having to fork out for the whole Wizdom product. Get in touch if you want to find out more.

Option 5 – Using other apps in the side rail

The market for Teams Apps is still pretty young and there arent any other specific intranet options available. There are however some other apps which are worth mentioning because they would make your Teams intranet all the more useful. One we like and resell is LMS365 which effectively delivers a Learning Management System into Office 365 and Teams. LMS365 is a full-feature LMS with course catalogue, course builder, tracking, reporting, mandatory courses, a mobile app and SCORM compatibility. It has the advantage of sitting within Office 365 so doesnt require users to login. It has lots of clever Teams integrations such as the ability to display specific courses within a teams channel, post courses to chat, search for courses inside Teams, and more. Have a look at other apps inside Teams and let us know if you find something interesting.

Option 6 – Create your own side-rail Teams apps

Soon after Microsoft launched Teams they also launched a development tool called App Studio for Microsoft Teams. If youre a developer youll be able to pick this up relatively quickly and build simple little apps. These are some of the things you can do with App Studio and could include in your app if you get into Teams app development:

  • You could easily build a little app that simply displays your existing intranet and provides an icon in the side rail.
  • You can create pages inside your app that use the same framework as SharePoint. This means you can create webparts and also use them in SharePoint. Any custom webparts that youve developed for SharePoint can also be ported over to Teams. Unfortunately you cant use all of those out-of-the-box webparts that come with SharePoint.
  • Teams apps can also contain chat bots built with the Microsoft Bot Framework. This means you could create a bot to answer common HR questions. The beauty of using bots is that you can also easily plug into Power Automate (previously known as Flow) and build workflows and integrations with other systems. This allows you to deliver more sophisticated micro-services that are focused around common user tasks. You could for example build a Teams bot that allows users to book annual leave, update their bank details or book a room. Were seeing more and more companies using bots to handle menial repetitive tasks. This signifies a shift from thinking of intranets that you navigate and browse through to intranets that you chat to in order to get jobs done (these are called conversational interfaces).
  • If you decide to go down the bot route then you can deliver micro-services in a really user-friendly way. Wed encourage you to use adaptive cards. These allow you to create mini user experiences within a bot chat window. They can contain mini forms, dashboards etc.
  • Apps can also include chat integrations. This means you can interact with your app in chat. Theres a nice example of a chat integration inside LMS365, the Learning Management System for Teams and Office 365 that I mentioned earlier. This allows you to search the course catalogue from within Teams chat and then post a result as a card inside a chat (see screenshots below).


    Clicking the little LMS365 tick icon below the chat field brings up a simple course catalogue search…


    …the user then selects the course he wants to post and this gets dropped into the chat field as a card.

    Another example of a chat integration could be the app reaching out to you through chat to notify you that a task is due. Similar to LMS365 the notification could contain an adaptive card with details and action buttons related to the task.

I think that well start to see more companies creating custom Teams app so as to deliver intranet functionality within Teams. It will of course take some investment but out of all the options, I think this one is going to give users the best and most integrated user experience. However, there is one downside with having a Teams app in the sidebar: the Teams mobile app doesnt incorporate the sidebar. This can be partly overcome by also placing your new app in a tab in an org-wide team since apps in tabs are still visible through the mobile app.

 

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Conclusion

The intranet inside Teams is never going to be the same experience that you get through the browser. And there are definitely trade-offs to think about when youre choosing and designing the intranet services you want to deliver through the platform. Youre also not going to get a great experience unless you are prepared to invest time and money. If you asked me for a recommendation I would say try setting up a SharePoint site to publish news and pages and bring this into Teams purely because SharePoint gives you much more sophisticated CMS tools than Teams on its own could ever do. I would also say look at a Teams app, whether youre buying one off the shelf or choosing to build your own.

I hope youve found this article useful and that you agree that there is value for organisations and users in delivering intranet services through Teams and its worth experimenting and investing. As with anything intranet related, remember to do your research beforehand, seek and act upon continuous feedback, and always have a clear governance plan. Intranet governance is what keeps intranets healthy and stops them failing.

If you want help with any of the topics raised in this article, do please get in touch. We can help you with:

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