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Which Tool When: Outlook or Microsoft Teams

Microsoft Teams is giving Outlook a run for its money. But when should you use Teams instead of Outlook? Or vice versa? Here's everything you could want to know about juggling the two.
Published on
September 18, 2018

With the introduction of Microsoft Teams in 2016, organizations found a new “which tool when” scenario in the Office arena: which tool do I use for communication and collaboration? Outlook and Teams immediately come to mind. The two apps each have their own strengths and weaknesses. When you’re deciding which to use, keep some of these best practices handy.


Outlook and Teams can overlap a little bit in their use cases, but I find it makes a lot of sense to use them for separate reasons. The way you want to communicate is generally the deciding factor on which to use when: Outlook or Teams.

I won’t say this article is prescriptive for all people in all situations, but I will stand by the recommendations made here as good practice for making the most of both apps and improving how you interact with your colleagues, customers, vendors, and everyone else you work with.

Condensing an otherwise long story, you’ll likely be using both Outlook and Teams for the foreseeable future for the many reasons I get into below. Here’s why.

The Loops

Microsoft recently rolled out what is likely the best graphical representation (that I’ve seen) of how to use their communication-based apps. The inner loop, outer loop, and open loop are important to keep in mind when talking Teams versus Outlook.

Teams is really made for your inner loop. If you don’t like that marketing speak, think of the constant back-and-forth conversations you have and file editing you do with those you work with on a regular basis (including external folks).

Teams isn’t just about chatting; it supports live, concurrent file editing, the ability to bring websites and apps directly into Teams as tabs, and audio/video conferencing. All on desktop and mobile, and all without leaving a central app.

Teams is the right place to do work. Conversations are informal, short, and to the point. It’s called Teams because you’re working with close-knit… teams. And that includes external people not in your network!

Outlook is made for your open loop. You can email anyone with an email address, but you always want to watch what you say in an email lest someone important receive it as a forward, right? So, email is more formal, more concrete, and less arbitrary. Keep Outlook for sending official messages to customers, vendors, etc.

So, consider discussions within Teams as internal. True, your company may be 10,000 strong, working with 5,000 vendors and clients, while your group is only 20. But stay with me on internal meaning your workgroup. Any communications you have with someone who’s not already part of your group is external, whether they’re within your organization or if they’re at a completely different entity.

Now, if you’d walk away at this point saying, “I still don’t get why I’d use Teams,” consider how many times you receive unnecessary email, short messages on long email chains that are hard to scroll through, and “okay,” “thanks,” and “got it” type responses.

You hate those emails. You tell people you get too much email all the time. Teams makes these usability issues a thing of the past, all thanks to the chat-based UI and, frankly, the thumbs-up button. In my work life, we use Teams almost exclusively. I don’t even know my colleagues phone numbers because, well, we use Teams for all our communication needs (even texting and calling).

Understanding Microsoft 365 Groups

Teams is built on Microsoft 365 Groups. Creating a Team creates a Group with membership that you designate. Using Outlook to arbitrarily email comes with no Group consideration, but Outlook also has connections to Groups. Instead of chatting in Teams to this Group, you email back and forth to the membership. In fact, each Team actually has an Outlook Group attached to it. It gets kind of complex, but this infographic can help simplify it.

There’s a really good way to juggle both a Team and its associated Outlook Group. Keep your teamwork in Teams and keep Outlook for communicating more formally with outsiders.

My suggestion is to have all internal discussions in Teams and all external discussions in Outlook, while keeping your conversations organized, saved, and accessible in your Group. Your emails get stored centrally within the Office 365 Group behind your Team and your chats stay in Teams natively. You can expand on this as more colleagues elsewhere in your organization adopt Teams and start interacting with them in Teams instead, but until then, Outlook will still be number one.

If you’re interested in juggling Outlook and Teams within the same Group (and you should be interested), I’ve got a Teams/Outlook Group guide to get you started.

Meetings and conferencing

The other big thing you use Outlook for is scheduling and attending meetings. Actually, not really. You’re using Outlook to schedule meetings. You’re likely using Skype for Business to attend meetings.

And, if you’re not aware yet, Microsoft Teams is eating up Skype for Business in the coming year. (At least, the cloud/Office 365 version is. Skype will remain as an on-premises option for the lifecycle of Skype 2019 at the very least). So, you’ll actually end up using Microsoft Teams in Outlook even if you hadn’t planned on it.

So, Teams brings together your calendar and conferencing in a new way so you’re not jumping between apps (like you do with Outlook and Skype). This is the case in both the desktop and mobile versions of Teams.

The gist of meetings here is that, yes, you can continue using Outlook to schedule meetings, but if you’ll be using Teams eventually, why not start now?

Wrap up

As usual, which tool to use depends on the situation you face. Teams is the new darling of collaboration. And why shouldn’t it be? Leave Outlook for the formal stuff and stick to Teams for the everyday stuff.

Just be sure to take advantage of the major Teams advantages and watch out for some Teams pitfalls.

You can keep up with the latest Teams and Outlook developments on various resource websites. Check out our Keeping up with the Office 365 life cycle infographic for all the sources.

Matt Wade
Matt is an engineer-turned-IT nerd and Microsoft MVP. His career began in the nuclear power design field and ended up in SharePoint adoption, pretty much by mistake. He’s best known for his SharePoint and Microsoft 365 infographics—especially the Periodic Table of Office 365—and advocating Microsoft Teams as the modern workplace.

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