An Everyday Guide to Office 365 Groups

Published by
Matt Wade
October 22, 2019

On a user level, Office 365 Groups—which I’ll simply refer to as the capitalized Groups in this article—represent one of the biggest selling points for moving to Office 365. They provide quick, easy access to an online workspace for communicating with colleagues and collaborating on documents and files. There’s little-to-no learning curve: get in and start working.

But they’re also one of the most confusing new things in Office 365. Why? Because few people (even in my field) can explain Groups well… or correctly. “Groups” is also not an app. You’re not going to find it in the Waffle, which confuses… everybody.

This makes things difficult because "Groups" is more a concept or an experience than it is a thing. For example, you don’t access a Group through a standard “Groups” web interface: you can get there through Outlook, Yammer, Teams, or elsewhere. Above is an infographic to get you started with Groups. And below is some more detailed coverage of what the infographic means.

What a Group actually is

Simply put, an Office 365 Group is a collection of people. It’s basically an upgraded version of an Outlook distribution group; you know, like if you email [email protected], that email gets forwarded to all of accounting? It’s basically the same thing.

But that’s not the experience you get when you work with a Group. Once you create the Group (the collection of people), it tips the first domino of a series that provide you a suite of Office 365 apps that you can use to communicate and collaborate.

So no, it’s not an app. A Group has no standard interface. You won’t find “it” in the Waffle. “Groups” is—in the way you’ll experience it in everyday work life—a generalized collaborative experience in O365.

How a Group works

There are three main types of Groups, and they’re created based on the way your Group wants to communicate. You can have 1) an Outlook Group, 2) a Yammer Group, or 3) a Teams Group. There is overlap between some of these I’ll cover later in this article.

Generally, the way you refer to your Group will depend how it was created:

  1. Outlook Groups are called… Outlook Groups. In fact, there used to even be an iOS app for them called (wait for it) Outlook Groups.
  2. Yammer Groups are generally called Groups or Feeds (your call).
  3. A Group in Teams is pretty much known only as a Team.

Just remember that a Yammer Feed and a Teams Team are really Groups behind the scenes! The Group is about permissions; the apps are about doing work. That’s why Groups get confusing: depending on which app you’re using to access them, you might use a different vernacular to reference them.

So, you now know that your communication channel is key when deciding on which type of Group you want. But when you create a Group, it doesn’t just create a communication channel, it also provides you other workspaces. And you get them whether you like it or not. You decide whether to use—or not use—these apps. There’s nothing saying you have to use them all, but you can’t create just a Yammer Feed without, say, a SharePoint team site collection.

Let’s take this one by one so you know what you get when you create a Group in Outlook, Yammer, or Teams.

Outlook Group

When you create an Outlook Group, you get:

  1. An Outlook email inbox to record conversations between Group members;
  2. A shared Outlook calendar to post events and appointments that affect Group members;
  3. A SharePoint team site collection (which you access through the “Files” tab);
  4. A OneNote notebook (which actually lives in your SharePoint site collection);
  5. A Plan in Planner;
  6. A Stream video portal;
  7. A Forms workspace; and
  8. A Power BI workspace* (if you have premium Power BI licenses for all members—see the Power BI section below for important caveats).

An Outlook Group is kind of the base type of Group. Most of your colleagues are likely familiar with Outlook and could migrate to using Outlook Groups faster than trying to get them into Yammer or Teams if they’re not familiar with that communication method. So, an Outlook Group can be a nice, easy intro to this new collaborative world.

Yammer Feed

When you create a Yammer Feed, you get:

  1. A Yammer feed for communicating;
  2. A SharePoint team site collection (which you access through the “SharePoint Document Library” or “SharePoint Site” link to the right of the feed);
  3. A OneNote notebook (which actually lives in your SharePoint site collection);
  4. A Plan in Planner;
  5. A Stream video portal;
  6. A Forms workspace; and
  7. A Power BI workspace* (if you have premium Power BI licenses for all members—see the Power BI section below for important caveats).

Yammer is especially good for breaking down silos. Communities of practice—groups of people who have similar skill sets, but don’t necessarily report through the same management chain—find Yammer good for asking open-ended questions and getting responses from like-skilled people in the organization. And with SharePoint underneath, they can track best practices, standard operative procedures, and more, in a centralized place.

Teams Team

When you create a Team, you get:

  1. A Teams chat for communicating;
  2. A Teams wiki for collecting notes and knowledge;
  3. A SharePoint team site collection (which you access through the “Files” tab);
  4. A OneNote notebook (which you have to add as a new tab if you want quick access because the wiki is meant to replace this);
  5. A Plan in Planner;
  6. A Stream video portal;
  7. A Forms workspace;
  8. A Power BI workspace (if you have premium Power BI licenses for all members—see the Power BI section below for important caveats);
  9. An Outlook email inbox to record conversations between Group members (though this does not display automatically with a new Team anymore; you have to request access from IT); and
  10. A shared Outlook calendar to post events and appointments that affect Group members (this also does not display automatically with a new Team anymore).

Teams provides a persistent chat-based communication method that lets you separate topic-based conversation by channel. Teams are great for a project team to have open-ended discussion that skips the need for lots of back-and-forth, reply-all style email communication, which can get very overwhelming. Teams is Microsoft’s response to the success of Slack. Teams also supports audio and video conferencing (replicating a lot of the functionality of Skype for Business, actually).

Teams also provides a simple wiki in place of the typical OneNote notebook, though the standard notebook you get with your Group’s SharePoint team site can still be added as a tab in Teams.

Here are some resources on Microsoft Teams:

  1. Top-Notch Resources for Everyday Uses of Microsoft Teams (Matt Wade)
  2. Everyday Guide to Etiquette in Microsoft Teams (Matt Wade)
  3. 8 Surprisingly Great Things About Microsoft Teams (Matt Wade)

Other Groups?

“But wait,” you may say, “I’ve created Groups before in Planner or Power BI.” You absolutely may have. But they’re not unique Group types. Any Groups made in Planner, Stream, or Power BI are Outlook Groups by default. In fact, if you create a team site from the SharePoint Home, it creates a Group and you get all the other apps, even if you didn’t know it.

So, if there’s one thing to remember: whenever you create an Outlook Group, Yammer Feed, Teams Team, Plan, Stream video portal, orSharePoint team site in Office 365, you’ve created a Group and you’re now the proud owner of a workspace in all the relevant apps that come with that Group type. Congrats!

You’re welcome to create Groups through other apps, but I recommend Groups be created based on a communication need first.

Using your Group

All three Group types are great for communicating. At first, the communication methods may seem redundant, but they truly aren’t. There are use cases for each. Some are based on best results over the long term (following best practices), and some are based on getting best adoption (which apps are easier for your colleagues to start using quickly).

Files

In Outlook, Yammer, and Teams, you get a tab called Files, which shows you the default document library that comes with your SharePoint team site. Files are displayed differently depending on the app. For example, Outlook Groups don’t show folders even if they’re used in SharePoint. Teams doesn’t fully play nice with metadata yet, either.

When you upload or share a file via these Group apps, the files don’t live in Outlook, Yammer, or Teams. Those apps aren’t file storage apps. But you know what is? SharePoint! So that’s where all those files go… directly to your shared library.

But fear not! You can still get the most of SharePoint by clicking the “View in SharePoint” link in Outlook and Teams, or click the “SharePoint Document Library” link on the Yammer Feed’s conversations page.

In SharePoint, you can create lists, libraries, pages, and all the good stuff you’re used to with SharePoint. Just remember that your communications occur in Outlook, Yammer, or Teams, and that your Files tab in those apps display a simplified look of just one library. (You can include additional libraries as tabs in your Team though.)

Notebook/Notes/Wiki

Each Group type comes with a default OneNote notebook for tracking everyone’s notes in a central place. This isn’t really a Groups feature, though. Each new SharePoint team site comes with a default team notebook that’s available from the Quick Launch. This is the same notebook that shows up in the Groups apps.

Your notebook is available in Outlook and Yammer from the top nav bar. But in Teams, the notebook tab has been replaced by a wiki that’s specific to Teams. It’s not a SharePoint wiki, though the content does live in SharePoint (in a sneaky way). I dislike this wiki; you can’t even link between pages (yet), so the functionality is poor. But you can always add your team notebook as a tab in Teams (more on that later).

The point is, no matter which type of Group you go with, a central knowledge base tool (notebook, wiki) will be made available for you and your colleagues to document things on the fly, in an informal but useful way.

Video portal

Microsoft Stream is one of the newest applications that's been launched as part of the Office 365 ecosystem. Stream will eventually replace Office 365 Video and provides a very YouTube-like experience in Office 365.

Power BI

Power BI has been a part of Groups for a while now. If you have Power BI Pro licenses for your Group members, they have access to the Power BI workspace that comes with a Group. However, things are soon changing. There are essentially two different types of Power BI workspaces, call them version 1 and version 2. A new Group comes with a V1 workspace, but only for now. If you create a Group in Power BI, that's a V2 workspace; you don't get the rest of the online workspace (like from Teams, Outlook, or Yammer). Eventually V1 workspaces will be retired and Power BI will no longer be a part of the Groups ecosystem.

Forms

Microsoft Forms is a reasonably new and user-friendly app for creating surveys and questionnaires. Despite its name, Forms cannot be used to create complex and logic-based forms; that's what Power Apps is for. But Forms is amazing at getting input from people both in the organization and from anywhere else in the world. With Groups, Forms lets all the members of the Group edit forms and view the results.

There is a premium version called Forms Pro. It provides greater analytics, logic, integrations, and business intelligence. If you want to be able to benefit from those features, members of your Group need Forms Pro licenses.

Accessing your Group

Groups are available pretty much anywhere on any device. From IE, Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge you can access all three Group types easily via their web interfaces. That means your Group experiences are supported on PC as well as Mac.

You can also access your Outlook Groups through Outlook 2016 and 2019 on PC and Mac, and Outlook on iOS and Android.

Access your Yammer feeds through Yammer for PC and Mac, and via the iOS, and Android apps. (Note that the desktop app is simply a wrapper of the website, so it may not be worth it.)

And you can access your Team through Teams for PC and Mac, and via the iOS and Android apps.

Connectors

You’ll notice you can add “connectors” in various Group types. Microsoft has come to realize that no matter how much effort they put into various services, you may still prefer one of their competitors. So they’ve built out-of-the-box connectors that you can add to your Groups. For example, you can add a Salesforce connector to your Team. It’s an effort to give you everything you need all in one place. You can read more about them here.

Frequently Asked Questions

Or, more accurately, questions I’d suspect many people to ask.

What about Skype (for Business)?

Microsoft says there is Skype integration (Ctrl/Cmd+F “Skype” in the source): apparently you can start a group IM/call with everyone in the Group. But there’s no written source I can find to corroborate that. I don’t see much value here anyway. But maybe you do.

Can I delete Groups?

Yes. But deleting the Outlook Group, Yammer Feed, or Teams Chat deletes the SharePoint Site, Plan, etc. You can't simply delete one part ofthe Group and not another; you will delete all associated workspaces.

Can I merge Groups?

You found two or more Groups that likely overlap? Not surprising. Unfortunately at this point, you can’t merge Groups. You’ll have to manually add or move content between the apps.

What about OneDrive (for Business)?

OneDrive for Business is a personal storage space for you. So it’s not really affected by your Group. OneDrive for Business is a good place to draft files. Once they’re ready for the rest of the Group to see, move them to your Group’s SharePoint Site, where everyone has access and can review. You should review my infographic on when to use OneDrive versus SharePoint.

One minor exception here is in Microsoft Teams. When you upload files to a Team, they're stored in the associated SharePoint team site, as mentioned above. However, when you share a file in a private chat, it's actually automatically uploaded to a folder in your OneDrive and shared with the people who are in the private chat with you.

Can I share externally?

External sharing is dealt with at the app level. There is no global “share this Group” toggle switch. Outlook, Yammer, and SharePoint allow external sharing. Planner and Teams will soon support external users. Talk to your IT team regarding how to do it and whether you’re allowed to.

Can Group type be changed?

  • You cannot add Outlook email/calendar or Teams Chat to a Yammer Feed.
  • You can add a Teams Chat to an Outlook Group after it’s created.
  • Only an IT admin can add an Outlook Group to an existing Team (source).
  • You cannot add Yammer to an Outlook Group or Team Chat (as part of the same Group).
  • Yammer is sort of the outlier here.

What if I only want…

Looking to only create a Planner Plan? Or you just want a SharePoint Site? No can do. Nowadays, any of the apps shown above will create an entire Group when you create a new workspace in the app. So, for example, if you create a Plan, you get an Outlook Group. But it’s no big deal: just don’t use the other apps. It’s not like they cost anything.

Disclaimers

  1. Office 365 Groups are very confusing. Researching how they work and confirming that they in fact work that way wasn’t easy. The differences in how the three types work make them that much harder to understand and deal with. For that reason, you may find an error in this graphic or post. If you do, it’s entirely my fault; please bring it to my attention so I can correct it (and provide your source, even if it’s just “I tested it and it doesn’t do that”).
  2. Some of my statements are my opinion based on best or proven practices that I have built off spending years having done this type of work. Yes, there are other opinions out there and other ways to do certain things. These are mine. Please respect that.
  3. This documentation is for end users and purposely removes some details in an effort to not overwhelm you. IT Pros, admins, and other experts in the field, please respect that.
  4. It wasn't until recently that Yammer Groups were transitioned into Office 365 Groups. Originally, they had their own technical setup. "Old" Yammer groups (ones that don't have SharePoint or OneNote called out on the right side of a Feed) will be "upgraded" to fully functional Office 365 Groups before summer 2017.

Further reading

Update history

  • 2017-06-02: Added FAQ section from graphic into text.
  • 2017-06-14: Added Stream as a Group app as documented by the Microsoft Stream team on the Tech Community forums. Stream goes live at the end of June.
  • 2018-11-08: Updated graphic since Outlook Group doesn't display with a new Team anymore unless you get IT involved.
  • 2019-10-22: Added Microsoft Forms and republished this graphic on jumpto365.com, moving from icansharepoint.com.