Here is our latest round-up of what’s new in Office 365. There have been some big announcements and we are excited to share our thoughts on what’s been unveiled.
Hub sites have started rolling out
In our last round-up blog – “What’s new in Office 365 – February 2018”, we said we were looking forward to the availability of SharePoint hub sites and Microsoft duly delivered in late March by starting the rollout of hub sites to Targeted Release tenants with the intention to complete the worldwide rollout sometime in May. Essentially, hub sites provide the ability to group SharePoint sites together and provide a consistent experience across them. There are 4 fundamental benefits that hub sites deliver:
Aggregation of news and site activity
Shared navigation applied to all sites providing a means to traverse sites with ease
Combined search results from all associated sites to improve the discoverability of information
Common branding and theming in all sites to ensure a consistent user experience
As ever, there as some limitations/restrictions with hub sites that can be summarised as:
Sites can only associate with a single hub site
Hub sites cannot associate with other hub sites (i.e. there is no concept of a hub-of-hubs)
Hub sites can only be defined by administrators (using PowerShell)
Site owners are (mostly) free to associate (and disassociate) their sites with hub sites at their discretion
When a site is associated with a hub site, the permissions of that associating site are not changed, which is a good thing, but this could lead to some user confusion
While content aggregation and search results from associated sites (see point above) are security trimmed, the shared navigation is not; therefore, caution should be taken if creating links to sites that users are potentially unable to access
Initially, there is an imposed limit of 50 hub sites per tenant, however, we understand this is a temporary limit while the rollout continues, and feedback is gathered about hub site functionality
Overall, we are impressed by hub sites. In fact, we have already deployed them in our own SharePoint Online environment to help us join-up the various project delivery team spaces on a per-client basis. With this configuration, we can easily traverse multiple team sites for the same client and search for project documentation across all projects.
Hub sites help to breakaway from the traditional hierarchical structure of SharePoint sites (and sub-sites) that was always fine at the point of initial creation but struggled to cope with changing organisational structures. Hub sites further the recognition of the now preferred wide-and-shallow information architecture approach, where there is effectively a site for individual themes/initiatives, by providing a construct that is simple to implement, effective in its delivery and adaptable to change. Microsoft has signalled that there is yet more to come with hub sites, but it is undoubtedly off to a good start.
More new features added to SharePoint Admin Center Preview
In our quick lap around the new SharePoint Admin Center Preview blog post, we highlighted many of the features of the new experience and since that time Microsoft has added several additional capabilities.
In our initial review, we highlighted that it was not possible to change the External Sharing settings for sites, but this has now been addressed with a new settings panel available from the properties pane for a selected site:
Sadly, this feature is only available when a single site is selected. We think this would be an ideal feature to be able to be used with a multi-selection of sites.
The site management page has also been updated to allow admins to save custom views, again something we called out in our initial review.
Some other features have been added including improving the format of emails sent to site admins, improving search to find sites in large tenants and other minor UI tweaks (e.g. renaming “site recycle bin” to the more informative “deleted sites”). The new experience is still in preview and there are many more features to come before we can recommend switching to the new experience and, inevitably, unless you are prepared to do all your SharePoint admin activities via PowerShell, switching between the 2 modes will continue for some time yet.
Modern SharePoint theming for classic sites
When the modern SharePoint user experience was introduced, it brought with it a new model for changing the look and feel of the site. Until recently, this was only available for Office 365 group-connected and Communications sites, but now existing classic team sites can apply modern themes, including custom themes, in the same way as these modern SharePoint Online templates.
Multi-Geo support for SharePoint & OneDrive
Announced, albeit in passing, at the SharePoint Virtual Summit in May 2017, SharePoint Online now supports multi-geo configuration along with Exchange Online and OneDrive for Business. Multi-geo support enables multi-national organisations to meet data residency requirements with a single global Office 365 tenant rather than fragmenting their deployment (and users) across separate tenancies. When enabled, multi-geo support allows administrators to define satellite geo locations that apply to the organisation and manage the allocation of resources (users & files) and configuration rules (i.e. access policies etc.) of that geo location.
It is worth noting that Microsoft has stated that multi-geo support is not designed or intended for performance optimisation (i.e. having users physically closer to their data) but instead exists to help organisations meet their specific data residency compliance requirements. Availability of multi-geo capabilities is also limited, at present, to organisations with a minimum of 5,000 Office 365 users.
Having first appeared over a year ago in Education versions of Office 365, Microsoft Forms has now become generally available for all Office 365 commercial customers. Microsoft Forms allows anyone to create and distribute forms, gather responses and analyse the results. Typical use cases for Microsoft Forms are simple polls, surveys and data submission forms.
As a web-based tool, forms built can be distributed across several different endpoints. For example, there is a Forms web part for SharePoint allowing a site to host a company-wide survey. Microsoft Teams also has built in support for Microsoft Forms to facilitate data capture within a team. Recently, Microsoft Flow was updated to allow a flow to be triggered on submission of a Microsoft Forms response.
While Microsoft Forms is incredibly simple and easy to use, it should only be used for very simple processes and definitely not mistaken as a fully-fledged forms solution. There are certainly scenarios where Forms will be well suited to the task in hand but as the complexity of the requirements grow then an alternative approach, such as PowerApps or third-party forms solutions, should be used instead.
Teams sub-plans now shown in Planner
Microsoft recently addressed an integration pain-point between Planner and Teams. As Planner and Teams both share the use of underlying Office 365 Groups then every Team has a Planner plan. Teams also supports the ability to create plans within the existing team (e.g. creating a plan for a specific Teams channel), however, these plans were not shown when using the Planner app thus creating confusion for users. Now Planner shows all plans and provides a breadcrumb style notation to provide some context as to where plans have originated from along with the ability to launch that plan in the Teams client.
Microsoft Teams/Skype for Business
As part of the on-going work to merge Skype for Business with Microsoft Teams, the roadmap for this unification was recently updated. There were some notable features that have been released including the ability to import Skype for Business contacts into Teams, unified presence between Teams and Skype for Business (previously it was possible to appear “available” on one platform but “away” on the other), improved out-of-office notifications and messages and the introduction of a unified Admin Center for Skype for Business and Microsoft Teams. The unified Admin Center is still very much in preview and will require administrators to switch between it and the existing admin environments for the foreseeable future.
Office 365 Groups
As a foundational component of Office 365, Microsoft has made some small but significant changes to Office 365 Groups recently.
Office 365 Groups created from Teams will be hidden from Outlook by default
In case it wasn’t clear, when a Team is created in Microsoft Teams then an Office 365 Group is created. The Office 365 Group identifies the group’s name and its members and owners. Groups can also be created in lots of different ways: directly in Outlook, when creating a new team site in SharePoint, when creating a new plan in Planner and so on. As all Office 365 Groups get a Shared Mailbox in Exchange Online then this has caused some confusion for users as to where conversations should occur for a group created in Microsoft Teams; in Outlook using email (think of it as like a distribution list) or in Teams as chat?
Based on this customer feedback, Microsoft has made changes to the default behaviour when Office 365 Groups are created. Now, when an Office 365 Group is created because of a Team being creating in Microsoft Teams, that underlying Office 365 Group is hidden from Outlook thus promoting the use of the chat channels in Teams over the email-based conversations native to Office 365 Groups.
Office 365 Groups hover card updated in SharePoint Online
A small but welcome change is that the hover card for the Office 365 Group associated with a team site has been updated to be consistent with the layout, information shown, and functionality offered within Outlook. This updated hover card provides links to the various shared resources (e.g. OneNote, Planner etc.) as well as providing, depending on the permissions applied to the group, the ability to join/leave/follow/unfollow the group.
With Yammer’s role better positioned now around the concept of the “outer-loop”, the service continues to receive updates adding some useful new features.
Move conversations to a different group
Yammer recently introduced a new feature to allow a conversation to be moved to a different group. This is useful in situations where a conversation started in one group but ended up being more appropriate to a different group. Previously, the conversation could not be moved to a more appropriate group (and audience) but there is now a menu option to facilitate this.
A simple but effective improvement. Yammer now records how many people have seen a post and shows it to all.
I have played a pivotal role in the development of Intelogy, a leading Microsoft Partner specialising in Office 365, SharePoint & .NET Development, since its formation in 1995. I engage with both business stakeholders and technical professionals to ensure successful delivery of high quality software solutions. I love new technology and continue to set new targets for the development of the company.