Private Channels for Microsoft Teams are a hot topic these days simply because it’s by far the most requested feature (close to double the amount of votes more than the second popular feature for Teams on user voice). This new Teams feature is coming soon and will further bridge the gap between Teams and Slack which has had private channels for a long time.

However, I don’t think we should underestimate the impact that Private Channels could have to your Teams deployment. Currently the interaction between Teams and Channels is fairly simple – if you are part of a Team, then you get to see all of its Channels. With the introduction of Private Channels this opens us a myriad of possibilities not just for Teams but all the underlying Office 365 workloads that support it, in particular SharePoint.

In this article we are going to look at some possible scenarios, impacts and considerations that you might want to think about before allowing Private Channels to be part of your Teams deployment.

Disclaimer: I haven’t been part of any secret program giving me access to this feature in a preview phase so please take all of this with a grain of salt and note that these are all my opinions and thoughts.

What are people asking for?

Before we begin, it’s worth noting what users seem to be asking for with Private Channels. From reading the User Voice, there are a number of different scenarios but the main use case is the ability to have a channel in a Team that can be secured to a subset of users in that Team. Mostly this seems to be for conversation but people also want this to be applied to the documents that are part of that channel.

Some users want the ability to also not have a user need to be part of the ‘parent’ Team but just give them access to the one Private channel (basically this means that they won’t see any other content in the Team)

There is also lots of other suggestions and comments that I think align more with a concept of a Shared channel which I won’t get into in this article. If you are interested, check out the article Private Channels in Microsoft Teams: Facts vs. Fiction from AvePoint which has a more complete list.

What are organizations currently doing?

Without Private Channels there are several ways that organizations are currently working around this limitation. Let’s assume the scenario that we are working on a Project with external users and there is a need to have private content and communications relating to budgets. How could we accomplish this without Private Channels?

Creating a separate ‘Private’ Team

This seems to be the most common way. Users can create a completely separate Team with selected users involved in the private conversation. Honestly this isn’t great because now you have two Teams that you have to manage and there is a lot of overhead both in the management and all the other components that come with Teams.

Some issues with this approach are:

  • No synchronization between membership between the two Teams and associated groups
  • If you just want a place to chat, then creating a Team is a lot of overhead in terms of all of the other components that are created
  • What if you want to hide some content or conversations in this private Team? Then you need to create yet another Team and eventually you end up like the movie Inception (great movie)

Having secure conversations via 1:1 chat

Another common approach is to move private conversations outside of the group chat on Teams and into the one-on-one chat functionality on Teams. This approach can work, but once again there are some issues:

  • You now have to go to different places in Teams to have conversations. The public ones are in the Teams conversation channels and the private conversations would be in the 1:1 chat. This could get confusing and frustrating pretty quickly.
  • Any documents that you upload and share in the 1:1 chat won’t get uploaded to the Team but rather into the OneDrive of the person who uploaded it. So now you have multiple locations for content relating to this Team. Once again not great.

Use something other than Teams

Why not add another tool and kill the whole point of using Teams? 🙁 Unfortunately, people are doing this and a common example is to use email to have these types of conversations.

Possible impacts of Private Channels

Of course this all depends on the implementation but here are some important things that you might want to consider when Private Channels are released:

Governance

There are a lot of governance challenges and options in Teams, but Private Channels will introduce a whole new layer to how organizations need to think, plan and act. Already we are seeing the option to have Private Channels disabled as an option in the Teams Admin Center so the first questions to ask is: Will you allow your users to create Private Channels at all in your Teams environment?

The second question will be which users will be allowed to create Private Channels since you will be able to control who will have this ability using the Teams Policy as seen below. This policy can be assigned to a subset of users within your organization.

Apart from the technical details you will also need to communicate the usage of Private Channels in Teams otherwise you might have users creating a Private Channels for the wrong purpose. As a starting point you would want to consider the following:

  1. Guidelines on when to create a Private Channel vs. using 1:1 chats in Teams
  2. Communication on what actually happens both with conversations and documents when a Private Channel is created
  3. Helping users understand the security around Private Channels and any policies that your organization might have
  4. Revising your governance structure to only allow Team Owners to be able to create both public and private channels. I think the subtleties of Public vs. Private Channels might be a challenge to communicate to end users at the beginning so it may be better having a ‘gate keeper’ in a Team who can create and manage the creation of Channels.

Information Architecture

As you know, I feel information architecture is pretty important in Teams. Private Channels are going to have a big, big impact on structuring your Teams. Again, I don’t have any answers until the feature is released but here are some things to consider:

  1. Will your Private Channels have a naming convention? I would assume that there will be some sort of visual indicator that a channel is private (please let this be the case) but even so do you want to put something like [Private] in front of your channel name?
  2. What would be an acceptable mix of Public vs. Private channels? This is an interesting question because the last thing that you want is a Team with 3 Public channels and 30 Private channels. This really defeats the purpose of Team based collaboration but it could happen particularly if your end users don’t understand the usage of the Public and Private Channels.

Document Management

By far the biggest change could be the way that documents are managed in Teams. Although no implementation details have been announced publicly I would assume that if a Private channel is created, then the corresponding folder in the shared documents folder will also be created with those same permissions.

Does this mean that the same document library in a Team could have a combination of both public and private documents? If so, this could cause confusion and some issues with content discovery. Also if you notice the default view of document libraries in SharePoint don’t have the same permission column that allows you to see the permission on the folder. I wonder if some visual aid will be introduced to help show private content in document libraries that is associated with a Private Channel.

Some other questions that are yet to be answered are:

  • If you convert an existing channel to a Private channel (if you can even do that), will documents in the corresponding folder have their permissions reset?
  • How will the permissions on folders be handled? Hopefully it’s just using the standard SharePoint document library permission change that we are all used to.
  • Would users still be able to change permissions for documents in a private channel?

Questions, questions, questions!

Looking at the user voice there are a TON of questions out there. In fact, currently there are currently over 1950 comments. Here are some questions that I found interesting and illustrate some things to think about:

  • Can Team Owners add members to Private channels that are not within the parent Team?
  • Do members of a Private channel need to be members of the parent Team?
  • Can you create Channels without having to create a Team? (this is not really a private channels question but is really asking for more of a structure like Slack)
  • Will you be able to add guest users to Private channels? (I don’t see why you wouldn’t be able to)
  • Will it be possible to convert existing channels to private channels? (I am super interested in this and what the impact would be)

Conclusion

As you can see there are lots to think about and this feature is one that has really captured the interest of the user base. Personally I think this feature has the potential to super charge your Teams experience but like anything, you need to do some planning and governance around it.

Reading the user voice I think that three things become apparent:

  • People really want updates on feature progress: I know that it’s difficult from the perspective of Microsoft but they need to do a bit better. Roughly 20% of the comments are people pretty pissed about the lack of progress or lack of communication which isn’t good. I feel sorry for whoever Alex is who responded to some questions.
  • People see this as a blocker to move from Slack: Many user comments discuss how they would want to onboard onto Teams but can’t because this feature isn’t available. Perhaps it’s smart to buy some Microsoft stock once this feature gets announced if you trust the comments 🙂
  • People are using some interesting workarounds: Many users seem to be either creating whole new Teams or using the private chat capability or some other means. If private channels work nicely it is going make life a lot easier for lots of people.
  • It’s taken a long while but it’s coming!: Private channels were supposed to be released in October but this has now been moved to November which is the same time as Ignite 🙂 Coincidence?I think that you will see some information at Ignite 2019 about this feature.

Thanks again for reading and if you have any question or comments I would love to hear them. In the meantime let’s keep praying to the Private channels gods and please realize these are just my thoughts and if I am wrong, please don’t hate.

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