12 Days of Microsoft Teams | Day 4

What to consider before enabling Private Channels in MS Teams

Welcome to Day 4 of PixelMill’s ’12 Days of Microsoft Teams’ series! As Billy Shakes once wrote, to private channel or not to private channel, that is the organizational question. Enjoy!

With 24,134 votes (as of December 11th, 2019), Private Channels has been the most requested feature in user voice since November 1, 2016. Now live in GA, private channels have made many users extremely happy; PixelMill team-members included. So why have we been recommending that you turn them off

TL;DR 

When private channels were released, Microsoft’s default setting was to turn them on; meaning that by default, users had access to this feature right away. There are many factors that go into the creation of private channels including how they are administered and managed on the back end, as well as governance around them that should be considered before releasing the ability to create them to your users.  

A little backstory, please… 

Let’s start with a basic history of this request. The inclusion of private channels has been controversial from the start. Our observation has been that there was a near 50/50 split of people who found this feature as instrumental in the success of a Teams-driven digital teamwork platform, while the other half of users thought private channels were a terrible idea.  

We’re big supporters of private channels because we have seen real-life use cases that demand them.  

For example, let’s say you have a group of engineers working on Project X which has some aspect of it that is sensitive. Only part of the group of engineers should have knowledge of that element, so you create a private channel for those discussions. Then the rest of Project X would be discussed in the project team so you don’t lose the threaded conversations and collaboration around files, meetings, recordings, etc.  

So what would those anti-private-channel advocates say to our need for private channels? “Just create another team with the sub-group of engineers as the team’s members.” Our argument against this is layered, but the main reasons are that this encourages team bloat, and related conversation sets around specific projects/topics are now separated.  

So whether you’re pro-private channels or not, there’s a lot to consider. What it comes down to is that the way private channels had to be implemented is actually what forces us to consider whether we will use them or not. 

Promises, Promises 

When Microsoft decided to deliver private channels, they made a few promises, including: 
 

  1. Only people assigned to a private channel would have access and visibility to that channel.  
  2. Files shared in private channels would only be visible to members of the private channel. 
The Owner Conundrum: 

To truly deliver on #1—only people assigned to a channel have access to that channel—a team owner might not have visibility to the private channel they create or technically own as a team owner. There are certainly common use-cases when a team owner should not necessarily have access to a private channel’s conversation. 

They can see it exists, but they can’t see a member list, files, or activity. Many would say if you’re a team owner, shouldn’t you own the whole team? At PixelMill, we see workarounds here and it’s definitely not a deal-breaker. However, this is a governance issue that you might need to consider. In fact, for some of us, this a requirement. 

Behind the SharePoint Scenes: 

SharePoint holds files for channels. Microsoft’s second promise—if a private channel is created, files in that channel would only be visible to those in that private channel—gets a little more tricky. When a new team is created, a SharePoint site collection is automatically created for you to store files. A team owner is then made a SharePoint Site Collection administrator of that site. When SharePoint does this—and here’s where we run into the problem with delivering on #2—that administrator has full access to that site collection. So, inherently there was no way to keep this second promise because a team owner, as a site collection administrator, would have access to private channel files if those files were stored in the team’s site collection document library. 

How did Microsoft solve for this? They create a unique SharePoint site collection for every private channel. Yes, you read that right, every private channel gets its own site collection. To streamline this process, the site collection has been stripped down; it’s really only created with the intention to store files, but now the team owner doesn’t have access to the SharePoint site if they are not a member of the private channel. Since Teams is using site collection to store files, it is hiding private channel site collections from the UI of the SharePoint Admin interface because from Microsoft’s perspective they’re not seen as “true” site collections.  

The SharePoint Tenant Admin’s Quandary 

If I’m a SharePoint tenant administrator, don’t I need to own the whole thing? If 100,000 site collections are created via private channel creation and I don’t really know they are there, am I’m responsible for them? 

Once again, we’ll reiterate that there are ways around this, and PixelMill still doesn’t consider this a deal-breaker. Instead, we urge you to talk with your IT team and think through the impacts that enabling private channels could have on everyone so you have a solid plan for governance around this feature. Consider building PowerShell scripts or utilizing third-party solutions to help you manage these site collections. 

Granular Control Could Be Your Answer 

If your organization does decide that private channels make sense for your workflows and overall Microsoft Teams strategy, the next thing to consider is how/who will have the ability to create them. Thankfully, Teams’ settings do allow you to granularly control who can create private channels via policies. 

Current limitations, but the future is bright! 

Released just November of this year (2019), private channel functionality is limited compared to that of other channels. Currently when you create a private channel you do not have access to support bots, apps like Planner, or scheduled channel meetings. The good news is, there is a roadmap for private channels that promises to deliver on many of these gaps.  


Are you pro-private channels? Are you ready to dive in and uncover how your team could benefit from enabling them? A PixelMill Teams expert would love to chat with you today!  

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