Different ways to access content stored in SharePoint

Different ways to access content stored in SharePoint

SharePoint Online (SPO) is the primary location to store digital objects and documents in Microsoft 365.

In this sense, it replaces on premise network file shares and drives as a location to store information although a bit ironically, it can also be accessed from File Explorer.

In Microsoft Teams channels, SPO sits behind the scenes via the ‘Files’ tab. This tab presents the content of the folder from the default Documents library that has the same name as the channel (General channel = General folder in the Documents library).

SPO can also be accessed via the SPO app on a mobile device and even directly from Outlook Online.

So, which one is the best way to access your information stored in SPO? The answer is – it depends on what you need to do. You could use all five options.

This post describes five ways to access content stored in SPO, with positives and negatives.

1- For day to day use – synced via File Explorer

Most people use File Explorer to store, organise and access their content, and generally only work from a few folder locations They don’t want to have to open a browser or other application.

The good news is that they can sync SPO document libraries to File Explorer and work directly from there. They can sync a document library from the SPO site or via Teams.

Syncing a library from SPO
Syncing the same library in Teams

So, for most users, the main change will be a different location to access their content from File Explorer. It looks a bit like the image below. The first words after the folder are the site name, then the hyphen, then the library name. To make it as easy as possible, the library should ideally be the same as the old top level folder on the network file share.

Syncing downloads the metadata about the content that is stored the SPO library. The content is not downloaded to the location device (C: drive usually) until it is opened. From that point on, there is a ‘local’ copy. If that local copy is modified, the changes are synced back to the SPO site.

The content of a synced library (example)

End users can share directly from File Explorer. The dialogue box is exactly the same as the SPO/Teams option. This makes it much easier to share rather than attach a document to email.

End users can co-author an Office document opened from File Explorer provided they have the most recent version of Office installed. Other end-users may be accessing the same document at the same time via the online versions of Office in Teams or SPO.

The main negatives about the sync option are as follows:

  • Only basic File Explorer metadata is visible – Name, Date modified, etc. If end-users need to add or see added metadata columns, they will have to access this via the Teams Files tab or the SPO library.
  • More restrictive, granular-level permissions cannot be set (e.g., on a folder or a document). These have to be set from SPO.
  • End-users cannot access the version history or Recycle Bin (to restore deleted items)
  • A folder added at the same level as a Teams channel-mapped folder, will not create a new channel. However, folders created under the Teams channel-mapped folder will be visible.

2 – To collaborate – access via MS Teams

Microsoft have positioned Teams to be an ‘all in one’ collaboration application, allowing end-users to chat, upload and store files, have video calls and more.

In the 1:1 chat area of Teams, the ‘Files’ tab presents documents shared from the OneDrive account of a participant in the chat. OneDrive is, of course, a SharePoint service.

In the Teams area of Teams, the ‘Files’ tab displays, for each channel, a folder with the same name in the Documents library of the Team’s SPO site (every Team has a SPO site). End-users can create, capture and manage content in the channel’s Files tab, as shown in the example below.

Files and folders in the ‘General’ folder of the SPO Documents library

There are several positives of accessing SPO via Teams:

  • Teams includes additional collaboration options, including the ability to chat at the same time as a document is viewed or edited. Content (and folders) can be shared easily.
  • If this library is synced to File Explorer, any changes made in either location will be automatically updated in the other.
  • Any metadata columns added to the SPO document library will be visible here.
  • The SPO site can be accessed directly from a link on the menu bar.

The main negatives of accessing content via the Teams ‘Files’ tab are as follows:

  • End-users have to open and use an unfamiliar interface (although it has become more common)
  • The three dot ‘ellipsis’ menu is limited compared with the full SPO version. For example, it does not include versions. See the screenshot below.
  • The Recycle Bin is not accessible – you have to click on ‘Open in SharePoint’ to access it there.
Ellipsis menu in the Teams Files tab

3 – To see Group emails and files – access via Outlook

Microsoft 365 Groups are a key element in Microsoft 365 and provide a range of functionality that can replace or supplement existing access control and collaboration purposes.

Every Microsoft 365 Group has an Exchange mailbox and a SPO site, and can be linked to a new Team.

  • If the Microsoft 365 Group is created first, the Exchange mailbox is visible to the Group members in their Outlook.
  • If the Team is created first, a Microsoft 365 Group with a SPO site and mailbox are created, but the Exchange mailbox is not visible via Outlook. It is there only to store the compliance copies of chats and for calendaring purposes.

Microsoft 365 Groups can be used to replace shared mailboxes or to give business areas the ability to access both email and SPO-stored content from the same location (as well as via File Explorer and Teams).

In the first screenshot below from Outlook Online, you can see a square ‘documents’ icon to the right of the words ‘Send email’. This square icon opens the Group’s SPO documents library (next screenshot). In the installed version of Outlook, clicking this link opens the SPO site in the browser window.

The Group mailbox in Outlook Online

In the screenshot below, you can see the Group’s files from the Documents library, General folder in Outlook Online.

The Group’s files from Outlook Online

The main positives of accessing SPO content from Outlook Online is that it is relatively easy to move between the Group’s emails and document stored in SPO. End-users can open and documents directly from Outlook, although this (currently) opens Word Online.

The main negative of accessing SPO content from Outlook Online is the limited functionality available from the ellipsis menu, including the inability to see previous versions or access the Recycle Bin. It is also not possible to modify the view (display columns). However, any changes made to the view in either Teams or SPO will be visible in the Outlook Online view.

The ellipsis menu in Outlook

4 – Anywhere, anytime – via mobile devices

Both Google and Apple provide the SharePoint mobile app, as well as apps for OneDrive, MS Teams, Outlook and Microsoft Office.

This means that mobile users can access their SharePoint content directly from a mobile device. They can also use the SharePoint app to search for any content they have access to.

The document library from a mobile device

The main negative with accessing SharePoint from a mobile device is the functionality is very limited. End-users can access and edit the content (if they have the relevant app installed), and can share the documents, but that’s all.

On the other hand, they can access the content anywhere, any time. That makes it very useful.

5 – From the browser – the full SharePoint experience

Of course, the end-user may also access SharePoint from the browser and it is usually a good idea to let them know they can do this for the reasons below.

They can access the browser version in multiple ways:

  • From the end-user SharePoint portal and clicking on the site – https://tenantname.sharepoint.com/_layouts/15/sharepoint.aspx
  • By clicking on ‘Open in SharePoint’ from the Files tab in Teams.
  • By saving the site as a favorite in their browser.
  • By clicking on the files option in a Group’s email inbox area in Outlook installed on the desktop.

The main or common reasons they might want to access the browser version of SharePoint are:

  • To recover a file they deleted (from any of the other locations, including File Explorer), from the Recycle Bin. This option is available for 93 days after the file was deleted. After that point, unless a retention policy has been applied (in which case the document will be in the Preservation Hold library, accessible to admins), the file is gone forever.
  • To see who has been working on a file, from the version history.
  • To see who has viewed a file (when this feature is enabled).
  • To seek approval for, or see who has approved which version of, a document. This functionality comes with every SharePoint library and list.
  • To add additional metadata to the content.
  • To use the full functionality of document sets. Note that these appear as normal folders in a synced document library.
  • To copy or move documents.
  • To check out a document.
  • To search for content and to view content in multiple ways through views.
  • And more.

Summing up

Access to SharePoint has never been easier, but it is a good idea to let end-users know that they can access their SharePoint content in multiple ways.

Some users may rarely access it via Teams (unless they are interested in collaborating more effectively than attaching documents to emails), and even less so via the full SharePoint browser interface. In summary:

OptionBest for
File ExplorerDay to day use where no additional metadata or labels are needed. Sharing (instead of attaching)
MS TeamsCollaboration.
OutlookFor Groups that also use the Group mailbox.
Mobile deviceAnywhere, anytime access
BrowserFor the full set of functionality, including the Recycle Bin, versioning history, viewing, usage information, searching and more.

It is important to let end users know the functionality that they can access in the different areas, especially the version history and Recycle Bin in the browser version of SPO. These alone can be ‘life savers’.


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