Posted in Electronic records, Governance, Information Management, Microsoft 365, Microsoft Teams, Records management, Retention and disposal, SharePoint Online

A basic retention model for Microsoft Teams

In my previous post about managing inactive Teams, the third option listed was to apply retention policies to those Teams. It included the graphic below.

This post provides more details of a basic retention model that can be applied to both active and inactive Teams.

Key takeaways

Key takeaways from this post for records and information managers:

  • Every Team has a ‘Posts’ (group chat messages) and ‘Files’ (documents etc) tab, and usually also starts with a Wiki tab (which can be removed). Other tabs may be added via the + option.
  • A Team in Microsoft Teams is not a single container or aggregation for the capture and storage of records. Almost all the records in a Team are stored in a hidden folder in Exchange Online (EXO) mailboxes (posts) or SharePoint Online (SPO) (files). Some records (conversations) may also be created and captured in the EXO mailbox of the associated Microsoft 365 (M365) Group.
  • It is not possible to apply a single retention policy to a Team; at least two separate policies will be required – one policy for the Team channel posts of EVERY team, and one or more policies for the content captured in SPO sites (files) or groups of sites.
  • Some records, created in and accessible from Teams, may be stored in other M365 applications (e.g., Tasks, Forms, WhiteBoard, etc) or third-party applications. It is not possible to apply any Microsoft 365 retention policy to records created by or captured in these applications.
  • Records and information managers should have access to the details (not necessarily the content) of every M365 Group, Team, and SPO site in order to establish a plan for the creation and application of retention policies to Teams. At a minimum, they should be assigned the Global Reader role (for details of M365 Groups and SPO sites) and the Compliance admin role (for retention policies).
  • It is relatively easy to overcomplicate the retention model for Teams, for example by applying separate retention labels to different folders and sub-folders in each channel ‘files’ tab.
  • Try to keep the model simple for as long as possible.

Core components of a Team

The main components of every Team are shown in the diagram below. If private channels are not allowed in the organisation, ignore the top two left and right elements.

The relationship of a Team to its M365 Group, Exchange mailbox and SharePoint site, showing where the content is stored (dotted lines).

As shown in the diagram above:

  • Every Team is directly linked with an M365 Group. Every M365 Group has an Exchange Online (EXO) mailbox and a SharePoint Online (SPO) site.
    • The Team, M365 Group, SPO site, and mailbox address (teamname@) all share the same name. The original name (which should be brief, <20 characters if possible) and the display name may be different.
    • The Owners and Members of the Team are the Owners and Members of the M365 Group and those Groups are added to the SPO site Owners and Members permission groups respectively.
  • A ‘compliance copy’ of every post in a normal channel is copied from the Azure-based Teams chat service (which is always inaccessible) to a hidden folder of the EXO mailbox of the M365 Group linked with the Team.
    • Where private channels are allowed, a ‘compliance copy’ of every post in a private channel is copied to a hidden folder of the ‘personal’ EXO mailboxes of all participants in the private channel.
  • Any content created or captured in the ‘Files’ tab of the Team channels is stored in the SPO site of the M365 Group linked with the Team. If any lists are created, they are either stored on the same SPO site or are linked from another site.
    • Where private channels are allowed, a separate SPO site is created (using the name of the ‘parent’ site followed by a hyphen then the private channel name, e.g., parentsitename-privatechannelnamesite). Any content created or captured in the ‘Files’ tab is stored in that SPO site.

So, a Team is a combination of at least four elements: the Teams user-interface (and back-end database), an M365 Group, a SPO site, and an EXO mailbox. The mailbox is used for three main purposes:

  • Email-based ‘conversations’ (when used).
  • Calendaring.
  • Storage of Teams posts.

This is why it is not possible to apply a single retention policy to a Team.

The basic retention model

The basic retention model for Teams assumes the following:

  • If the organisation’s retention schedule/disposal authority does not include coverage for Team posts (chat messages) and also general Team chats, there is a legally defensible policy that defines how long Team channel (including private channel) posts (and chats) will be retained. Note: This policy will define a single retention period for ALL posts and and a separate policy for ALL chats.
  • Records and information managers know the details of every M365 Group, Team (including number of private channels) and SPO site (including last activity and number of files).
  • One or more retention policies will be created for SPO sites.
  • One or more retention policies may be created for M365 Groups.
  • Unless it is done ‘manually’, there will be no review process before the content is destroyed at the end of the retention period.
  • No label-based retention policies will be applied (at this point). They may be added later as required (see below).
  • Unless the option to auto-expiry M365 Groups is used, there will be a manual process to delete inactive and empty M365 Groups or Teams; deleting either will also delete the linked SPO site.

Creating retention policies

Retention policies are created in the Information Governance section of the M365 Compliance admin portal under ‘Retention policies’.

Generally speaking, organisations should not create many of these policies as they should ideally target entire workloads (all SPO sites, all EXO mailboxes, etc) or in some cases major groupings (e.g., EXO mailboxes of senior executives, all other mailboxes).

And remember, these policies do NOT destroy the container (Team, SPO site, EXO mailbox), only the content in those containers.

Every new retention policy has three parts.

Name

The name of the retention policy should be easily recognisable, for example ‘Teams channel posts 7 years’ (all encompassing, for all channel posts, see next dot point), or ‘General SPO site retention 7 years’. The name section also includes a description that should always be used to link the policy to details in a retention schedule/disposal authority or corporate policy.

Location

The ‘location’ element is where the complexity arises as it is not possible to create a single retention policy for all the elements in a Team. Selecting either ‘Teams channel messages’ or ‘Teams private channel messages’ will disable all other options. It is not possible to select ‘SharePoint sites’ or ‘Microsoft 365 Groups’ AND any of the Teams options in the same policy.

Because of this limitation, at least two separate retention policies will be required for a basic retention model, with an additional one for private channels (if required):

  • A retention policy for either all or selected SharePoint sites, including private channel sites. The simplest model is to create a single retention policy for all SharePoint sites. This creates a preservation hold library on every site, retaining all deleted content for the minimum period required. Alternatively, and especially if there is a way to ‘group’ SPO sites (e.g., all project team sites), create retention policies for those groups and add in the site names. Always keep in mind that a retention policy applied to the SPO site has no connection with or impact on the channel posts.
  • A retention policy for all Teams channel messages. Note that this cannot include or exclude any Teams – it’s all or none. Depending on the retention selected for channel posts (next point), this could mean that channel posts are destroyed before (or after) the Team’s SPO content.
  • A retention policy for all Teams private channel posts. Similar to the previous point, this is an ‘all or none’ policy.

If the Team is also making use of the M365 Group’s ‘conversations’ in Outlook, consideration may also be given to creating a retention policy for M365 Groups (or included/excluded Groups). This policy will cover (a) Group ‘conversations’ and (b) the SharePoint site linked with the Group/Team. It will NOT cover the Team channel posts that may be stored in the M365 Group EXO mailbox. Note: It is possible to select just the M365 Group mailbox OR the M365 Group’s SPO site in this policy via a PowerShell script.

Retention period

Retention options are shown in the screenshot below. These options are the same for every retention policy.

Retention policies either automatically delete content after a minimum period or do nothing (includes the ‘retain items forever’ option). There is no disposition review. This means that the content in the SPO site and Team channel (including any ‘deleted’ content, which is not actually deleted, just hidden) simply disappears when the retention period expires.

Retention variations

Organisations may of course have different requirements or decide to apply retention differently. Each of these will still be some variation on the above model.

In most cases, there should be at least one retention policy in place for each of the different elements that make up a Team – the M365 Group, the SPO site, the channel posts, the private channel posts. Whether those policies have the same retention period will be up the organisation to determine, but in all cases, the details should be documented somewhere as currently this information is not easily available.

Retention labels

It is not possible to apply retention labels to Teams channel or private channel posts (or chats). There is only one option, and that is a single retention policy for each of these.

Retention labels may be applied to the content stored in the Teams linked SPO site, and these may be applied instead of using retention policies. This may be an effective model when combined with auto-expiry of M365 Groups as this (auto-expiry) will not occur if the content is subject to an active retention policy or retention label.

However, applying labels to the content stored in each Team channel ‘files’ tab has the potential to be a very complicated model that will become almost impossible to monitor or manage in time.

Each channel ‘files’ tab maps to a folder with the same name in the Documents library of the linked SPO site. As each Team channel may have been created for the records of a different subject with a different retention requirement, this means that each folder (or potentially even sub-folders) in the library may have a different label.

As retention labels (and policies) apply to individual items in the library (but not the folder), this means that individual items, stored in folders, that are subject to disposition review will come up for review in the future.

The application of multiple retention labels to folders within the single Document library of the SPO site is already complicated; having to review some of the individual items as part of a disposition review in the future is just adding to the complexity.

My view is that Teams should, as far as possible, ‘contain’ records relating to the same subject with the same single retention period that can be applied to the entire SPO site. Applying individual labels to folders or sub-folders within a single document library is a complex model both to apply and manage into the future.

What do to with empty Teams?

As noted already, retention policies (and labels) do not delete the SPO site, Team or M365 Group, only the content stored in them. Each of these ‘containers’ remain after the content has been destroyed within them.

Accordingly, it is advisable for records and information managers to (a) have access to the details of every SPO site, Team and M365 Group and (b) work closely with IT to determine when these containers can be deleted (and document that activity). Otherwise, the M365 environment will be left with the hollow shells of sites, Teams and Groups.

Further reading

The following Microsoft links provide further details on this subject.

Learn about retention policies and retention labels

Learn about retention for Microsoft Teams

Learn about retention for SharePoint and OneDrive

Create and configure retention policies

Apply retention labels to files in SharePoint or OneDrive

Teams messages about retention policies

Featured image: http://www.pexels.com

Posted in Microsoft Teams, Products and applications, Records management, Retention and disposal

Managing inactive Teams in Microsoft Teams

The rapid and often uncontrolled rollout of Microsoft (MS) Teams as part of Microsoft 365 (M365) deployments from early 2020 has become a headache for many records and information managers. In many organisations, inactive Teams – some with no owners and inaccessible to records managers – litter the M365 landscape.

The introduction of private channels in 2020 added a new layer of complexity for the management of inactive Teams.

This post examines three ways to manage inactive Teams, especially those that may contain records.

  • Auto-expiration (and deletion) of M365 Groups.
  • Archiving Teams.
  • Applying (separate) retention policies to the elements that make up each Team.

It assumes that records and information managers will or should:

  • Take a leading role or be involved in decisions with IT departments around the creation of new Teams and the management of inactive Teams and their associated SPO sites.
  • Have access to the details of all active and inactive M365 Groups, Teams (including private channels), and SharePoint sites, including through role assignment (e.g., Global Reader, Compliance admin).
  • Know how and where Teams stores content in different applications.
  • Be directly involved in decisions about the creation and application of retention policies to Teams content, and disposition actions when those policies expire.
  • Where appropriate, be made the owners of inactive Teams (and M365 Groups) to allow them to review the content of that Team.

Option 1 – Auto-expiry of M365 Groups

Every Team in MS Teams is directly connected with an M365 Group; a Team uses the M365 Group’s EXO mailbox and SPO site for the storage of content. Therefore, if the M365 Group is destroyed, so will the Team and all its content.

Microsoft 365 includes the ability to automatically ‘expire’ and then delete all or selected M365 Groups after a given period of inactivity.

The Group’s expiration option is set in the Azure Active Directory (AAD) admin portal under Groups > Settings > General. This option includes renewal notifications (which will appear in Teams) and the ability to select specific M365 Groups (the default is None).

Azure AD Group Expiration

Pros of auto-expiry

Automatically expiring and then deleting M365 Groups can be a simple way to clean up inactive Groups and the linked Teams, based on the last activity of the Group or in the Team (SPO site, EXO email-based ‘conversations’, or channel posts). This may be particularly effective for general Teams that have been hardly used and/or known not to contain records.

Auto-expiry may be a useful option in conjunction with retention policies; M365 Groups and linked Teams subject to both will be retained beyond the expiry date if they are subject to retention policies.

If the expiry notification is missed or overlooked and the Team is soft-deleted, M365 Groups (and their associated Team content) can be restored for up to 30 days. The SPO site will be recoverable for 93 days. But, beyond 30 days the deleted M365 Group and all the content associated with it (including Teams) is irrecoverable (93 days for the SPO site).

Cons of auto-expiry

Auto-expiry is effectively auto-deletion without review. This option may work best for organisations with a relatively low number of Groups and/or where there is low concern or risk of deleting records prematurely. Organisations that are concerned about the deletion of records without review should be cautious of this approach.

Note that even if auto-expiry is set, this will not destroy any M365 Group or Team that is still subject to a retention policy – see below.

For more information about auto expiry of M365 Groups, see the Microsoft docs page ‘Microsoft 365 group expiration policy‘ and also ‘Team expiration and renewal‘ that shows how the M365 Group expiration notification works in Teams.

Option 2 – Archiving Teams

Any Team in MS Teams can be archived either by the MS Teams admin (via the admin portal), or by a Team Owner via the gear icon at the bottom left of the MS Teams application, next to ‘Join or Create a Team’. Clicking the gear icon opens a list of Teams; at the far right, the three-dot menu includes the options (including ‘Archive Team’) listed below.

The list of options for each Team.

The process of archiving a Team includes the option to make the linked SharePoint site read only, and makes the Team’s channels read only.

If the SPO site is not also made read only, the members of the Team can continue to upload and edit content via the Team’s channels or via the SPO site directly (and also via File Explorer for synced libraries).

Teams that have been archived appear in a separate ‘Archived’ section, from where they can be ‘restored’ (un-archived, made editable again) provided they are not subject to an auto-expiry policy or retention policies.

Pros of archiving Teams

Archiving Teams (and making the linked SPO site read only) may be a useful way to prevent any further changes to those Teams, but it does not do more than that. Additional options, including either auto-expiry (for low-risk Teams) or retention policies (for Teams with records) should be considered to ensure that inactive archived Teams are destroyed when this is allowed.

Archiving Teams may also be a useful way to ‘tag’ Teams that cease to be active, making them more easily identifiable for retention or disposal.

Cons of archiving Teams

Archiving Teams is not an effective or safe way to ensure that any records contained in the Team remain unchanged for as long as the Team still exists. It simply makes the Team’s channels read-only, and may also make the SharePoint site read only, if that option is selected.

If an archived Team is subject to an auto-expiry policy, it will be destroyed (with prior notification after a specified period. A better option for Teams used to create or capture records would be to apply retention policies to the Team.

For more information about archiving Teams, see this Microsoft docs page ‘Archive or delete a team‘.

Option 3 – Apply retention policies

This is probably the most complex area of M365 for records and information managers to understand given the multiple elements that make up MS Teams. Careful planning is necessary before any retention policy is applied, based on a thorough understanding of the structure of Teams and where the content is stored.

As a starting point, it is important to understand that:

  • A single retention policy cannot be applied to all the content of a Team and its associated M365 Group (private channel chats, channel posts, SPO files, Outlook ‘conversations’). Multiple retention policies will be required.
  • It is NOT possible to apply retention labels to either Teams public or private channel posts. These can only be covered by retention policies. Retention labels could be applied to content stored in the SPO site.

The model for applying retention to Teams (not the 1:1 chats area) may include up to four separate retention policies (and also retention labels):

  • One or more retention policies for the Team (non private) channel posts. These policies will apply to the compliance copies of those posts stored in a hidden folder of the linked M365 Group’s EXO mailbox.
  • One or more retention policies for the Team’s private channel posts if they exist. These policies will apply to the compliance copies of those posts stored in a hidden folder in the EXO mailbox of all members of the private channel.
  • One or more retention policies for the Team’s files stored in the SPO site. Additional retention labels may also be applied (see below).
  • If the mailbox is used for Group conversations, one or more retention policies for the M365 Group, which includes coverage for both the emails and the files.

So, each Team could potentially be subject to up to four separate retention policies.

Retention policies that could apply to every Team, or groups of Teams

In addition to the above, retention labels may be applied either ‘manually’ or automatically (including via trainable classifiers or SharePoint syntex) to content stored in the SPO site (the channel files – each channel is a folder in the default Documents library). These labels will likely have retention periods that are longer than the retention policy and may include disposition review.

A even more complex model is to apply multiple retention labels to the channel-linked folders (and sub-folders) in the SPO site’s Documents library. This model is fraught with complexity in terms of future disposition review and would be the equivalent of applying retention policies to different folders and subfolders in a network file share.

Pros of applying retention policies (and labels)

Retention policies ensure that content is not destroyed for the period set in the retention policy.

Retention policies are better than auto-expiry because they capture any content that is ‘deleted’ by end-users for the life of the policy. They are better than ‘archiving’ Teams as they set a minimum retention period, protect the content from destruction during that time (‘in place holds’), then destroy the content.

Retention policies could also be used in conjunction with the other two options as necessary. For example, there may be some Teams that contain no records and could simply be deleted via the auto-expiry option. If they contain records, a retention policy will retain the content for as long as required.

Cons of applying retention policies

The main negative of applying retention policies is the complexity of the model, and knowing what has been applied and where. This is especially true if there are many Teams. Consultation and coordinated planning between RM/IM and IT, and documentation of the model, are all essential.

Unfortunately, the Microsoft 365 Compliance admin portal does not provide a single view of what policies have applied where. Unless a third-party application is used, the only way to achieve this is by recording the details of the policies in – say – a spreadsheet or a SharePoint list.

Retention policies do not include the option for disposition review, so records and information managers might need to consider the requirement to find a way to document the disposition (deletion) process and retain a record of what was destroyed.

By actively monitoring Teams, records and information managers should know when the content in Teams is due for destruction, allowing time to extract metadata (where possible) and other information.

For more information about applying retention to Teams and SPO, see these Microsoft docs pages: ‘Learn about retention for Teams‘, ‘Learn about retention for SharePoint and OneDrive‘ and also ‘Limits for retention policies and retention label policies‘.

Concluding comments

All of the above underlines why records and information managers need to know what Teams exist, where the records are stored, and be proactively involved in decisions about what happens to inactive Teams.

As long as retention policies have been correctly applied to the various parts of the Team, that content will be retained for minimum periods. End-users may think they are deleting content, but it remains stored and accessible via a Content Search.

Feature Image Credit: David Yu (image 2081166, via Pexels)