SharePoint Online Document Library UI Refreshed for Teams Private Channels

Initial Confusion from Garbled Message Center Notification

When Microsoft published message center MC261534 on June 11, they confused many people. The text was imprecise and inaccurate, starting off with “With this new feature, when you create a team in Microsoft Teams, a SharePoint team site will automatically get created in tandem.” It required several readings to understand what Microsoft wanted to communicate. Microsoft 365 roadmap 81945 didn’t help, saying “You will see specific updates, including updates to site features, site permissions alignment, site classifications and sensitivity labels, and improvements to the user interface.”

On June 15, clarifying text appeared. It’s still not as clear as I would like. Here’s what I believe will happen when the changes appear in late June to complete rolling out by early August.

Normal Channels

During the provisioning of a new team, the process creates a new SharePoint team site to store documents belonging to the team. Every team has a General channel, so the site also receives a General folder in the site’s document library. When a new channel is added to the team, the action creates a corresponding folder in the document library. Among other data, the channel folders store sub-folders for email sent to the channel. There can be up to 200 channels in a team.

Figure 1 shows a folder in a SharePoint Online document library for a normal Teams channel. In the user interface, we can see important visual elements such as:

  • The access type is shown as Private group. In other words, users must be added to the team to gain access. If the team allows anyone to join, it is a Public group.
  • The sensitivity label/classification is Guest Access. This value will depend on the labels/classifications defined in the tenant.
  • The Settings menu contains Site permissions.
  • There is a Go to channel link in the command bar.
 The layout for a SharePoint document library for a normal Teams channel
Figure 1: The layout for a SharePoint document library for a normal Teams channel

SharePoint administrators and team owners (site administrators) can edit settings like the classification/sensitivity label through the Site information link in Settings. They can also amend site permissions through the Site permissions link. It’s rare to edit permissions (membership) of teams-connected sites through SharePoint; the usual approach is to make membership changes through Teams because this updates the team membership roster immediately.

Private Channels

Microsoft introduced private channels in September 2019. A private channel is a collaboration space within a team with access limited to a subset of the team’s membership. The subset of team members become the channel members There can be up to 30 private channels in a team.

Like normal channels, when a private channel is created, Teams creates a folder within a SharePoint document library to store documents shared in the channel. Unlike normal channels, all of which have their channels in the default SharePoint site owned by the team, private channels have their own SharePoint site. This arrangement ensures that Teams can restrict access to the channel members.

The SharePoint sites for private channels inherit their settings from the parent team. You can try to make changes to the site, but a synchronization process will overwrite the changes to restore the team settings.

What’s changing in MC261534? The user interface for the SharePoint document library already has no Site permissions link in the Settings menu and a Private channel indicator is visible. First, sensitivity labels/classifications become read-only so site administrators (channel owners) won’t be able to update this value in Site information. Second, the big Go to channel conversation button visible in Figure 2 is moving to the command bar (as it is in Figure 1).

The layout for a SharePoint document library used by a Teams private channel
Figure 2: The layout for a SharePoint document library used by a Teams private channel

Microsoft says that the update “improves the template utilized for the channel sites by having the classic SharePoint features off-by-default and will employ the full capabilities of the modern team site.” This refers to the fact that private channel sites use a special SharePoint site template called TeamChannel#0. The special template is adjusted by Microsoft to remove features like Site permissions.

The SharePoint Online admin center does not expose sites used by private channels. This is deliberately done because these sites inherit their settings from the parent team. However, you can find a list of the sites and find out which team a site belongs to with PowerShell:

$Sites = Get-SPOSite -Template "TeamChannel#0" -Limit All
ForEach ($Site in $Sites) {
   $SPOSite = Get-SPOSite -Identity $Site.url -detail
   $Group = Get-UnifiedGroup -Identity $SPOSite.RelatedGroupID.Guid
   Write-Host "Team" $Group.DisplayName "owns private channel site" $Site.URL}

Preparing for Shared Channels

The changes are appropriate and will improve matters. I don’t know if many people try to update sensitivity labels from SharePoint Online, but if they did, those changes would be reversed by synchronization. Even so, it’s better to stop channel owners trying to make changes.

What’s also clear is that Microsoft is preparing for shared channels (aka Teams Connect), due to be available later in 2021. Shared channels also use a separate SharePoint team site to share information among the channel members. There’s a fair chance that shared channels will be more popular than private channels, and if this is true, we’ll see more “special” channels created. Making sure that everything is ready for shared channels makes perfect sense.

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