Office Online Chat—A New Collaboration Feature!

The battle for the hearts and minds of business document creators is largely over, and Microsoft Office is the victor. This is especially true in the SaaS space with Microsoft’s Office 365. Although Google Apps has its followers, Microsoft Office Online has maintained a larger market share for well over a year now.

The flexibility and power of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote have continually surpassed their Google counterparts. The only area in which Google maintained dominance was in online collaboration. The ease with which Google users could view, discuss, and edit documents together was previously unmatched by Microsoft, despite constant feature updates.

Office Online’s recently-added chat feature has changed that and altered the playing field. Leveraging Skype for Business, Microsoft has brought the collaboration features of Office Online into nearly complete parity with Google Apps.

Although the feature seems quite simple (it’s just a chat box, after all), the seamless integration directly into Office adds more than you might expect. Collaboration tools hang their hat on ease of use, after all. By pairing easy, fast, and natural chat with Office’s industry-leading creation features, along with its already-existing collaboration tools, Office Online is now the ultimate tool for collaborative online document creation.

How Office Online Chat Works


The new collaboration tool works with all four current Office Online applications. To use them, you will need to have your documents stored online, either in OneDrive or SharePoint Online. You can place a document in the cloud by clicking File, then Save As, and selecting your company OneDrive or SharePoint account. If your copy of Office is not yet set up for this, then you may need to first click Add a Place.

Once you are working with a document in the cloud, the first step is to invite your team members or collaborators to edit the document. Click File > Share > Share with People. Type in the names or email addresses of your coworkers, and they will immediate invitations to view and edit the file.

In some cases, especially at first, you might need to manage sharing of multiple documents at once. In this case, it might be more convenient to share from the OneDrive or SharePoint Online interfaces instead.

After sharing has begun, you will notice a new notification at the top right of the browser window. This provides a list of people currently viewing or editing the document. Next to that list is a blue “speech balloon” button.


To initiate a chat, click the new icon. The chat pane slides in from the right, and any current viewers will see a notification of a pending chat. Messages are very easy to send and are received by all recipients instantly. The interface is excellent, and users find themselves frequently switching back and forth between the document and the chat pane without slowing down at all.

You can even send Skype emoticons through the chat window, in case your feelings on finishing a complex spreadsheet can only be expressed with a tiny picture of a martini glass.

Getting the Most Out of Office Online Collaboration

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As with any tool, collaboration software is best when it’s so easy to use that it becomes invisible. The purpose of a collaboration suite is to enable people to work together regardless of physical distance. Ideally, they can work together as easily as if they were sitting next to each other.

The new online chat feature enables people looking at the same document to effortlessly communicate with each other. Working together on a document entails more than just talking with each other, though. Imagine two people sitting next to each other staring at the same large piece of paper. They will speak, of course, but each person might also reach out to make notes in the margin, add or cross out text, or add illustrations.

That type of interaction isn’t provided by the new Office Online chat window, but only because it was already there in the form of document markups. The two features, chat and markups, work together to create an effective collaboration solution. Although they might look similar on the surface, the features actually serve very different purposes.

Chat has the following characteristics.

  • Quick and easy to send
  • Messages are not saved
  • Exist in the chat window only, not attached to pieces of text, cells in a spreadsheet, etc.
  • Best used for conversation, to discuss the general direction of the document, or to ask quick questions.

Markups, on the other hand:

  • Persist until deleted
  • May consist of comments attached to specific parts of the document
  • May also consist of suggested additions, deletions, or changes that can be approved or rejected by document editors
  • Best used for complex planning, review, and feedback.

In essence, if the chat window is a conversation, then markups are a red pen on the page. They each have their place in collaborative creation. Combined, they turn Office Online into the best existing solution to work together documents, spreadsheets, and presentations.