You’re probably already familiar with Outlook as the app you use to keep track of all your email and appointments. And if you’re a power user, you might even use it to keep track of tasks, RSS feeds, contacts, and more. But it turns out Outlook does a lot with SharePoint, too. It’s just not blatantly obvious.
You can access pretty much any list or library that lives in SharePoint directly from Outlook, without having to go to SharePoint through your browser. And the content automatically updates whenever you return to Outlook. I know people who basically live their entire work life in Outlook because they’ve integrated it so well with where their online content is. So let’s show you how to do that. It’s actually quite easy.
Why “Connect to Outlook” is useful
This is one of those things that once you start using it, you’ll likely use it a lot. Big picture-wise, you can connect any SharePoint list or library to Outlook. But some types are more useful than others.
The way the connect to Outlook feature works is it hosts your list or library of choice as a mailbox in your inbox. When something new is introduced (whether a new item/document or change to an item/document), the item/document will become bold and the bold number will show up next to the name of the list/library just like it was an email coming into your inbox.
It’s actually a stroke of genius, if you ask me. It’s another way to get passive notifications that things in your life are changing. Connect to Outlook is an alternative to signing up for alerts on a file or library. Below are a few specific examples where it can be really useful.
Connecting a SharePoint calendar is probably the most obvious and useful way of getting the most out of Connect to Outlook. Browse to the calendar and hover over the ribbon. Click the “Calendar” tab, then click “Connect to Outlook”. (See screenshot way below.) Outlook may hit you with a warning pop-up. Accept whatever it says and soon your calendar will be shown side-by-side with your personal appointments.
The thing about calendars is they don’t create or store appointments. They’re basically electronic versions of a physical calendar you’d hang up on your desk. But it’s useful to take this calendar and overlay it on top of your appointments to see how that calendar lines up with your appointments. You can subscribe to many more calendars if you’d like, then overlay them all to see how everything interacts.
Keep track of the files in your favorite document library by connecting that library to Outlook. There are a couple cool things that come with connecting a document library to Outlook:
- The files will be listed as “unread” when you first connect the library. This can be annoying because you may want to know when changes occur. So I suggest marking them all as read once you’ve finished connecting the library. Now, whenever any changes are made in any files, the file will become bold, the library will get a +1 after its name in the mailbox list, and it will appear to you that you have a new email. You don’t, really, but you do have a passive notification that something changed in a file that you care about.
- Outlook provides a live preview of the document in the message pane. The preview functionality is supported for Word, PowerPoint, and PDF files. Excel files are too complex, so it’s not offered.
- Outlook syncs the files from your library onto your computer so you can view it offline. This is useful in SharePoint 2013 from an on-premesis server because it means you can still open files and read them when you’re not connected to the Internet. That said, the files are read-only, so they won’t sync back up to SharePoint. You’ll have to upload the updated file as a new version. When it comes to SharePoint Online and Office 365, this is a moot point because the Sync functionality is supported automatically in all sites and your OneDrive.
Outlook should be automatically collecting all tasks that are assigned to you within SharePoint, Exchange (the server that runs Outlook), and Project server (the server that runs the version of MS Project on steroids, that is if your company uses this). So if you’re assigned a task in a task list in SharePoint Site A and SharePoint Site B, you should see the tasks show up in Outlook automatically. It’s actually a pretty nice functionality that already is working in the background that you may not be aware of.
That, of course, assumes you use the tasks functionality in Outlook. If you don’t, it’s another thing that you don’t have to worry about.
Probably one of the best uses for this functionality is connecting a discussion board to Outlook. You will see when responses come in and you can even respond to posts directly from Outlook just like sending an email. It makes things much easier when you’re having a conversation with someone in a discussion board and you don’t care to keep getting alert notifications. Or, if you just forget the conversation is going on.
How to do it
Pretty simple, really. First, make sure you’re using Internet Explorer or Edge; Chrome and Firefox won’t work for this. Browse to your favorite library, list, calendar, discussion board, what have you. Aim your mouse up to the ribbon and click the library, list, calendar, or appropriate tab. (Basically, not the “Files” or “Items” tab.)
Click the “Connect to Outlook” button. If it’s greyed out, it means it needs to be enabled by your system administrator. Get a hold of IT. And be nice. Please and thank you.
- This isn’t supported by Outlook for Mac, for whatever reason. So, while the button will show up in SharePoint, it won’t be enabled if you’re using a Mac.
- Responding to discussion board posts directly from Outlook sometimes brings the entire thread into the response. That means your one response will have the entire thread included in the one post, which can be annoying. I’m not aware of a workaround to this bug at the moment. That said, it just means it’s a better practice to jump into the discussion board to respond to anything. The value of the notification Outlook is still definitely there.