5 tips for working with SharePoint Online

Go beyond the basics with these power user tips for Microsoft's online collaboration platform.

Microsoft > SharePoint [Office 365]

Share this story: IT folks, we hope you'll pass this guide on to your users to help them learn more about SharePoint Online.

Once you have a good feel for what is possible in SharePoint Online and know how to do common tasks, it’s time to take advantage of some of its more advanced functions.

Here are some power user tips to help you get the most out of your SharePoint site.

1. Set up alerts.

SharePoint can be configured to send you a notification whenever a specific item in a library is changed or if anything in a library as a whole changes. This is useful since you won’t then have to go back and manually check each SharePoint site for changes. You can set up alerts using the Alert Me button in the toolbar above the Documents list, as shown below, to get alerts for the entire library, or as part of the ellipsis menu for any particular item to get alerts on just that item within any given SharePoint content area.

SharePoint Online tips - alert me option Jonathan Hassell / IDG

Clicking it brings up the New Alert window, where you add a title to the alert and specify the following:

  • The delivery method: either an email an SMS text message.
  • The context of the alert: whether an alert is sent for any change, if new items are added, if existing items are modified, or if items are deleted.
  • The scope of an alert: if anything changes, if a document changes, if a document you created or last modified changes.
  • How quickly the alert is sent after a change: you can set up an immediate alert, a daily summary, or a weekly summary, and you can customize the time for this.

2. Customize your views and add columns when necessary.

Sometimes, you might need to track a little more information about items in a library than SharePoint Online comes pre-configured to track. For example, you might want to add a drop-down list that has choices about an item’s status that users can select at various points during the lifecycle at that item. It’s easy to add these choices to SharePoint Online list views so that you can work with these statuses.

In a document library, for example, from the View menu, select Manage Views, and then click “Create Column in the middle of the page.”

SharePoint Online tips - manage views Jonathan Hassell / IDG

You can give the column a name, and then select the type of information this column will contain. In this example, we’ll select “Choice (menu to choose from),” which will prompt SharePoint to display a menu of choices. You can then add a friendly description of the column, make its completion mandatory and enforce whether more than one item in a library can have the same status, and then you can type each status choice (in our example, “Open,” “Tentative,” “Confirmed” and “Declined”) on separate lines in the next box.

Next you can select how the choices will be displayed (drop-down menu, radio buttons, etc.), allow users to write in choices, and pick a default value. Finally, you can add this new column to the default view of the site so that it becomes immediately visible to users. Now you have a consistent set of choices to track additional information.

SharePoint Online tips - customize display Jonathan Hassell / IDG

When you upload a document to this library with the new column’s presence enforced, after upload you get a window asking you to choose from the selections you defined when creating the column. That choice, after you confirm it by clicking OK, is then populated in SharePoint’s database and displayed in the column in the default view. You can change it by editing the item’s properties.

If you are working on a Microsoft Office document in a library and choose to save it back to the library, you’ll also be prompted for the status within the individual Office application — in other words, all of the ways you interact with documents will now have that new column selection required.

3. Use the Explorer view when doing more than simple file maintenance.

Here’s a tip for Windows users only: If you are uploading a big group of files to SharePoint, it can be cumbersome to try to fit them all into the drag-and-drop window. Or maybe you want to copy a lot of files out of SharePoint onto, say, a thumb drive for transport. Luckily there’s a way to make your SharePoint site’s document libraries appear just like any other disk in your file system.

Open a document library within your web browser (I have found that Internet Explorer works best for this), and then click View in File Explorer from the All Documents menu. You may get a security warning you need to acknowledge — click OK or Yes on this, depending on how your system is configured — and then you’ll get a standard Windows Explorer or File Explorer window just like you’re used to. Copy, paste, cut, and move to your heart’s content from here.

SharePoint Online tips - view file explorer Jonathan Hassell / IDG

Do note that this feature does not have the same requirement as the on-premises version of SharePoint to work — you do NOT need to be within your corporation’s campus network, have DirectAccess enabled or be connected to your company VPN. Since by default all SharePoint Online sites are external to your company, Microsoft has enabled this scenario to work with any Windows PC as long as you accept the security warning that pops up when you click the button.

4. Edit lists with Microsoft Excel in a familiar datasheet-style view.

Chances are, you have a spreadsheet or two with a list of things — maybe it’s contact information, or a list of dates, or a summary of various projects and their statuses. No matter what it is, if you are using Microsoft Excel 2010 or later, there is a really simple way to export that data out of Excel and into a SharePoint list, where you can then edit it natively within the SharePoint web interface, either in standard view or in datasheet view.

From within SharePoint Online, click the Site Settings cog icon in the upper right, choose Add an App, and then in the Apps You Can Add section, click Import Spreadsheet. It may well be on the second page, so be sure to click the right arrow button at the bottom to find it.

SharePoint Online tips - apps add Jonathan Hassell / IDG

Type in a new name for this list and a friendly description of this spreadsheet if you wish, and then browse to where the spreadsheet is located in your file system by clicking the Browse button and selecting the file. Once you are finished, click the Import button.

Note: If you get an error that says “The specified file is not a valid spreadsheet or contains no data to import,” add the SharePoint Online site you are using to the Trusted Sites or Local Intranet lists within Internet Explorer. 

In the background, Excel will open the file and the “Import to Windows SharePoint Services list” dialog box will appear. You can select the range of cells for your list, and then click the Import button in that dialog box.

SharePoint Online tips - import excel spreadsheet Jonathan Hassell / IDG

You’ll be returned to the SharePoint window, where you’ll find your list, directly imported into the SharePoint database. You can then adjust the view and change the order of the columns, their names, and more from the List tab — just click List Settings to the far right of the window.

SharePoint Online tips - adjust imported list Jonathan Hassell / IDG

5. Overlay multiple calendars in SharePoint to create a master calendar.

Your team can now have a “master calendar” that includes calendar rollup information from calendars that are nestled deeper into the SharePoint site hierarchy. You can overlay up to 10 calendars over one another to create this master calendar, and each calendar is displayed in a different color code (kind of like what happens when you link a SharePoint calendar to Outlook and then overlay the two calendars within the Outlook client). 

At the main SharePoint site where you want the master calendar to live, either create a new calendar list from the Site Actions menu, or use an existing calendar that already is configured at the level you want. On the Calendar tab in the Ribbon, click Calendars Overlay, and then click the New Calendar link to add a new calendar to the overlay view.

SharePoint Online tips - calendars overlay Jonathan Hassell / IDG

This next part is a bit trickier: You have to give SharePoint some information about the calendar that you are adding, such as a name and its friendly description, and you need to have the URL of the site that houses the calendar. This is the link to the site itself, not a link directly to the calendar. SharePoint will use that URL to crawl the site and find the calendar lists and views once you click the Resolve button after putting in the web URL.

If the site you provided is lucky enough to have many calendar lists or views, SharePoint will ask you to choose the ones you want to overlay — just select the box next to Always Show, and when you’re done, click OK. Lather, rinse, repeat for each calendar (again up to 10) that you want to overlay, and then click OK. Now you’ll see all of those calendars rolled up into one master calendar.

SharePoint Online tips - calendars overlay Jonathan Hassell / IDG

Copyright © 2018 IDG Communications, Inc.

It’s time to break the ChatGPT habit
Shop Tech Products at Amazon