Microsoft spends a lot of time explaining how to share a file (Word document, Excel workbook, PowerPoint deck or OneNote notebook) but very little on how to accept a sharing request and collaborate on a ‘live’ document saved online.
Live or real-time collaboration lets two or more people work on a document (Word, Excel, PowerPoint or OneNote) at the same time. The file is saved on a cloud service, available to anyone with a link or permissions.
This article is for people who get a link to a shared document and aren’t sure what to do. It’s quite easy but varies a bit depending on which version of Office desktop you have.
If you’re sharing a document with someone not comfortable with live collaboration, send them a link to this and the follow-up articles.
The ‘official’ help from Microsoft assumes that all collaborators have the same and latest Office desktop version (e.g. Office 365, Office 2019 etc). Out here in the real world, it’s a little more complicated with varying software and setups.
Office in a browser is always available
A key thing to remember. Even if you have an older Office or there’s a problem, online collaboration has a fallback position in the form of Office on the web. The browser-based versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote will let you work together on a file even if you don’t have compatible Microsoft Office software.
We’ll be using Microsoft Office and OneDrive for our examples, but much the same process applies to documents shared on other services like Dropbox, Box or many others.
It all starts with a link
The person sharing the document will send you a web link. Most likely in an email but could be via instant messaging. The link will look like this:
Levels of Access
That long string of seeming nonsense in the link has directions to the specific file and what access you have. A shared document can be:
- Read and Comment
- Read Only
In addition, access can the restricted:
- Anyone who gets the link can access the file
- Only certain people can open the file.
- ‘Certain people’ means specific logins / Microsoft Accounts.
A shared document can have other limitations:
- Password – an additional document-level password in addition to any other login.
- Expiry – sharing might be time limited.
There’s no way to tell from the link, usually the sender will tell you. Or just open the document to see what’s possible. Just be aware of the possibilities.
Use the document sharing link
Just click on the document sharing link and it should open a new tab in your browser.
That’s the ‘Office on the web’ apps for Word, Excel or PowerPoint. Any modern browser (Chrome, Edge or Safari) works with Office on the web. Only Internet Explorer 11 is supported, but isn’t preferred. The latest Firefox is also OK but not for Teams meetings.
The most important thing is top right. To get the most out of the shared document, you should login to the appropriate Microsoft account. It’s not always required, but it’s a good idea.
For Microsoft Office, that means a Microsoft Account. Most likely you already have one for home or work. A Hotmail/Outlook.com login is a Microsoft Account. But there’s some important gotchas:
- SECURITY – make sure the link is legitimate and not an attempt to steal your login details (phishing). In our test, a OneDrive shared document opens up in a limited way then a login is needed. If you see a login web page first, that might be a warning sign.
- USE THE RIGHT LOGIN – many of us have more than one Microsoft Account. For work, personal and perhaps others for a second job, volunteer work etc. Make sure you choose the correct and appropriate login for the situation.
Here’s what you’ll see when first opening a shared document link in Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote. Like Word, they open in viewing / read only mode but can be switched to editing.
Your milage WILL vary
What we’ve shown you are the basics of live document sharing, be aware that the exact appearance of special features or whether they appear at all depends on many different factors:
- Exact version of Office desktop (365, 2019, 2021, 2016)
- Windows or Mac
- Or Office on the web (browser based)
not least of all …
- Word, Excel, PowerPoint or OneNote– each has variations on live collaboration.
- to be completely honest, sometimes it seems like there are variations depending on the relative position of the sun and moon.
Live collaboration has received a lot of updates in the past few years, so everything isn’t always available to all software. In other words, live sharing is possible but not always with the same options as others.
If unsure, use the browser-based Office apps because they usually have the latest and greatest collaboration features.
We don’t recommend trying live collaboration with other versions of Office (Office 2013, Office 2010 or older) even if it’s offered. Stick to the Office in a browser alternative.
Document collaboration with Office in a browser
Starting with Document Collaboration in Word, Excel or PowerPoint
Excel Sheet View solves a collaboration problem
Limit editing and collaboration within a Word document