Common mistake – Emotional attachment to Attachments!

This article is a part of worst practices series for Office 365. Excessive misuse of email attachments for sharing files remains to be the hardest issue to resolve. Read on to find out the problem and the solution approaches available to you.


The utilization imbalance

Assuming you have all the components of Office 365, the next step is to ensure that those components are used in the most optimal way. Unfortunately, in most cases, Exchange (email) gets execessively used and other components are underutilized. This happens because of our habit of sending files as attachments by default. Unless that benavior changes, the entire platform will not deliver the intended business value and efficiency enhancement. Earlier, due to limited mailbox size, some amount of restraint implicitly existed. Now, with a 50 GB mailbox, people have no such constraints.

The problem of email attachments

We have been attaching files to emails for decades. It has become a reflex activity. We don’t even think before attaching a file. It does not always work the way you want. Most of us are aware of all the issues related to email attachments.

  1. Too many copies floating around
  2. No linkage with the original file on the disk
  3. Editing attachments directly leads to losing changes
  4. You have no control over the copies sent as attachments
  5. Versioning becomes a problem
  6. If multiple people respond with changes, you spend too much time in copy paste
  7. Merging documents may not be perfect because it is difficult to find out exactly who changed what where while copy pasting
  8. Getting a document ready with inputs from multiple persons requires multiple iterations, copy pasting and formatting and too much time
  9. Even with track changes enabled, repeated Combine Formatting option needs to be used
  10. It is impossible to provide read only access or remove access once a file is sent as an attachment
  11. Attachments have a size limit set by the administrator. Typically, it ranges from 1 mb to to 20 mb.

Benefits of sending links to files

The alternative is to store files in OneDrive, Team Sites or Groups and send links to these files as attachments. The advantages are:

  1. The file never leaves the storage area. It is always ONE copy.
  2. Recipients can see the changes you made AFTER you send them the link. This is impossible in the attachment scenario.
  3. Who can view and who can edit is under your control (you = creator of the file)
  4. Share a file – give edit control – remove control when inputs are received. This way, security is better managed compared to attachments.
  5. Multiple people can simultaneously edit the document (at least Microsoft Office documents). This completely eliminates multiple copies, copy pasting and formatting repair efforts.
  6. Each file change is saved as a version automatically by OneDrive or SharePoint leading to much better redundancy and resilience against mistakes / pilferage.
  7. Email size limits are no longer a concern as the mails just contain a link
  8. Audit trail can be enabled for checking who touched which document when
  9. Please note that who changed what inside the document can only be tracked if the editing application supports this feature. OneNote supports this feature out-of-the-box. For Word and Excel, we have to enable Track Changes (which works only on rich client – not for browser based editing).
  10. File properties can be created to capture metadata along with the file
  11. Workflows can be triggered to automate business processes or approvals based upon changes to a document. Creating email attachment based workflows is much more difficult and ambiguous.
  12. It is a no-brainer that attachments should not be used when you need to receive a response from the recipients. However, this old habit really die hard.

Resisting the urge to send attachments

We are so attached to this concept emotionally that it requires active effort to stop your hand from attaching a file. I have myself had to resist that urge for a week to train my mind into thinking of sending links instead of attaching files.

Microsoft does provide many ways in which attaching file links is simpler. If you choose the Share button, it actually explains the benefits of sending as a link versus sending as an attachment:

There is a share dialog within Office tools which sends the link for files stored on OneDrive and SharePoint sites.

Share dialog in Office

From OneDrive, direct sharing is possible – from web UI as well as OneDrive Apps for all devices. In addition, Outlook for Web (OWA) also allows you to upload a file first to OneDrive and share it as a link.

Outlook web access Email attachments

Similarly, Office 365 Groups files can be attached as links. In short, wherever possible, Microsoft is making it convenient and compelling to send files as links rather than attachments.

How to make people change their mind and use links

Here is a list, which works. You can also comment on this post and share your best practices.

    1. Initially, highlight the benefits one-by-one to all users. Simultaneous editing is a hugely popular and impressive feature.
    2. Provide discretionary guidance – do not create dictatorial rules.
      For example, you tell people that if you are delivering a file, use attachments. If you are interested in what happens after delivery, you must share the file link.
    3. Start from the top. Each senior person has some direct reports and an Executive Assistant. Teach the benefits to that team and let them use it. It spreads from a top down fashion.
    4. Often, files need to be shared with external parties. Make sure that external sharing is enabled.
    5. Official files which are necessary for all employees should be delivered as links rather than attachments. This files are typically posted as downloads on the intranet.
    6. In the initial phase of adoption, you can also incentivise people who use OneDrive more effectively.
    7. Highlight the benefits of disseminating Excel reports as OneDrive based links. These reports provide fully interactive Pivot Tables, Slicers and PowerView dashboards on a browser page when stored on OneDrive (or team sites).
    8. Emphasize the fact that each user is the actual beneficiary – not IT or HR. Answer the “what is in it for me?” question up-front.

It takes time but it is possible. Even if you have to put in some effort in convincing people, it is absolutely worth it because of the significant positive impact it generates.

Monitor the usage

Office 365 gives you lot of usage data for all products. Monitor the OneDrive / Team Site usage versus email volume and eventually, you should see a shift from attachments to links.


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