Manage your team's time with Outlook

By Jim Boyce

If part of your workday involves managing work schedules for a department or team of people, you'd probably love some new tools to make that part of your job easier. New features in Microsoft Outlook 2002 and Microsoft Office Outlook 2003 can do just that.

You can use the group scheduling feature in Outlook to create multiple groups and view the free/busy status for each member of the group. The capability to view this information is helpful when scheduling meetings, assigning tasks, and otherwise managing the group's collective time.

You can use group scheduling with or without Microsoft Exchange Server. If you don't use Exchange Server, group scheduling requires a little bit of setup work — see "Publish your free/busy information" to find out how to set up group scheduling for a non–Exchange Server account.

Configure free/busy settings

When you're trying to set up a work schedule, you need to know when each team member is available. After all, it wouldn't make much sense to try to schedule a meeting when members of the team are away on a business trip or on vacation. That's where free/busy information comes into play.

In Outlook, "free/busy" refers to the status of a block of time in someone's schedule. Time can be blocked as Busy, Tentative, Open, or Out of Office. A unique color or shading indicates the status of a particular block of time. For example, Open, illustrated with gray shading, indicates that the time is free; Busy, illustrated with solid blue shading, indicates that the time is occupied. When you're managing a schedule, you can use these free/busy times to find out when team members are available for meetings or other time-specific tasks.

Team members' free/busy status

The free/busy information for each user has to be stored where Outlook can obtain it. Exchange Server stores free/busy information for each user automatically and requires no setup at all to use for group scheduling or planning meetings. If you're using Exchange Server, you can skip to "Manage group schedules" and dive right in.

If you're not using Exchange Server, however, you need to perform some setup steps first.

 Note   If you're not using Exchange Server, all time that is not blocked as Open is Busy.

Publish your free/busy information

Free/busy information can be stored on a local server, on the LAN, or on a remote server that uses a file path, FTP, or HTTP. Where you store the information depends on whether everyone is on the same network. If so, you can just share a folder on a computer and then have them publish their free/busy information to that folder. If team members are located outside your network, they can publish their free/busy information to an FTP or HTTP server. Or you can use a combination of the two, if necessary.

To set up Outlook to publish your free/busy information for a non–Exchange Server account, follow these steps:

  1. In Outlook, on the Tools menu, click Options.
  2. On the Preferences tab, click Calendar Options.
  3. In the Calendar Options dialog box, click Free/Busy Options. The Free/Busy Options dialog box appears.

Free/Busy Options dialog box

  1. Select the Publish at my location check box, and then click in the text box.
  2. Type the URL for the location where you want to publish the information. Here are some examples:
    • ftp://myName:myPassword@ftp.tailspintoys.com/schedules/%name%.vfb
    • ftp://ftp.tailspintoys.com/schedules/%name%.vfb
    • F:\Schedules\%name%.vfb
    • \\myServer\schedules\%name%.vfb
  3. Click OK.

The first example assumes that you're using FTP to publish to a server and must type a user account name and password (myName and myPassword in this example). The second example uses anonymous FTP. In both cases, the server administrator must set up the FTP site and the folder where the schedules will be published and set permissions on the folder so that the team members can write to the folder.

The third example uses a mapped network drive to publish to a shared network folder. The fourth example uses the UNC path to the server and shared folder. In all examples, the %name% variable causes Outlook to use the first part of the e-mail address as the file name. So, if your e-mail address were jim@tailspintoys.com, the file name for your free/busy information would be jim.vfb.

 Note   Outlook also supports publishing free/busy information by using an http:// URL, but this method requires some extra setup at the server. For that reason, this article doesn't cover the HTTP setup.

By default, Outlook publishes two months of free/busy information to the server every 15 minutes. To force an update and test the connection, open the Calendar folder. On the Tools menu, point to Send/Receive, and then click Free/Busy Information. A dialog box appears, indicating the free/busy information was published successfully. If an error message appears, check the URL and try again.

 Tip   Keep in mind that the raw FTP folder path might be different from what you see when you open the FTP site in your Web browser. For example, you might need to include the parent folder in the path. For example, assume that a hosting service hosts your Web site www.tailspintoys.com. The hosting service sets up your hosting account by using the account name john. You have created a folder named schedules in the root directory of your Web site. It's likely that the raw path that you need to use is ftp://john:password@www.tailspintoys.com/john/schedules/%name%.vfb. Check with your provider or administrator if you're not sure what to use.

Set the free/busy search location

Before you can finish setting up the free/busy feature, Outlook needs to know where to find other users' free/busy information. Follow these steps to specify the default search location:

  1. In Outlook, on the Tools menu, click Options.
  2. On the Preferences tab, click Calendar Options.
  3. In the Calendar Options dialog box, click Free/Busy Options.
  4. In the Search location text box, type the file or FTP URL to the location where the free/busy data is stored. In most cases, this is the same URL that you entered for publishing your own free/busy information. Remember to include the %name%.vfb portion at the end of the URL.

The default search location will work for all users whose free/busy information is stored in that location. If necessary, you can specify the free/busy location for specific contacts if their free/busy information is stored elsewhere:

  1. Open the Contacts folder, and then select the contact whose free/busy setting you want to specify.
  2. Click the Details tab.

Details tab

  1. Under Internet Free-Busy, click in the Address box, and then type the URL to the contact's free/busy information. Include the actual file name, rather than %name%.vfb. For example: ftp://ftp.tailspintoys.com/schedules/jimb.vfb

Now, all other members of the team need to perform the same setup tasks to publish their free/busy information to the server. When that step is complete, you're finally ready to start using group schedules.

Manage group schedules

Using group schedules, you can view the free/busy information for members of a team or other groups of people. You can use group schedules to help you identify when team members are available for tasks, meetings, or other events. You can easily create meeting requests from a group schedule, and you can send e-mail messages to members of the group listed in the Group Schedules dialog box. If you have the necessary permissions on a team member's Calendar folder, you can even open his or her calendar (Exchange Server only).

Create a group schedule

You can create multiple group schedules in Outlook. Each group schedule can include any selection of people, so you might create one schedule for all team members and create other schedules for selected members.

Follow these steps to create a group schedule:

  1. In Outlook, open the Calendar folder.
  2. On the Actions menu, click View Group Schedules.
  3. In the Group Schedules dialog box, click New, and then type a name for the group schedule.
  4. Click OK to open the group's dialog box.

Blank group schedule dialog box

Add members to a group schedule

You can add members to a group schedule from the Address Book or add a calendar from a public folder (Exchange Server only). Follow these steps to add members:

  • To add members from the Address Book, in the group's dialog box, click Add Others, and then click Add from Address Book. In the Select Members dialog box, click a contact, and then click To. Repeat these steps to add other members from the Address Book. You can choose members from different address lists, if necessary. To do so, click the target address book in the Show Names list in the Select Members dialog box, and then click OK.

Select Members dialog box

  • To add a public Calendar folder (Exchange Server only), click Add Others, and then click Add Public Folder. In the Select Folder dialog box, click the public folder, and then click OK.

Select Folder dialog box

The capability to add a public Calendar folder is one that you can use to incorporate group or company-wide events in your group schedule. You might use the public Calendar folder to identify company-wide meetings and other special events or to identify the availability for a resource. Having the public Calendar folder in your group schedule makes its events available for scheduling purposes.

View a team member's calendar

If you're using Exchange Server, you can open another user's calendar to view and add or modify appointments, depending on the permissions you have on the folder. Follow these steps to give another person permissions on your Calendar folder:

  1. In Outlook, click the Folder List button in the Navigation Pane.
  2. Right-click the Calendar folder, and then click Properties.
  3. In the Calendar Properties dialog box, click the Permissions tab.

Permissions tab

  1. Click Add, select another Exchange Server user from the Add Users dialog box, and then click OK.
  2. On the Permissions tab, click a permission level in the Permission Level list, according to the actions you want the other person to be able to perform with your Calendar folder.
  3. Click OK.

Now, assume that you want to view someone's calendar from a group schedule. That person has already set permissions for you on the Calendar folder. Here's how to view the calendar:

  1. Open your Calendar folder.
  2. On the Actions menu, click View Group Schedules.
  3. Click the group schedule, and then click Open.
  4. In the Group Members list, click the icon next to the name of the person to open that person's Calendar folder in a separate window.

Schedule a meeting by using group schedules

Now it's time to start using the group schedule for actual scheduling. First, scan through the dates in the group schedule's dialog box to locate a block of time when all of the required attendees are available. Select the block of time for the meeting, click Make Meeting, and then click New Meeting with All. Fill in the meeting request information, and then click Send to send the meeting invitations.

 Tip   You can schedule a meeting with just one member, if needed. Right-click the member's name in the Group Members list, and then click Schedule a Meeting. (If the member has other commitments on the calendar, the Schedule a Meeting command might instead say, for example, "Free until 3:00 PM.")

Send e-mail to group members

Outlook makes it easy to send e-mail messages to members listed in a group schedule. To send a message to one member, right-click the member's name in the list and then click Send Mail. You can also click a time block beside a member's name, click Make Meeting, and then click New Mail Message (clicking a time block only selects a message recipient; it does not initiate scheduling a meeting for that time). Or you can send a message to everyone in the group. Just click Make Meeting, and then click New Mail Message with All. In each case, Outlook opens a new message form that has the To field filled in.

Bring your team together

The capability to bring multiple team members' schedules together in a single place can be a valuable tool for planning work schedules, setting up meetings, and performing other organizational tasks. If you don't have Exchange Server, using group schedules does require some additional setup, but the benefits you gain from the group scheduling features easily outweigh the extra setup tasks.

About the author     Jim Boyce has written more than 50 books about computers and technology, many of them about Microsoft Office System products. He regularly contributes to several online sites and publications. His latest book is Microsoft Office Outlook 2003 Inside Out, which is available from Microsoft Learning.

 
 
Applies to:
Outlook 2003