A laptop computer is displaying the blue cloud-shaped logo of Microsoft One Drive.
Image: © monticellllo/Stock.adobe.com

Remote working tools: How to use Microsoft OneDrive like a pro

27 Jul 2020

OneDrive is one of the most popular cloud storage tools and has become even more important now that many teams are remote. Here are a few tips to get more comfortable using it.

One of the most important remote working tools in your arsenal will be your file storage system. While many of your files may have once been stored on a physical server, many businesses will have had to migrate to cloud storage in recent months. A popular cloud storage tool is Microsoft OneDrive, which is baked into Windows and therefore works very well with Microsoft Office solutions.

For those who haven’t used OneDrive or similar services before, it works like a traditional hard drive, but on the internet, which means you can create a file on your computer and pick it up on your tablet or phone. This also makes it easier to share and collaborate on documents for teams that are working remotely.

Even for those who are in some way familiar with the mechanisms of OneDrive, there are a lot of features that you may not be aware of, especially if you’re only using it as a means of storage. So, what do you need to know to become a OneDrive pro?

Getting started

Firstly, you will need a Microsoft email account such as Outlook to sign into OneDrive. If you don’t have a Microsoft email, you can easily set one up. OneDrive comes with 5GB of free cloud storage but if you’re an Office365 account holder, you get a terabyte with your subscription.

Once you’ve signed up or signed into your OneDrive account, you can set the application up on your computer. If you’re using Windows, OneDrive is more than likely already on the system and all you have to do is search for it. If not, you can download it here. While OneDrive is native to Microsoft and Windows, Mac users can also download the software for free here.

Once you’ve followed the on-screen instructions to set this up, OneDrive integrates with your file explorer or finder window and you can upload files to OneDrive by simply dragging and dropping them in the window.

What about OneDrive for Business?

Many businesses will opt for OneDrive as their cloud storage system if they already have Office365. If this is the case, employees will more than likely be set up with OneDrive for Business, rather than the regular consumer version.

The two main differences are the storage and who controls the files. As mentioned, Office365 users get a terabyte of personal storage as opposed to 5GB. With OneDrive for Business, that storage is under the control of your company’s administrator as opposed to your personal control.

Additionally, while the syncing capability in a personal or business account is the same, the symbols you will see on your device will differ ever so slightly, but more on that later.

Let’s talk about syncing

OK, so you’re all set up and now you want to sync your files. To do this, you can go to your OneDrive settings, click the ‘account’ tab and then click ‘choose folders’. This will select the files and folders that will automatically sync between your devices and the cloud. Once you choose specific files and folders, these will be the only ones visible from your device. However, you’ll still be able to access all other folders online.

If you’re concerned about local storage on your computer, it’s worth knowing that the OneDrive Files on Demand feature was built into an update in 2017. This allows you to browse through your entire collection of OneDrive files using an explorer or finder window, even if those files are not synced to your device.

This means that even if you have a lot of files and limited storage, you can still click ‘make all files available’, which means they’re all visible on your computer but only download and take up space on your device when you open them. You can then get rid of these offline copies by right-clicking the file and selecting ‘free up space’. Alternatively, you can choose to select ‘always keep on this device’ so that a local, offline copy is always there.

What do all these icons actually mean?

There are a lot of different icons associated with OneDrive and its files. This can be tough to get your head around but once you become familiar with the ones you see the most, they won’t seem as overwhelming.

Firstly, there is a little cloud icon on the tool bar of your desktop or laptop where your battery, volume and other such icons are. This may appear differently depending on your OneDrive status.

Solid white cloud: This means OneDrive is running without problems and sync is up to date.

Solid blue cloud: This is specifically for OneDrive for Business users and means everything’s running as it should.

Solid grey cloud: This means OneDrive is running but you’re currently signed out.

Two arrows forming a circle: If your cloud icon looks like this, it means OneDrive is actively downloading or uploading files and folders to the cloud at the moment.

Red circle with an X: This means OneDrive is running, but there are sync problems that require your attention. If you click on the cloud icon it will pull up a menu of files and you should be able to see where the problem might be.

Aside from the desktop icon, you will also see a few different icons in the OneDrive window beside each of your files.

White cloud with a blue border: This shows that your file is available online but is not using local storage. If you open the file while connected to the internet, it will download, as per the Files on Demand feature.

White circle with green border and green tick: This means the file is taking up local storage space and is available offline.

Solid green circle with white tick: This is beside any files you have selected to ‘always keep on this device’. It is stored locally and doesn’t require internet to open.

Arrows forming a circle: This means the file or folder is currently syncing.

Solid red circle with white X: This highlights a problem with syncing that particular file.

While there are a lot of icons, most are intuitive and you are likely to only see one or two at a time, depending on how you have the system set up. The main issue is when you see the solid red circle, showing a problem with syncing. This may be due to a drop in signal or a need to re-establish the OneDrive connection, but more on that later.

What you need to know about sharing

When you want to share files, you can do this very quickly and easily by generating a link and sending it. You can do this by right-clicking the file and choosing ‘share’. This allows you to simply copy a link, which you can then paste and send with ease.

However, this is not the most secure way of sharing links, as anyone who has that link can open and edit the file. Therefore, this option is only advised for trusted friends or colleagues. For sharing links externally, you will most likely want some additional security measures.

A screenshot of the additional sharing options with OneDrive.

Screenshot of OneDrive sharing options.

When you right-click the ‘share’ option beside a file or folder, you have additional options before simply copying the link:

  • You can change who can access the link and list only specific email addresses
  • If you want anyone with the link to be able to view it, you can set an expiration date and password on the link so that access is not indefinite
  • You can disable the recipients’ ability to edit and block them from downloading the file

These additional measures keep your files safe when you need to share them and, even though simply copying and pasting the link is more convenient and can often be safe to do internally, it’s good practice to get into the habit of setting passwords and expiry dates to avoid security issues.

Troubleshooting syncing problems

Files not opening or syncing properly are generally the main issues you will encounter with OneDrive and it can happen for a number of reasons. Check if you’re running the latest version of the app, check your internet connection and check your available device storage. Sometimes a simple restart will do the trick. If you’re still having syncing problems, you might need to consider a hard reset.

Another problem you can have with documents in or outside OneDrive is losing an earlier version that you later need. Whether you have the autosave setting on, or you accidentally just saved over a file you needed, you can easily retrieve it from OneDrive. Simply right-click the file, go to version history, scroll back to the version you need, click the three dots for more options and restore the file.

What you need to know about security

For employers and employees alike, it’s important to know the security limitations of OneDrive as well as its benefits.

There are plenty of steps that all users should take to beef up their own security, similar to using most applications and tools, such as creating strong, unique passwords, adding security information to your Microsoft account and using two-factor verification. Additionally, those who have Microsoft 365 subscriptions have advanced protection from viruses and cybercrime.

When it comes to extremely sensitive or confidential documents, users should avoid storing this data on OneDrive. In June 2019, Microsoft launched a Personal Vault feature with additional security measures, acting as an online safe. However, this feature is only available for personal accounts and not OneDrive for Business customers.

It’s also worth noting that OneDrive should be considered a storage solution, not a backup solution. While uploading files to cloud storage and being able to restore files can give you a certain level of backup, it is still possible to accidentally delete files from the cloud storage solution itself and for it to not be backed up elsewhere.

Businesses and employees should remember this when they’re looking to ensure certain documents and folders are backed up, even if disaster strikes. You can read more about OneDrive security and file protection here.

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Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the editor of Silicon Republic in 2023, having worked as the deputy editor since February 2020. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

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