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How to Preserve Microsoft 365 Data When Offboarding Employees

An unprecedented wave of departures that some economists have dubbed “the Great Resignation” or “the Great Reshuffle” finds employers offboarding employees more frequently than ever.

The step, though seemingly repetitive, isn’t a small task.

And with a record 4.5 million workers quitting their jobs in November 2021, according to the US Department of Labor, it’s only natural for organizations to look for shortcuts to streamline the process.

Managers might want to clear out old data quickly, whether to free up Microsoft 365 licenses or to make room in their cloud storage. But before rushing to make room for new employees, there are a few important things to consider. In their recent webinar “How Cloud Backup Can Improve the Employee Offboarding Process,Ron Delaney and Tom Gawczynski explain why you should ask a few questions before offboarding any staff members.

1. Do we need continued access to the departing employee’s inbox?

When you delete a user profile in Microsoft 365, you lose access to the user’s inbox, including any data residing there such as past communications and key contacts. You can restore the inbox for 30 days before it is permanently deleted, which may seem like plenty of time to determine if you lost something that you need.

However, that time can pass in a blink of an eye. Say your team works on annual contracts and a client’s renewal isn’t due for six months. Suddenly, it’s time for renewal and you realize you are missing some important background information that can only be found in the former employee’s inbox. Unfortunately, it would be too late to perform a restore.

The good news is that Microsoft does have a native fix. Before you delete the user, you can convert the inbox to an inactive inbox. Simply block the former employee from accessing their old mailbox and share the inbox with another user, perhaps their manager or a counterpart. This allows you to free up their licenses without losing access to their information for as long as you set the retention policy (up to 10 years).

READ MORE: Get more tips to manage an employee’s Outlook when offboarding

At this point, you have the option to delete the user profile. But there are still some downsides: there might be new emails coming into the mailbox which you will not have access to once the user profile is deleted. You also can’t set up an autoresponder if the user profile is deleted, which could be a helpful solution for external contacts that weren’t informed about the employee’s departure or forget their new point of contact.

While you’re more prepared to remove the user profile now, it’s still important to think through these last few issues. You might find it valuable to buy yourself a bit more time with a longer retention policy to ensure you no longer need the former employee’s inbox before hitting “delete.”

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2. Will we need access to any files the employee might have saved to their OneDrive?

While you likely encouraged your employees to save important documents to Microsoft Teams, SharePoint, or other globally accessible platforms, there will likely be a few key documents saved to their personal OneDrive – unfinished projects, notes on important customers, or even checklists of work yet to be tackled.

Just like Outlook, once you delete a user profile, you have a 30-day grace period to recover the deleted user’s OneDrive files. Again, 30 days can be limiting, particularly when attempting to find and train a replacement who may have the final say on which information is helpful and which can safely be deleted.

READ MORE: 4 ways to reduce your O365 storage by 80%

While 30 days is the standard time Microsoft allows the inbox to be “soft deleted,” just like with Outlook, you can apply a retention policy that extends to a maximum of 3,650 days or 10 years. This is a great option to buy yourself more time before permanently deleting the former employer’s data.

Remember, if you are retaining their data, their files are taking up space in your storage, which can get costly. While you could theoretically keep their data for 10 years, you might be better suited to set an earlier deadline and work to determine what’s essential to keep and what can be deleted to save yourself unnecessary storage fees.

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3. What is our backup plan if my employee deletes their data before leaving?

Not all tenures end on a good note. There’s no predicting how a disgruntled or scorned employee may react before their departure. If the employee had been working on an unfinished project or deal and deletes key information before they leave, the loss could be detrimental to the project or deal’s success.

Even employees who end on a good note may still assume it’s a best practice to delete their files and emails when “cleaning up” before their departure. What seems like a favor to your storage capacity might lead to disaster in the future if important institutional knowledge is lost.

That’s why it’s always a best practice to have a backup plan that ensures key data, such as that found in Outlook or SharePoint, is backed up in case of the unthinkable. While Microsoft 365 has some native functionality that can help protect key workloads, it does have limits.

Having a third-party cloud backup solution is key to ensuring you can preserve data and easily restore it if needed. AvePoint Cloud Backup can be set to back up everyone’s mailboxes daily, and it supports a direct to .pst export of mailboxes; admins may perform point-in-time restores in Outlook and OneDrive as well so data from a certain period can be easily retrieved.

The bottom line? Offboarding best practices in Microsoft 365 aren’t only an issue for the tech team. As organizations grapple with historic turnover, they must consider more than just storage space when considering former employees’ data. Business continuity and institutional knowledge should also remain top of mind.


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