Collaborate with Colleagues in Google Docs

Collaboration is what all the cool kids—well, all the competitive businesses—are doing these days because it’s efficient and effective. See “Stop Mailing Files Around and Use Collaborative Apps” and for users of Apple’s iWork, “Collaborate with Colleagues in Pages, Numbers, and Keynote.” Today we’re going to look at collaborating using Google’s Web-based productivity suite, Google Docs, which businesses can use for free or as part of a G Suite subscription.

The Google Docs suite competes with Apple’s iWork and Microsoft’s Office 365, providing Google Docs for word processing, Google Sheets for spreadsheet work, and Google Slides for presentations. You can manage all your files in Google Drive. Although all are Web-based and work best on a Mac or other desktop computer, Google also makes iOS apps that let you work—a bit less flexibly—on an iPad or iPhone.

You’ll need a free Google account to create new documents, and for full-fledged collaboration, your colleagues will need Google accounts too. You can share documents with people who lack Google accounts or don’t want to sign in, but their comments and changes will be anonymous.

Invite Collaborators

Once your document is ready to share, you can invite collaborators by clicking the large Share button in the upper-right corner of the window.

Flexible permissions let you share with specific people, and for each person, set whether they can edit, comment on, or just view the document (below left). You can also add a note that will be sent with the invitation.

If that’s too specific—you’re sharing with a large group, for instance—click Get Shareable Link to turn on link sharing (above right). Then you can set the permissions for the link by clicking the down-pointing arrow next to “Anyone with the link can…” This works well for things like self-service signup spreadsheets. Copy the link and send it however you like, such as via Messages or to a mailing list.

If you add people over time, you can see who has access by clicking Advanced. That view also provides more owner controls, including the option to prevent commenters and viewers from downloading, printing, or copying.

When you’re done, click Send or Done.

Accept an Invitation

People you invite receive an email invitation and click the Open In button to start working on the document. With link sharing, all the recipient has to do is click the link.

The main gotcha is that recipients must sign in to their Google accounts if sharing has been restricted to specific people. A less common problem can occur when you send an invitation to someone at an email address that doesn’t match their Google account, which prevents them from collaborating. They can then request that you share the document with their Google account; click the Open Sharing Settings button in the request email to grant access.

Add and Change Data

Apart from the permissions that restrict collaborators to commenting or viewing, there are no limitations on what people can do in a shared document—all editors are equal, and Google Docs works the same whether a document has one person using it or ten.

You can see who is in the document by the little avatar icons in the menu bar. It also tells you when the last edit was, and Google Docs always shows where other users are working with a color-coded cursor and marks when other users have selected content in the document with a colored highlight box.

Add Comments

The beauty of comments in a collaborative scenario is that discussions can occur in context. To add a comment, select some text and choose Insert > Comment. Comments show up in the right-hand sidebar in Google Docs and Google Slides; in Google Sheets, the cell containing a comment gets a little yellow triangle in the corner, and the comment appears when you click the cell.

Google pioneered comment conversations, which allow collaborators to reply to each others’ comments and keep the discussion connected to the initial comment. You can edit or delete your own comments by clicking the stacked three-dot More menu. Do that for someone else’s comment and you can get a link to the comment—it’s useful if you need to point someone to the discussion.

To see all the comments in a stream, click the Comment History button in the menu bar, which looks like a speech balloon. It’s especially useful when reviewing comments in Sheets, where you would otherwise have to click all the little yellow triangles in cells.

View Versions and Suggested Changes

The main way to see who has done what in a document is by choosing File > Version History > See Version History. That displays a right-hand sidebar showing dates when the file was changed; click an entry to see the changes in the main pane. Arrows above the main pane let you highlight each change in turn. If you want to revert to the selected version (which will delete all subsequent changes!), click Restore This Version.

For Google Sheets and Google Slides, version history is all that’s available, which can be frustrating because when you’re reviewing edits in version history, you can’t make changes. As a workaround, open a second browser window so you can review changes in one window and make edits in another.

Google Docs (the word processor, in this case) offers another choice: Suggesting mode, which works more like Track Changes in Page or Word. Switch into it by clicking the pencil icon in the upper-right corner and choosing Suggesting. From then on, all edits are non-destructive and are color-coded by the person who makes them. They’re coupled with boxes in the right-hand sidebar that detail the change, provide ✔ and X icons for accepting or rejecting the change, and offer a Reply field that enables discussions of each change—a brilliant feature.

If you want to be guided through all the suggested edits, or accept or reject changes all at once, rather than handling them one at a time in the right-hand sidebar, choose Tools > Review Suggested Changes.

When you’re done collaborating on a document, you can click the Share button and remove people or turn off link sharing. That immediately prevents others from making more changes.

When choosing a collaboration platform, you’ll generally pick what your colleagues use, whether that’s Google Docs, iWork, or Office 365. However, if you’re sharing with people whose platform and app details you don’t know, Google Docs is the best choice—Google accounts are common and the Google Docs apps work equally well on all computers. Plus, since Google Docs was built from the ground up for collaboration, it’s a mature solution that’s quick, easy, and effective.

Stop Mailing Files Around and Use Collaborative Apps

Have you ever emailed a document to several colleagues for feedback, and then had to go through each of their changes in turn, merging everything into your master document? What if one of them needs to see the changes that another suggested? Plus, what if you need to make substantial changes after you’ve sent the document out for review, but before you’ve heard back from everyone?

If you’re still doing this document dance, it’s time to quickstep into the modern world and try the real-time collaboration features that are built into many apps, including Apple’s iWork apps (Pages, Numbers, and Keynote), the Microsoft Office 365 suite (Word, Excel, and PowerPoint), and Google’s online app suite (Google Docs, Google Sheets, and Google Slides).

Let’s look at why real-time collaboration is the most efficient and productive solution for working with colleagues.

One Document to Rule Them All

In the old model of collaboration, where you gave each person their own copy of the document, you had to bring their changes and comments back into your master copy. That’s clumsy, time-consuming, and error-prone, even when the apps in question have features for merging.

With modern collaboration systems, there is only one document that everyone works on, so there’s no need to keep track of different copies or merge changes. Plus, you never have to worry about someone’s copy getting corrupted or lost.

Work Simultaneously or Sequentially

In many collaborative scenarios, the people with whom you’re working need to be aware of what the others are doing. Theoretically, you could send your document to one person, get it back, send to the next, get it back, and so on. That way each person sees the changes and comments from those who have gone before, but it takes a lot of time and coordination effort.

But in a real-time collaboration system with a single document, everyone can work at the same time. That’s not to say they will, but even after Alice has taken her primary pass and Bob and Carmen have added more changes and comments, Alice can dip in again to see and react to what they did, assuming they had track changes enabled. It’s a much faster way to resolve differing opinions on a document’s wording or a slide’s appearance.

Some collaboration systems also feature a revision history, which lets you go back in time and see what each person has done at different points. That can be helpful if the app wasn’t set to track changes when a collaborator made some edits.

Have In-Document Conversations

“Collaboration” generally takes two forms: changing information in the document and commenting on it. For instance, if you’re collaborating on a budget spreadsheet with colleagues, each person can add or update the information about annual expenses for their department, saving you the trouble of collecting and entering that information. And if someone makes a mistake, it’s easy for another person to correct it. Collaboration systems generally identify the person who makes each change, so Alice knows that Bob added his department’s expenses and Carmen updated all the dates to the current year.

Equally useful are comments, which you can generally attach to one or more words on a document or presentation, or a cell in a spreadsheet. Also, in many systems, a change or comment can be the start of a conversation much like in Messages, where each person gets to weigh in and the conversation stays tied to that change or comment.

Invite Multiple Types of Collaborators

A key feature of most collaboration systems is that people can take on different roles. There are generally three levels of access—view, comment, and edit—and you can invite any given person to a particular role. So you might ask Alice to proofread your document and give her edit access, while you ask Bob and Carmen merely to add comments. And if you need to show the document to Deepak (but you don’t want to let him even comment), you could invite him with just view permissions.

There’s one implicit role here—you as the document’s owner. Someone with edit access can generally make the same changes you can, but it’s always best to have one person who’s in charge of accepting or rejecting changes and resolving differences. That person might even change occasionally, but you should always make clear what you expect others to do at what point. For instance, if you’re an author collaborating with an editor, you should deal with your editor’s changes, and your editor should accept your subsequent edits.

You’re probably already using apps that can be used for real-time collaboration, so if you’d like help figuring out the best way to get started, get in touch.