Documents and collaboration are a huge part of any business, especially a technical startup. In a startup, everything from legal documents to meeting notes and feature descriptions need to be written down, reviewed, revised and edited. And because multiple people, departments, and companies are typically involved in a startup, collaboration on documents is important. Especially for remote-first teams like mine, where you can’t approach someone’s work desk to discuss something. In this case, an effective call is guided by a clear agenda, by notes and outcomes summed up in a document.
Google Docs is one of the most obvious choices for document collaboration and is often overlooked because of that. There are a multitude of tools out there, ranging from big names like Microsoft Office 365 to smaller but still widely used apps like Notion and Evernote, so choosing one that’s right for your team may take some time.
What we’ve tried.
My team started with Google Docs because we were using G Suite initially as the most obvious platform for teamwork. And this is actually the best thing about GDocs — they’re tightly integrated, and they work fast and reliably across platforms because of the company that backs them up. They have their own limitations because they follow common the concepts behind files, folders and comments, and the document structure is closer to the one that MS Office has. But we found that these “limitations” are actually benefits — they allows the person creating the document to focus on the content, not on the presentation.
We’ve been using Google Docs since its early days, back in 2014. At the time, we only had a handful of files, but we did need to store them online, share them between team members and clients and open them on both on our computers and phones. We were using it for about a year, and the experience wasn’t that great; a lot of features that we wanted were missing. The UI was very old school, too. So we started looking for other solutions. We tried several tools, among them Evernote, Confluence by Atlassian, and Dropbox Paper. Finally we settled down on Dropbox Paper because of its sleek editor, its ability to add great-looking blocks and the ease with which we could share our documents.
But as our team and projects grew, the shortcomings of Paper became apparent. For one, it wasn’t built for documents that spanned tens of pages. It also wasn’t built for a large structure of files. Plus, its sharing capabilities and permission management weren’t perfect. Finally, our clients complained that to collaborate, they needed to sign up for Dropbox, which they didn’t want to do; they wanted to use something familiar, like Office 365 or Google Docs.
After some evaluation, we switched back and have been working with Google Docs for the last five years. Over time, we tried more tools, but Google Docs has remained our e-document collaboration tool of choice.
So, what’s so great about Google Docs and why you should use it?
Sharing and permissions.
Sharing is an important part of collaboration, as there’s a very small chance you want to create a document just for yourself to read out loud to others. In most apps, the person you’re sharing the document with should have an account within the app you’re using. Of course, you can make your documents available to anyone with a link. (Of course, if you’ve signed a non-disclosure agreement with whoever you’re working with, this isn’t an option for you.) That was the main problem with all of the non-standard apps we had tried — clients complained that they didn’t want to sign up for yet another account and learn how to use yet another app.
In addition to sharing that just works, you also get fine-grained permissions. You can share documents, folders and, most importantly, team drives. Team drives is a feature available for G Suite accounts that have at least a business plan. They allow you to limit sharing options and control access on a higher level. Have you ever experienced the headache of trying to remove a person you’re no longer working from all of your document sharing settings? Team drives solve this problem. You just remove the person from a drive, and…that’s all.
Integrated in G Suite.
Collaboration is more than documents, really. In our team, we try to work in an asynchronous way as much as possible, meaning that two people working on a document don’t have to do so at the same time. For example, our analyst creates feature descriptions. He does that according to his own work schedule, which is often different from the schedule of the manager reviewing the description and the client answering questions. With a workflow like this, it’s important to be able to get notifications when someone mentions you in a comment, find this comment, leave long, extensive and feature-rich comments and keep track of things that need attention. Google Docs allows all that and more. For example, someone can mention you in a comment and assign you a task. You can then go to your GDrive and see a list of document-related tasks, which is basically a list of documents that need your attention with links directly to a comment thread. And Gmail allows you to answer to comments directly from your Gmail interface. These little things save a lot of time when you have a lot going on. Plus, there are a ton of plugins and integrations for GDocs in nearly every collaboration tool, Slack and Trello included.
Easy to organize and edit documents.
Yes, the Google Docs interface isn’t as sleek and clean as Dropbox Paper’s or Notion’s. But the Google Docs app is so much faster! Plus, the interface is familiar to anyone who’s ever used Microsoft Office before, so even my team’s head of HR (who had never used Google Docs before working with us) was able to get up and running in just a few days. She’s a fantastic head of HR, but in her late 50s, learning new software with too much UI/UX design can add a lot of work to her plate. Google Docs worked out great for her.
The concept of files and folders is also familiar to any user and allows you to store any number of documents in an organized fashion. Sometimes, navigating large folder structures becomes a problem, so we started creating index files — it’s a document sitting at the top of the hierarchy highlighting the most important files and folders and providing links and short descriptions. Unfortunately, Google Docs don’t have a full wiki, but we use the ability to interlink documents for that purpose.
Are you using Google Docs for your team? Does it work well for you, or you are looking to switch to something else? I’d love to learn about other great apps for document collaboration. Share your suggestions in the comments.
Originally published on Medium