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The Google Apps productivity dilemma

Should you restrict offline work to improve organizational security or enable offline work to improve individual productivity? Andy Wolber takes a look at this productivity dilemma.

Google Apps offline

If your organization uses Google Apps, you likely recognize the power of online collaboration. But you may not realize how much administrative control Google gives your organization to enable (or restrict) offline work.

Connected work — working while online — improves the security of Google Apps. With data stored centrally on Google Drive, there's less of a risk of data being accessed while a system is offline or disconnected. Instead, a person must authenticate to access email or share documents.

However, disconnected work — or working offline — may improve individual productivity. When working offline, we're not interrupted by new email or distracted by social media streams. We create a new project and build it from nothing with focused effort. Offline work, though, means offline data: email and files are stored locally to be synced when connected.

That's the Google Apps productivity dilemma: restrict offline work to improve organizational security, or enable offline work to improve productivity?

A traditional IT person might instinctively think that a disconnected system is more secure than a connected one. That is certainly true — from the point of view of an individual user. However, a system that requires authentication over an encrypted connection to access information improves security — from the point of view of an organization. (This is the same reason that enterprise social networks generally should be preferred over email: they're more secure, thanks to authentication over a secure connection.)

Restrict offline work to improve organizational security

Both Gmail and Google Drive may be configured to limit offline data.

For Gmail, review the End User Access settings. To do this, login with your Google Apps administrator account at admin.google.com, select Google Apps, then Gmail. Scroll to the bottom of the settings and choose Advanced Settings, then scroll to the End User Access section.

Three Gmail settings may significantly restrict offline access to Gmail (Figure A):

  • "Disable POP and IMAP access" prevents people from using a standard mail client to access email. Check the box to restrict access; leave it unchecked to permit access. With all other settings, the "unchecked" status offers the more restricted setting. This one is different.
  • To prevent syncing to Microsoft Outlook, leave "Enable Google Apps Sync and Google Apps Connector for my users" unchecked.
  • Finally, to prohibit offline Gmail access in the browser, leave "Enable Offline Gmail for my users" unchecked.

Figure A

Figure A

Three Gmail settings significantly affect a user's ability to store email offline.

Similarly, four Google Drive settings may significantly restrict offline access to documents (Figure B). Again, access these settings from the Google Apps admin console by selecting Google Apps, then Drive. Choose General settings to configure the following Drive data settings.

  • Uncheck "Allow users to enable offline Docs" to restrict offline access.
  • Choose "Do not allow Google Drive for Mac/PC in your organization" to prevent the Google Drive app for Mac/PC from being used to sync Drive documents to local storage.
  • Uncheck "Allow users to install Google Drive apps" to prevent the use of third-party apps that store data on Google Drive.
  • Uncheck "Allow users to install Google Docs add-ons" to prevent the use of third-party add-ons to Google Docs.

Figure B

Figure B

Google Drive settings restrict — or enable — files syncing to local storage.

To further restrict offline access, review your Google Apps for Work mobile settings (Device Management from the Admin dashboard) and Chrome Management controls. See More Google Apps, then choose Chrome Management. You may need to first select More controls from the bottom of the main console screen.

Enable offline work to improve individual productivity

Writers sometimes intentionally work offline to ensure internet distractions aren't an option. Robert Caro and David McCullough each write with a typewriter, citing the merits of working slowly and with focused attention when interviewed in "The Typewriter (In the 21st Century)" film. Paul Ford wrote of his appreciation for the Alphasmart Neo, a no longer made device that consisted of a keyboard, a small screen, and eight memory slots for storage — and, importantly, no connection to the internet or apps. For these writers, the lack of internet access is a feature, not a failing.

Gmail and Google Drive also may be configured to allow people to work offline. The settings to enable offline work are shown in the images above; they're the opposite settings of those to restrict offline work.

You need to use and configure Chrome to enable Google Drive to work offline. You may also install a Chrome app to support offline work, such as Gmail Offline, Drive, Docs, Slides, and Drawings. The new version of Google Drive syncs Docs in the background automatically, so they'll be available when you're offline.

Work offline

To work offline, turn off Wi-Fi on your laptop or Chromebook, then go to http://drive.google.com in your browser. Open a Google Doc to edit. Notice that when you pause after an edit, "All changes saved offline" displays to the right of the menu options. The next time you go online, your changes will sync to Google Drive, and you'll see "All changes saved in Drive." (Offline editing works on mobile devices, too, as Jack Wallen explains: "How to work with Google Docs offline using Android.")

Support for offline work extends beyond Google's own apps. Many third-party Chrome Apps support offline work: explore the list here. Android Apps that run in Chrome may also support offline work. For example, you can create notes offline with the Evernote Android app for Chrome, then sync when connected.

How do you resolve the dilemma?

Does your organization prefer to require online work to gain organizational control at the expense of individual productivity? Or does your organization prefer to enable offline work to gain personal productivity with less security?

Google Apps for work places the decision firmly in the hands of the organization's administrators. It's a decision to make with care. Describe your organization's preference in the discussion thread below.

About Andy Wolber

Andy Wolber helps people understand and leverage technology for social impact. He resides in Ann Arbor, MI with his wife, Liz, and daughter, Katie.

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