How to collaborate in Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides: 4 tips

When two or more people have access to content in Google Docs, Sheets, or Slides, these four practices may help make collaboration proceed smoothly.

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Image: Andy Wolber/TechRepublic

When someone who uses G Suite says, "I'll share it," that signals the start of a collaborative effort in Google Docs, Sheets, or Slides. A click on the blue Share button—or in mobile apps, a tap on the Add Person icon—lets a document owner or editor offer access to other people (see: How to share Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides).

Sharing access to a document only starts the collaboration process. When you receive access to a document as a collaborator, you can take a few steps to make the collaboration process continue smoothly. The following four items cover a few ideas that are sometimes overlooked when people collaborate on documents.

Note: If you use a G Suite account, your G Suite administrator has access to settings that in some cases may block or limit collaboration. If you encounter collaboration restrictions, check with your G Suite administrator for assistance.

1. Confirm you can access the G Suite doc

Email or firewall settings sometimes result in sharing notifications not getting through, which obviously precludes collaboration. So when you receive an email or notification that gives you access, promptly check to make sure you can access the item, especially if this is the first time you have collaborated with that person (Figure A).

Figure A

Screenshot of an email that indicates the recipient has been invited to edit a Google Doc.

When you receive an expected invitation to edit a Google Doc, Sheet, or Slide, open it promptly to confirm you can access the file as expected. In some cases, you may need to request access.

Soon after opening the file for the first time, let the person who shared the file know you have successfully accessed it. If you haven't received access a day or so after sharing a document was first discussed, you may want to send a message to follow up.

SEE: G Suite: Tips and tricks for business professionals (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Sometimes, when you attempt to access an item, a prompt might indicate that you may request access; this could happen if you use multiple Google accounts, for example, or if your email address is not associated with a Google account. You may sign in or switch accounts to access the item or request access. When you request access, the owner of the file will be notified and you'll need to wait for them to approve access.

If you're an editor of a Doc, Sheet, or Slide file, the Activity Dashboard may help you identify who accessed an item. See 4 tips to help you configure Google's G Suite activity dashboard

2. How to name the current version of the G Suite file

You might name the current version of the file before you make changes to ensure you can quickly refer to the document as it was before you made comments or edits. A named version also makes it easier to compare a later version of the document to the version you initially received. 

You can name a file version within Google Docs, Sheets, or Slides, within a desktop-class web browser from the menu system: Choose File | Version History | Name Current Version, then enter a name for your version (Figure B). You also might name the version after your edits, as well. Generally speaking, named versions may be more useful for Docs, Sheets, or Slides that are long, important, and/or edited by several people.

Figure B

Screenshot of File > Version history > Name current version menu displayed.

Before you make changes in Google Docs, Sheets, or Slides in a web browser, you may want to name the current version (File | Version History | Name Current Version).

3. How to make changes to a shared Google Doc

If you have edit access in Google Docs, you have at least five distinct ways to offer changes. You may use each one, but when you collaborate with someone for the first time, consider these edit actions in the following order: Comment, Suggest, Add, or Edit/Delete. 

First, select some text, then insert a comment. This gives the editor the ability to see your note, but doesn't change the document's text. A comment is a great way to add an idea, ask a question, or note a concern. It's the least intrusive edit (Figure C).

Figure C

Screenshots that show Insert > Comment on desktop (left) and Android app (right) as described in caption.

The least obtrusive way to edit: Insert Comment. Select text, then insert a comment on the web (left) with Insert | Comment. On mobile (three images on the right), select text, then tap the + icon, then tap Comment.

Next, switch to Suggesting mode, then add, delete, or replace existing text. Any changes you make while in Suggesting mode are provisional: The owner and/or other editors of the document may choose to accept or reject each suggestion (Figure D).

Figure D 

Two screenshots (left) with circled three-dot menu on Android and the "Suggest changes" slider enabled. Screenshot (right) of editing, suggesting, viewing mode menu in a web browser.

Changes you make while in Suggesting mode may be accepted or rejected by a document editor. In the mobile apps (shown on left), tap the three-dot menu, then move the slider to enable Suggest Changes. In a web browser, select Suggesting from the Editing menu found in the upper-right corner area (right).

Additionally, you might add text below or before a paragraph where you desire a change; this ensures that your added text will display clearly if printed. Added text also preserves the original text for reference nearby. In some cases, it may make sense to add a name or indicator (e.g., "AWolber: Add links in each paragraph to related Google support pages.") for clarity.

Lastly, you may make changes and/or delete content while in standard edit mode (not while Suggesting). Changes you make in this manner display much as they would if you were the only person editing the document—your changes alter the active text displayed. Deleted content doesn't display and edits change the core content of the document. While Google Docs' revision history lets collaborators refer to earlier versions, modifications and deletions made in standard edit mode may be the most difficult for collaborators to detect.

In general, when working with a new collaborator, use Insert Comment and Suggest Changes modes before you simply change or delete text in a document.

4. Collaboration concerns? Meet with your collaborators

Sometimes it makes more sense to talk than to edit. Maybe you think the whole document needs to be redone, or maybe the tone of the text is terrible. A conversation with your collaborators, either in person or with Hangouts Meet, may help resolve significant issues more quickly than lots of edits.

Your experience?

If you collaborate with people in Google Docs, Sheets, or Slides, what has your experience been? Have you found comments or suggesting mode helpful? Or do you simply open a document and make changes? Let me know what specific document collaboration strategies you've found to useful either in the comments below or on Twitter (@awolber).

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