How to use Google Drive for collaboration Credit: GoogleSupplied Art
Business Management

How to use Google Drive for collaboration

Many people think of Google Drive as a cloud storage and sync service, and it is that — but it also encompasses a suite of online office apps that are comparable with Microsoft Office. Google Docs (the word processor), Google Sheets (the spreadsheet app) and Google Slides (the presentation app) can import, export, or natively edit Microsoft Office files, and you can use them to work together with colleagues on a document, spreadsheet or presentation, in real time if you wish.

With a Google Account, individuals get free use of Docs, Sheets and Slides and up to 15GB of free Google Drive storage. Those who need more storage can upgrade to a Google One plan starting at $2 per month.

Businesses can opt for Drive Enterprise, which also includes Docs, Sheets and Slides, as well as business-friendly features including shared drives, enterprise-grade security, and integration with third-party tools like Slack and Salesforce. Drive Enterprise costs $8 per active user per month, plus $.04 per GB used.

Finally, Google Drive, Docs, Sheets and Slides are part of the company's G Suite office suite, along with numerous other communications tools including Gmail, Google Calendar, Hangouts Meet and Hangouts Chat, as well as security and administration tools. G Suite plans range from $6/user/month for the Basic plan with 30GB of storage to $25/user/month for the Enterprise plan with unlimited storage and advanced administration, security and e-discovery tools.

The G Suite and Drive Enterprise versions of the Docs Editors are mostly identical to their free counterparts but with a few extra features for the business environment. Whichever version you're using, here are the essentials to know in order to effectively use Drive and its related apps to collaborate.

Most of this article is about sharing and collaborating via My Drive, the drive controlled by individual users whether they use Google Drive through a personal Google account, a G Suite account or a Drive Enterprise account. A section at the end covers Team Drives, shared drives that are available only through Drive Enterprise and G Suite Business, Enterprise and Education accounts.

Sharing and access options

Google Drive gives you fine-tuned control over who can see your files and what they can do with them.

Public vs. private sharing

There are two ways you can share a Google Drive document, spreadsheet or presentation with other people. (For simplicity’s sake we’ll just say “document” from now on, but the same steps apply to spreadsheets and presentations.)

Publicly: Anyone can access your document by clicking a link to it. No sign-in is required. You can give out this link to anyone, or publish the link on a website or message board.

Privately: You enter an email address for each collaborator. Google Drive will email each person a link. Only the people who receive the email can click the link to access your document.

To edit or comment on a private document, your collaborators must have a Google account. If any of your collaborators already has a Gmail account, then they can immediately collaborate as long as they’re signed into their account. Anyone who doesn’t will have to register for a user account using a current email address, which doesn't need to be a Gmail one.

Viewing vs. commenting vs. editing

Regardless of whether you publicly or privately share a document, you can choose one of three ways as to how other people can interact with it.

View: Others will only be able to scroll through and read your document.

Comment: Others will be able to add comments but not change the body of the document.

Edit: Others will be able to actually edit the document (change text, add images, etc.) and share the file with others.

You can combine the sharing and interaction options any way you choose — for instance, you can share a document publicly and grant view permissions only, or you can share it privately and grant comment permissions. With private sharing, you can give some people view permissions and let others comment or edit the document.

Less common scenarios are public sharing with commenting or editing enabled. Why would you ever want to publicly share a document and let anyone comment on it? Maybe, for example, you want to gather opinions about a rough draft of a presentation. So you share a public link to it on a message board for colleagues in your line of work, inviting them to comment.

As for why you would allow public editing access, a plausible scenario might be if a collaborator you know doesn’t wish to register their email address with Google for some reason. Without a Google account, they can’t be granted private access. Under this circumstance, you should only enable public access to edit at the time when this person will be online to edit your document. As soon as they are finished, you should disable public access with edit capabilities.

How to share a document for collaboration

From the main page of your Google Drive user account (listed under the heading My Drive), click the file name of the document you want to share so that it’s highlighted in blue.

To share publicly: Click the link icon (it looks like a chain) on the toolbar above the list of your folders and files. A panel will open, showing you a web link. You can copy and paste this link to share with other people. By default, they will only be able to view your file when they visit this link.

google drive collaboration link sharing on IDG

To allow the public to comment on or edit this document, click “Sharing settings.” This will open a “Share with others” panel. In the first gray box, click to change “Anyone with the link can view” to “...can edit” or “...can comment.”

Google Drive collaboration public sharing permissions IDG

You can change a document from public to private at any time by clicking the same gray box and selecting “OFF - only specific people can access.”

Conversely, there is a way to make a document even more public. By default, when you create a shareable link, only people who have the link can access your document. But if you click that same gray box and select the “More...” link, you’ll see an option that says “On - Public on the web,” which means that your document is accessible by anyone on the internet and may turn up in Google searches. Warning: Choose this option only if you truly do want to share your document with the world.

(Note that you can additionally send private email invitations to the document from the “Share with others” panel, as detailed below.)

To share privately: Click the icon of the silhouette head with the + sign on the toolbar. This will open a simpler version of the “Share with others” panel. Type in the email addresses of the people you want to collaborate with. To the right of this entry box, you can click the gray box to grant each collaborator the ability to edit, comment, or only view. (“Can edit” is selected by default.)

Google Drive collaboration - sharing a document privately IDG

If you’ve chosen to share a document privately, you can make it public at any time by clicking “Get shareable link” in the upper-right, which creates a public link and opens the same expanded version of the “Share with others” panel that we saw when public sharing was enabled.

You can use both public and private sharing options for the same document — for instance, you could allow the public to view your document but let only specific people edit or comment on it.

Clicking the “Advanced” link at the bottom of the “Share with others” panel opens an even more expanded version of the panel that makes available all the settings for enabling public or private access to your document. In addition to the sharing options outlined above, you can prevent people with view or comment permissions from downloading, printing or copying the document. You can also prevent anyone with edit permissions from sharing the file or changing its access permissions.

Google Drive collaboration - advanced sharing pane IDG

The G Suite and Drive Enterprise versions of Google Drive also let you set an expiration date for a shared document. After this date passes, the person or people you've shared the document with will no longer be able to view it.

From the "Sharing settings" window, under "Who has access," hover the cursor over the name of the person you want to set an expiration for. Click the timer icon that appears by their name.

google drive collaboration share file set expiration 1 IDG

Next to "Access expires," click the drop-down box. Select the number of days from the current day that you want that person to have access to the file before they can no longer view it. Or click "Custom date..." to pick a specific date of expiration from a calendar. Click "Save changes."

google drive collaboration share file set expiration 2 IDG

Note that this expiration function doesn't work on a document that you want to share with someone to edit. It can only be applied to users who have been allowed comment or view access to a file.

There are two other ways begin sharing a document in Google Drive. From the main My Drive page, you can right-click the file name or thumbnail of your document and select “Get shareable link” or “Share…” from the panel that pops open to enable public or private sharing, respectively.

google drive collaboration share right click IDG

To share a document that you’ve already opened and are currently viewing, click the blue Share button at the upper-right corner. This will pop open the simpler version of the “Share with others” panel, which you can expand as needed.

How to share from the Google Drive, Docs, Sheets and Slides mobile apps

To share a document from the mobile app version of Google Drive, tap the three dots to the right of the file name. From the panel that slides up, you can tap “Share” to share privately; that brings up a screen where you can send email invites and set editing permissions just as with the Google Drive web app.

For public sharing, when the three-dot menu slides up, tap “Link sharing” (in Android) or “Link sharing off” (in iOS) to turn on link sharing for the document. When you do so, an online link to your document is copied to your phone’s memory; you can paste it into an email, for example, to share it with others.

google drive collaboration android app IDG

When you're on the home screen in the Google Docs, Sheets and Slides mobile apps, the sharing steps are basically the same as in the Google Drive app. When you have a document, spreadsheet or presentation open in its respective mobile app, the “Share” icon for private sharing is located at the upper-right. To share as a public link, tap the three-dot icon in the upper-right corner, and tap “Share & export” from the panel that appears.

Google Drive collaboration - sharing from Docs app Howard Wen / IDG

Sharing from within the Google Docs app. Let's hope any collaborators spot the error in the first sentence.

Sharing status

When a document on your My Drive page is set as shared, it will have an icon of two silhouetted heads to the right of its file name to indicate this status.

google drive collaboration shared files IDG

(An oversight on the part of the Google Drive developers: If you have your My Drive page set to grid view, which shows your files and folders as thumbnails, this icon won’t appear over the thumbnail of a shared file.)

What if you’re on the receiving end: Someone has shared a document with you to collaborate on? Along the left side of your My Drive page, clicking “Shared with me” will show you a list of files that others have shared with you.

google drive collaboration sharing status IDG

The mobile apps use the same silhouetted heads icon to indicate a shared file and the same “Shared with me” link to show you files others have shared with you.

How to collaborate on a document

Google Docs, Sheets and Slides offer a few different ways for people to work together: comments, direct edits and suggested edits, with a few extras thrown in for real-time collaboration.

To add and review comments

Anyone who’s been granted comment or edit permissions can add comments to a document. Set the cursor in the document where you want to insert a comment. Alternately, you can highlight text or an image. Then, click the black dialog icon on the toolbar above the document.

google drives collaboration comments 1 IDG

A panel will open at the lower-right corner, inside which you can type your comment.

google drives collaboration comments 2 IDG

Comment cards created by you and your collaborators appear along the right side of the document.

google drives collaboration comments 3 IDG

Clicking the gray Comments button at the upper-right corner will open a panel listing all the comments made by you and your collaborators. You can scroll through them, and you and your collaborators can respond to each one with a brief message.

google drives collaboration comments 4 IDG

The mobile apps also let you add and review comments. With a document open, click the pencil icon in the lower-right corner. Put your cursor where you want to insert the comment, tap the + icon on the toolbar at the top of the screen and select Comment from the panel that slides up. Type in your comment, then, in Android, tap the Comment button to insert it; in iOS, tap the check mark to insert it. To review all the comments in a document, tap the gray Comments icon.

To make direct edits

Anyone who’s been granted edit permissions can directly edit the document. As you’d expect, you can simply insert your cursor, then add or revise text, insert images and so on. (In the mobile apps, tap the pencil icon in the lower-right corner to enter editing mode.)

With multiple people editing the same file, however, it can be difficult to keep track of who’s done what. That’s where version history comes in. If you’re away when a collaborator makes changes to your document, the next time you open it, a status line above the toolbar will tell you how long ago the last edit was made and by whom.

google drives collaboration edit tracking 1 IDG

If you click this status sentence, you will be taken to a screen showing a list (on the right side of the screen) of older versions of your document. The entry for each version states the date and time when the revision was made and by which collaborator. The text or images that a collaborator added will be highlighted in a color that matches the color next to their name in this entry.

google drives collaboration version history 1 IDG

You can also access this archive of older versions from the main document viewing window by clicking File > Version history > See version history.

google drives collaboration version history 2 IDG

Click one of the dates, and the version of your document that was saved at that marked time will show in the main window. (If you want to give an older version a unique name, click on its date. You’ll be prompted to type in words to replace the date.)

To restore an older version so it becomes the one that you and your collaborators will work on together, click the big blue RESTORE THIS VERSION button at the top of the screen. (The last version you were working on will then be listed at the top of the “Version history” list.)

google drives collaboration restore version button IDG

To make edit suggestions

There’s a better, and clearer, way to go over edits made by your collaborators. Ask them to enter their additions under Suggestion mode. This is turned on by clicking the Editing drop-down menu in the upper-right corner and selecting Suggesting. (Suggestion mode is not available in the mobile apps.)

google drives collaboration suggestions 1 IDG

When anybody adds text, it will appear in a different color; each collaborator gets their own color text. If they add an image, that image will have a border in their color. And anything they delete will have a strikethrough in their color.

google drives collaboration suggestions 2 IDG

A note card will appear to the right of the document. This will list the added or deleted text or image, the name of the collaborator who made the change, and the time and day when the change was made. To accept the suggestion, click the check mark on the note card; to reject it, click the x.

google drives collaboration suggestions 3 IDG

To see your document, spreadsheet or presentation with or without suggested edits, click Tools > Review suggested edits. A gray box will open toward the upper-right of the screen. To view the document with the suggested edits merged in, click the “Show suggested edits” drop-down and select Preview “Accept all.” To view without the suggested edits, select Preview “Reject all.”

google drives collaboration suggestions4 IDG

If you want to accept or reject all suggestions at once without going through them one by one, you can click the Accept All or Reject All buttons in this box.

Whenever your document gets a suggested edit by a collaborator, Google Drive updates a tally that’s set next to its file name as seen on your My Drive page. (If you’re viewing your My Drive page in grid view, this number total appears over the thumbnail of your document.)

google drives collaboration suggestions 5 IDG

Real-time collaboration

When you and one or more of your collaborators are viewing your document, spreadsheet or presentation at the same time, an icon appears at the upper-right corner for each person who is currently viewing the file. The icon may be a headshot of that person or the first letter of their first name. They will also see your online status as an icon at the upper-right corner of their screen.

google drive collaboration real time person icon IDG

You can chat with one another. Clicking the speech bubble icon (to the right of the icons of your collaborators) will open a chat window along the right side of your screen.

google drive collaboration real time chat pane IDG

Whenever you or your collaborators add a comment, text or image, the others will see the comments or changes appear at that moment on the document, spreadsheet or presentation.

google drive collaboration real time suggestion IDG

How to share documents in Team Drives

With Drive Enterprise and the Business, Enterprise and Education versions of G Suite, you can create a Team Drive. It works like your personal My Drive: Files can be stored in it, folders can be created, and documents can be shared with other people. But a Team Drive can also be directly accessed and managed by more than one person. It can be useful for storing and sharing files that people collaborating on the same project or working in the same department need to use.

Creating a Team Drive

To create a new Team Drive: On your main Google Drive screen, at the upper-left corner, click “Team Drives.” A window will open prompting you to type in a name for the new Team Drive.

google drive collaboration create team drive 1 IDG

After you click the Create button, the name of your new Team Drive will appear listed below "Team Drives."

Next, you need to invite other people so that they can access the Team Drive. Click the name of your new Team Drive, and then click “Add Members” at the top of the page.

In the window that opens, type in the names or email addresses of co-workers who you want to have access to your new Team Drive.

google drive collaboration create team drive 2 IDG

Note that you may need to add co-workers in batches, as you might want to give them different access levels. Below the field where you enter their names, you’ll see a drop-down menu where you can choose one of five access levels: Manager, Content manager, Contributor, Commenter, or Viewer.

There are several differences among these categories — too many to describe in this quick guide — but Google lists them in a handy table. Basically, Managers have full access and are the only people who can add and remove members, change a member's access level, and permanently delete files from a Team Drive. Viewers can only view files and folders, nothing more. And the other roles are in between, with varying degrees of control over files and folders in the drive.

Content manager is the default role assigned when you give people access to a drive, so be sure to change it if you want them to have less control.

Click the Send button, and the co-workers you added will be sent an email with a link that will allow them access to your new Team Drive.

Sharing documents with non-members of a Team Drive

Any member of a Team Drive has access to all the files in it. Sometimes, though, you want to share a document with people outside the team — without giving them access to the whole Team Drive. Sharing a document in a Team Drive is similar to sharing a document in My Drive, but the interface for sharing in a Team Drive looks a little different and has more functions.

Note that you can only share files, not folders, in a Team Drive, and you must have at least Contributor access to a Team Drive to share files from it.

Click the document in your Team Drive that you want to share, then click the Share icon in the toolbar at the top of your Google Drive page. (Or right-click the file in your Team Drive and select "Share" from the pop-up menu.)

To share a document with specific people: Enter names of people in Google Contacts, email addresses, or groups of contacts from Google Groups. By default, people you share with can edit the document you share. If you want, click the down arrow to change their access permissions from Edit to Comment or View. Type a message if you like, click the Send link, and recipients will be sent an email invitation to access the document.

google drive collaboration team drives share file IDG

To share a document with anyone in your organization: In the same Share box as above, click “Who has access” in the lower-left corner. In the box that appears, click the down arrow next to “Link sharing off” and toggle the “Link Sharing” switch on. This creates a link to your document that anyone in your organization can access.

Under this newly generated link, you can click the down arrow next to “People at [Organization Name] with the link can view” to change the access level for this file to “...can edit” or “...can comment.”

google drive collaboration team drives share link IDG

To share a document publicly: Below the sharing link and permissions drop-down is a checkbox marked “Allow external access.” When checked, it lets anyone with the link to your document share it outside of your organization, potentially making it accessible to the public. A safer way to share files outside your organization is to invite specific people, as covered above.

More options: Below the “Allow external access” checkbox is a second checkbox labeled “Findable in search results.” Check this if you want the document to be searchable in Drive.

The lower half of the “Who has access” box lets you change the access level of the document you’re sharing for each member of the Team Drive it’s stored in. You can add more people to share this document with by clicking the “Add people” link in the lower-left corner.

To prevent your document from being copied, downloaded or printed by those without edit access to it, click the three-dot icon at the upper-right corner of the sharing box and check “Restrict download, print & copy actions on this file for commenters & viewers.” Those with edit access can still download, print, and copy the document.

google drive collaboration team drives share restrict IDG

When you’ve made your sharing choices, click Done in the lower-right corner. Now anyone with whom you’ve shared the document (or who has the sharing link) can view it and, depending on the permissions you've assigned them, can collaborate on it as described in the “How to collaborate on a document” section above.

To stop sharing a document: Return to the “Who has access” box and toggle the “Link Sharing” switch off. The sharing link will be removed.

To stop sharing with individuals, find their names in the lower half of the “Who has access” box, click the down arrow the right of each person you want to stop sharing with and choose Remove.

When you’re finished, click Done in the lower-right corner.

To set all the files in a Team Drive to have the same sharing properties: At the left of your Google Drive page, click the name of the Team Drive that contains the files that you want to set the sharing properties for. Then, at the top and to the right of the Team Drive's name, click the down arrow and then “Team Drive settings.” Set the following three parameters by clicking the “Edit” link to the right of each:

  • Sharing outside [Organization Name]: Control whether people outside your organization can be granted access to files in the drive
  • Sharing with non-members: Control whether people who are not members of the Team Drive can be given access to files in the drive
  • Download, copy, and print: Control whether people with comment or view access to files in the drive can download, copy, or print them
google drive collaboration team drives settings IDG

For more details about working with Team Drives, see Google’s “Get started with Team Drives” page.

Now that you know the ropes of Google Drive and Team Drives, it's time to start collaborating in Drive and its related apps.

This article was originally published in October 2017 and updated in April 2019.

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