Google's bold move to put Gmail at the center of digital teamwork

By Phil Wainewright July 17, 2020
Dyslexia mode
This week's makeover to G Suite is a bold move to reassert both the role of email in digital teamwork, and Google's role as a giant contender in the market

(via Google)

At a time when everyone else in digital teamwork is trying to kill email, Google has put its Gmail inbox right at the center of a bold makeover for the G Suite family of collaboration tools this week. This comprehensive refresh — which has been in the works since early last year — suddenly brings Google back into contention in a digital teamwork market where it had seemed to be faltering. And its secret weapon is that email has to be an integral part of the digital workspace, as Javier Soltero, Google VP and GM of G Suite, told diginomica in an exclusive interview yesterday:

The fact there's an email inbox in there is despite everything Slack, Dropbox and others have said about replacing email. The road is littered with companies that have declared the end of email.

Brought forward from its intended unveiling next Tuesday after a premature leak of the slide deck, the new G Suite experience brings the ability to open up a new chat or video meeting directly from an email thread, or to open up a chat room as a shared workspace for sharing chat, files and tasks. Chat rooms in Gmail are similar to Slack channels or Dropbox workspaces, providing a home for specific projects and teams. Teams can co-edit a G Suite document within a Gmail chat room to discuss changes or assign tasks without switching screens. The new Gmail also allows access from within chat threads to third-party applications including DocuSign, Salesforce and Trello, as well as custom workflows. Also new is the ability to signal when you're not available to chat, so that collaborators know when it's more appropriate to send an email that you'll read later.

All of this recognizes that email remains an important component in how people interact digitally, Soltero argues:

There are three criteria people use, consciously or not, to communicate and collaborate:

  1. The urgency or timeliness of the request [if you need an answer now, chat's probably the best medium].
  2. The complexity or density of the matter [if you have to cover a lot of ground or resolve a complex issue, that's a job for email or a video call].
  3. Who you are trying to reach? Whether in your team, in the organization or outside it? [If it's someone who doesn't already know you, you shouldn't use chat].

People wind up making decisions across those three criteria. The G Suite workspace addresses that by including email, chat and video ... It also uses knowledge of your diary to nudge the user to say, 'Oh Phil's in a meeting right now, don't use chat, send an email.'

This is the kind of 'better together' that no point solution can deliver.

That's not to say Soltero is a fan of email — "Fewer emails is better email," he says. Gmail is an app that allows people to use email alongside chat, video meetings, voice calling and the rest, he explains. What's important is Gmail's unique ability to accommodate all of these communication channels in a single platform, something that even Microsoft struggles with, he notes.

How the pandemic forced a change of plans

Work began on this new vision for Gmail at the beginning of last year, long before the pandemic suddenly forced companies to switch overnight to remote working in distributed teams. Customers had already been asking Google to bring its various teamwork channels together more closely, Soltero explains. When the pandemic hit, there were some unexpected behavior trends that forced a few last-minute changes of plan — most notably the early roll-out of Meet, the refreshed video meetings tool formerly known as Hangouts, along with the integration of the refreshed Chat tool into Gmail. Soltero explains:

We were somewhat surprised at the starring role video ended up taking — we expected people would go more to chat ...

We would have loved to have had the completed workspace available for users during that time, but that did help confirm the uniqueness of the individual ingredients was powerful enough to have an impact.

One advantage of putting email at the center of the G Suite digital teamwork offering is that it already provides a built-in mechanism for handling external collaborators from other organizations. This means that it's easy to create a chat room workspace that includes people from outside the host company — a capability that Slack, for example, has only just started adding to its messaging platform after several years of development. Soltero relishes this advantage over Google's rivals:

G Suite has always had this ability to make external collaboration easy and not be at odds with the infosec of the tenant. The way this works today — even before adding an integrated workspace — you can be working on a Google Doc and you can share that with an email address and collaborate as an identified user.

We have always had this unique opportunity to be much more flexible about cross-collaboration — without resorting to tenant-to-tenant peering relationships that charge extra money and require extra setup and are still governed by static rules that an administrator has to set up.

Because email has often been a surface for malware attacks, Gmail also has a lot of built-in protections against phishing, which Google is extending to Chat. All of this reinforces Soltero's message that email has many advantages as the core of a digital teamwork suite:

Email is suitable for asynchronous communications, it has a longer density than chat, and also has arbitrary scale in terms of who you can reach.

The ability to integrate third-party applications is a significant new addition to G Suite and opens up a lot of potential, says Soltero:

For the first time, we are able to go to ISV partners — and even organizations — and say we now have a better structured way for you to extend our product and take advantage of this workspace capability.

[App integration works] in the same way you can open a Google Doc within a chat and not have to open yet another tab ... The ability to open a Salesforce record from within a chat by just pasting a link is brilliant.

There's much more to come, too — this week's announcement, Soltero concludes, is all about laying down "the building block elements" to propel G Suite forward even faster.

My take

For a long time, Google has seemed like a laggard in the digital teamwork space. My verdict when surveying the collaboration market last year was that "until it beefs up its other capabilities, it will only ever be a bit player in someone else's ecosystem." It's been much the same every year, all the way back to 2013, when I wrote: "Google ... has not done a good job of bringing its cloud savvy to the enterprise collaboration environment."

While there are still quite a few rough edges to tidy up — and a huge market education job to make sure enterprises understand how the various moving parts translate into real-world work habits — this week's announcement puts an entirely different complexion on things. It's unlucky that the rushed announcement meant it perhaps didn't get as much fuss as it deserves, because this is a huge step forward for G Suite.

Today's organizations need a comprehensive infrastructure for digital teamwork — the pandemic lockdown experience of supporting a suddenly distributed workforce has made that abundantly clear, if it wasn't already. At diginomica, we talk about the need to build a collaborative canvas for enterprise digital teamwork. Most often, this combines tools from various different vendors, but increasingly there are a subset of leading vendors who are able to offer a core set of services that can bind the rest together. Today's announcements at last place Google firmly in the midst of those leaders.

Using chat rooms as a workspace to bring together messaging, content and applications is at the heart of this transformation, stitching together three of the four teamwork patterns that make up the collaborative canvas. The fourth pattern is workflow, where Google's acquisition of AppSheet earlier this year may soon bring additional capabilities. Google is already strong in supporting technologies such as search, permissions, and a work graph that maps the identities and connections of participants. It's now all about adding the finishing touches.

Last year, I called Google "the understated giant" of the digital teamwork market. This year, the giant just woke up.

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