Google turns Workspace Docs and Sheets into a collaborative canvas

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright May 18, 2021
At Google I/O the launch of new smart canvas features in Google Workspace positions Docs and Sheets at the center of a connected collaborative canvas for enterprise digital teamwork

Google IO 2021 Smart Canvas Javier Soltero

As revealed in today's keynote at Google I/O, the next big leap in Google Workspace is the addition of a smart canvas, which embeds connected content, information and actions directly in the online productivity suite's shared documents. It's a fundamental break with the historic analogy to physical paper, instead treating digital content as a node in a connected and frictionless web of activity — a concept that diginomica long ago labelled the collaborative canvas. The aim is to remove friction from digital teamwork, as Erika Trautman, Director at Google Workspace explains:

We're trying to make those product barriers go away, bring that context and that helpful information into the document itself, to make it easier for people to stay connected as they collaborate, focus their time and attention and transform their ideas into impact.

It's a reaction to the experience of many workers in the past year as they've faced the challenges of remote work and distributed teamwork. She says:

We all know that video and chat have exploded. Thank God for those tools. They've allowed us to keep getting our work done and keep our jobs. But people now are experiencing technology fatigue ... Ancillary context that relates to documents in the pre-pandemic world was scattered in many different places, sometimes just in the minds of your co-workers. But at least you had a chance of getting that information by [calling over your shoulder]. That's obviously really difficult now. And even back in the day, when we were all in the office, it was inefficient and often error prone.

Distributed teamwork features

Today's announcements aim to solve many of those disconnects and move further along what diginomica defines as the maturity model of distributed teamwork. Many of the features announced today are available immediately, while others will be added in the coming weeks and months. Here is the full set of today's announcements:

  • At-mentions and 'smart chips' — Google Docs users can already bring up a co-workers details by typing the @ symbol followed by their name. Today, at-mentions also work for the names of files and meetings, in both web and mobile, tapping into the information held in Drive and Calendar. Simply typing '@' will bring up a list of recommended people, files and meetings. Once at-mentioned, the linked items can be previewed from within the document, without changing context. Smart chips will be added to Sheets in the coming months.
  • Checklists — from today, Docs users in web and mobile can embed a smart checklist in a document, with the action items also showing up in Google Tasks. Soon it will be possible to assign checklist actions to other people.
  • Templates for tables and meeting notes — new smart templates are coming to Docs for functions such as project tracking and topic voting. There's also a new document template for capturing meeting notes, which automatically imports any relevant information from a Calendar meeting invite, including smart chips for attendees and attached files.
  • Pageless format — Docs is going responsive. A new pageless layout abandons the link to predetermined paper sizes and instead expands the surface to fill whatever device or screen you’re using. This makes it easier to work with content such as wide tables, large images, or detailed feedback in comments. There's an option to switch back to a paginated view if you need to print a hard copy or create a PDF.
  • New views in Sheets — new ways of looking at your data in Sheets for specific use cases. The first of these will be a timeline view to help track projects, schedules, campaigns and other activities that require team co-ordination around specific dates or milestones.
  • Bringing Meet into Docs, Sheets and Slides — the ability to present content directly into a Meet call without leaving the document it comes from is rolling out now. Later this year, it'll be possible to embed a Meet call directly in a document in web view, so participants can see each other alongside the document they're discussing.
  • Emoji reactions in Docs — bringing quickfire emoji reactions by collaborators into the Docs environment.
  • Live caption translations in Meet — from the summer it will be possible to see live caption translations from English into Spanish, Portuguese, French, or German.
  • Assisted writing and analysis — new assisted writing features coming to Docs will include sytlistic suggestions and warnings about offensive words and language. Assisted analysis in Sheets will automatically suggest and troubleshoot formulas as you work.

Because of the cloud-based nature of Google Workspace, all existing Workspace documents are compatible with these new features. Smart canvas is also designed to be extensible and there will be integrations to third-party products in the future.

My take

This is an important announcement that takes Google's online documents further away from their paper-based antecedents and promises to make them much more powerful and effective vehicles for productive collaboration. In doing so, Google is following a path that many others have attempted — SocialText, Quip, Dropbox Paper, Box Notes and many others have all tried it. But all of those needed to get users to move to a new document format to be able to work in this more digitally connected way. Google is adding the connections into documents that people are already used to using. As Trautman puts it:

We don't want anyone to have to spend too many brain cells thinking about how to adopt this new functionality, we want it to just be really easy and intuitive to bring the power of Smart Canvas into their day-to-day work.

I have always said that the collaborative canvas is the foundational architecture for digital teamwork, and that the vendor that comes closest to providing a complete canvas in a single suite will own the space. Today, Google leaps ahead in contention. There are still some gaps I'd like to see filled, especially on the workflow automation side, but this is an impressive leap forward.

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