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Google delivered on the workplace tool every office needed back at the launch of Google Docs and Google Drive.
They answered the modern problems of version control and instant collaboration. But is Google Workspace ready to lead into the future as well? Alpha Zhang from Google is here to help.
A very flexible workplace
Google Workplace is a collection of all its data formatting and storage tools: Docs, Drive, Slides, Sheets, Forms, and more.
The brilliance of Google’s work products are that they can work in many different styles.
They accommodate both synchronous (everyone on a Google Doc at the same time) and asynchronous (leave some comments) collaboration.
Google Drive works well for people who rely on search and don’t want things organized. But it also allows for good organization for others.
It can also transition between transparency/openness and privacy in setting sharing permissions for individual files or entire drives.
In that way Google meets the needs of the modern digital workplace.
But the question remains if Google will be the one to lead the way to new tools for work, or if other products will show the way. Workplaces need a wide variety of tools, and we’ll have to wait to see if Google will always be one of the many tools that make up your digital workplace, or if they can move towards the HQ and let you organize any type of work around it.
Culture vs. tools
Alpha and I talked about the need for a strong collaborative culture to combine with a collaborative tool. He said, “Tools themselves have limited utility without a culture to support them.” Alpha told us about Google’s internal culture and how it improves the nature of collaboration.
Welcome back to The Digital Workplace podcast. Today our guest is Alpha Zhang. He is the Google Workspace and Cloud Lead for the APAC region. Alpha, great to have you on the show.
Hey Neil, well, thank you very much for having me on the podcast today.
It’s a pleasure to have you on. Always great to have somebody from Google Workspace coming on. So, there’s a lot of great questions we’re going to ask you about collaboration, about how we’re getting through things. But we just want to make sure, as you know Google’s doing some weird things these days, whether you are a real human or not. So, we’re going to ask you a capture question to test your humanity. Your question is, if we ended today only accomplishing one thing, you got through the day, but you only got one thing done, what do you hope that one thing was?
Well, I wish I could just clean up my inbox.
Are you an ‘inbox zero’ guy? You like to get down to zero?
Yes, yes. I’m an inbox zero guy.
Excellent. So, what’s your strategy for that? Do you have a particular time of the day you sit down and do it? Or what do you do?
Yeah. Normally it is every morning. I allocate one hour to go through all those emails and read emails, and then try to just clean up the inbox. But sometimes after work, I still keep on receiving those emails. And that could be a big challenge for me. But I still try my best to clean up the inbox at night.
You know what I love about the post, the mail, that comes to my house, is that it only comes once a day. It would be great if I could throttle my emails to where they’re only accepted for maybe two times a day, all the emails just dumped in and then I could work with them. But when they’re continuous like that, it’s tough to deal with. Cool, well, that definitely makes you human because that’s a very human problem that you have to deal with, to try to figure those things out. So, you’re welcome to be on the show. Alpha, tell us a little bit about what you do with Google Workspace and what new things are going on there.
Right. So, I’m the Workspace specialist here in Google in charge of the APAC region. So literally, I’m actually just talking and working with the customers, large organizations, and helping them to realize how the Google Cloud products, including both Google Cloud and also the Google Workspace, will be able to help them to accelerate their journey for the digital transformations.
So, when most people think of Google, obviously, Search is the big thing. And then it was Gmail. And then you introduced all these new tools, Google Drive, Calendar, all sorts of things. So, when you say Google Workspace, what does that mean? Today. So, just to clarify, we’re June of 2021. This might change next month. You tell us what it means today.
Yeah, right. So, Google Workspace actually is a full set of collaboration tools, including both Gmail, Google Drive, Google Docs, Google Sheets, Google Slides, Google Forms, so everything that you need to help you do your daily job. So, you know what, when we are talking about the Google productivity tools, a lot of people say, ‘Well, isn’t that just Gmail?’ But, we do have a full bunch of setup products to help our users to do their daily jobs.
My favorite Google app is actually Calendar. Because I’ve never ran into a situation where I’m like, ‘Oh, I wish it could do more.’ And I feel it keeps me more structured. It helps me to own my day. Whereas like you said Gmail, or any kind of email client is all responsiveness. Things are just thrown at you all the time. And I love Google Drive. Google Docs is a great tool. When that came out, I was like, ‘Oh, this is mind blowing! What’s going on here?’ But in general, I feel Google is a good platform for collaboration. It brings in that instant synchronous, but more like unstructured collaboration when it comes to email. Then you have a Meet link that you’re doing. And then it jumps to storage, obviously, with Google Drive. And data sharing, data formatting, as it comes through. So yeah, what’s in the works for where Google Workspace is going? As you’re working with companies, what are the needs that you guys are hoping to fill over the next few years?
Well, I guess this is really about ‘what do the next level of collaboration tools look like’, right? So, in my opinion, I think there could be several key elements for how the next level of collaboration tools look like. Well, first I guess it is more about the equity in the hybrid future of work. So, more and more employees are working from home now. And I’m pretty sure that a lot of people, a lot of employees, will keep on working from home even after the COVID pandemic. So, the future of work has many organizations implementing the hybrid work model or a mix of both, at-home or in-office environments, which will enforce the organization’s thinking about how the tools can actually just help for that scenario.
When I think about hybrid work, I feel one thing that Google does well is, it doesn’t feel like there’s a bias. All tools have a strong bias, one way or the other. And when it comes to whether you should be in the office, or whether you should be virtual, or a remote employee situation, I feel Google products work well in both cases, whether people are sitting next to each other working and collaborating on something or they’re sitting thousands of miles away talking about something. And so that’s a neat thing, in terms of the things that have gone on in the hybrid space, it’s there. We’re talking a lot about hybrid work and things that are there. As you’re talking with clients, what are some of the big challenges around hybrid work that you see people talking about, particularly when it comes to collaboration?
Right. I think the first challenge is the customers or those people are facing right now is really about whether the tool will allow them to collaborate simultaneously. So, thinking about, if I want to collaborate with a colleague who was actually sitting in a different time zone, whether I will be able to just be able to work with him or work with her. So, if you’re thinking about the old way of working, the old way of collaboration, it’s more like, I send an email to you with attachments. You download the attachments. You make some copy. You update the document, and then you send it back to me, right? And ask me for a merge.
Well, if you ask me whether that will work, I will say yes, to some degrees. However, when you’re on more and more people working from home, and when people are working from different time zones, working from anywhere, it really requires the tool which allows them to be able to work asynchronously. So, this is really how the Google Workspace can help.
When I’m working here in Google, if I really want to talk to somebody who’s sitting in a different time zone or when I am reading a document which was actually created by people from other organizations, what I can do is just simply leave a comment in the document. I can ask a question. I can leave my comments. Or even if I am holding a different opinion, or those sentences, or anything that is written in that document, or appear in a document, I can just feel free to leave the comments. And I’m not expecting them to be able to respond instantly. But on the second day, when they are working, they will be able to see, they will be able to reply. And this is really how we will be able to just tackle those challenges that our customers are facing.
You know what, I haven’t really thought about it before but that’s one reason why I feel like Google Docs has what it takes, as it was so revolutionary when it came out but it’s still so relevant because it allows for both synchronous and asynchronous work on the same document. And it goes the same, for Sheets and for Slides and other tools that are there as well. Because you can both be working at the same time. So, we often encourage people that when you’re in the middle of a meeting, have a doc up so that everyone can type at the same time, can participate at the same time, and can see things live as it’s going on. But it also has features like leaving comments and being able to see those later so that I can also send out pre-work to people for a meeting and say, ‘Hey, check these things out. Leave some comments’, so that we can talk to them live later on. Or you can go back and see who edited what. So yeah, that is a great way that Google Docs helps for that type of work.
Yeah. I think the other thing, the other challenge the users are facing right now is about searching the content, right? And also searching for the right content they want. So, we’ve been having a lot of assets today in every single organization. People are generating docs every single second. So, how are we able to allow the employees to search the information they want even if they are sitting at home, not connecting to the corporate network, but allowing them to search information securely? This is also something that the productivity tools are trying to solve for our customers.
So, everybody knows Google is a search company. We are actually just bringing the search experiences to the organizations. So, think about it, if you’re using Google Workspace like me, I don’t really have to create a lot of folders, even though I know I can remember the folder hierarchy if I create, but I never do that. Because I trust Google. I trust the search in Google Workspace which will always return the information that I want. So, this is also another challenge I think that customers are facing right now these days.
And that’s such an internal thing too. Because, like you said, Google is obviously great at Search, and understands that. And so, if your machine is excellent in search, you don’t really need to be so organized with all your folders and files and everything in its exact place. But there’s some people like me. I lean more towards, ‘I want to be more highly organized.’ And I want to say, ‘Everyone put this document in this place so that it’s shared with everyone.’ Everyone knows it, and I can go find it if I forget a word in there or I forget how to search for it. So, building a tool like Google Drive then makes it complex to fit both use cases, like fit people who don’t ever want to put things in a certain folder and people who want to put everything in a certain folder but also being able to rely on those search parameters and new things that are there. So, it’s really a difficult problem that I feel Google Drive solves very well.
Right, that’s true. And I think another challenge that the organizations are facing today, especially during the ‘working from home’, is the security. Because people are able to access the data from their BYOD devices. And they’ll be able to very likely access the data from an unmanaged network. So, how we are able to provide secure productivity tools for the customer, is also some of the challenges that our customers are facing, that are some of the things that the organizations are facing today.
Yeah, definitely. Well, let’s talk not so much about the tool itself but about the culture at Google. So, you’ve been working there for some time. How does the culture at Google encourage better collaboration even beyond the tools you use?
Right. So, well, first of all, I think Google’s founders set out to have an unconventional company, and therefore a unique culture that’s driven by innovation, ownership, inclusion, transparency, and collaborations. So, some of the elements of Google’s culture have allowed the company to be more innovative, and some of them allow the company to be more collaborative. So, if I’m thinking about those cultures at Google which encourage better collaborations, I think first is really about ‘respect each other’, which is actually one of Google’s core values.
Google has a flat organization structure that encourages all employees to share their voice. You can disagree without being disagreeable. And a flat organization structure is one that allows communication between employees of any level. That means that a lower-level employee can share their opinion or concerns directly with the CEO, without any pushback from their direct manager. And this actually can encourage more productive collaborations across the organizations.
The second one, I think, is really about transparency and being open. So, everything is pretty transparent here in Google, from people to process to the tools that we are using every single day. I can access the source code, the detailed product requirements, the design document, the mock UI for those products, or features, which are still under development, almost everything. And this level of transparency allows people to be able to collaborate with one another much more easily.
I’ll give you an example. I spend a lot of hours during my spare time reading those design documents in trying to understand the magic behind the scenes, especially for those products that I’m interested in. And when I was reading those priceless treasures, I may have questions or have better suggestions or even hold different opinions. And I can easily leave my comments, like I said before, on the document and attach it to the corresponding people so that they will get notice from both email and Google Drive, regardless of different time zones that we may have. They can check and respond back in a document when they are available asynchronized. So, even though I might not be a member of that product team, I can still contribute to that particular product. And such collaborations and the transparency culture can definitely lead to innovation and productivity.
I’d love to ask you more questions about transparency, because I think every CEO listening out there wants to have a transparent company, to some extent. And I think they aspire to that but pulling it off as another thing. I wonder how you guys do that at Google? Is it something where, okay, being transparent means that everyone has access to every document that’s there and by default it’s all turned on? Because even something as simple as, ‘Hey, that document that is not shared with me. Please share it with me so I can see it.’ Then there’s one thing of just having, like, ‘Hey, it’s there. If you wanted it, you could have gone and searched for it and found it’ versus someone going off and saying, ‘Hey, here’s our product plan for the next quarter. We invite all sorts of comments coming back in.’ So, how is Google managing that transparency?
So, by default when you create a document, only you yourself can access that particular document. However, in Google’s culture, we share the document to everyone. So, when you’re sharing that document, there is an option there that says everyone with the link in Alphabet’s organization can access that particular document. So, that’s really the default culture that we use in Google. And I will say, it’s really based on the culture of trust. So, most Google’s culture and Google’s values all come to trust. And trust is one of the key cultural elements of collaborations.
And also, you know what, in Google, we all say, ‘being Googley’. And that also means doing the right thing. Don’t be evil. So, even though we’ll be able to access all those documents, all those source codes, those top-secret product roadmaps, and also the source of every decision that leadership makes, hence we are sure that Googlers won’t be able to leak those sensitive data outside of Google. So, it’s really about trust.
On the other hand, we know that sometimes people might unconsciously leak some of the data outside. So, in order to prevent unconscious leakage, or when we have to share the information with external collaborators, we do have security features in place.
So, for example, we have data loss prevention, for both Gmail and Google Drive, which can control what users can share and prevent unintended exposure for sensitive information. We also have OCR which can even recognize the sensitive data on an image if people are trying to make a screenshot. And also in Gmail, we have a feature which we call ‘Confidential Mode’. So, the users can actually help protect sensitive information from unauthorized or accidental sharing. So, the confidential mode doesn’t have the option to forward, copy or download, which also allows you to set a message expiration day, or you can just revoke the message even after you have already sent it out to the recipients.
Based on your experience working at Google and other places, what do you feel is this tension between the tools that a company uses for collaboration and the culture of collaboration? So, we’ve talked about Google Workspace as a product and all the products inside of it. We’ve talked a little bit about the culture behind Google, these things with transparency. Do you feel one is stronger than the other when it comes to which one’s going to impact how you actually collaborate? Is it the tools you use or the culture? Or can you separate those?
Well, I will say the tools and culture complement each other. So, tools themselves have limited utility without a culture to support them. So, if you want your employees to all come together simultaneously to work and make decisions, regardless of function, level, or row, it requires tools and processes plus a culture of collaborations. Without a culture, collaborations tend to stall and the best tools, process systems and leadership strategies fall flat. And second, I think, culture drives the collaborations. And effective collaboration is about maximizing the talent and the tools to create value.
So, if you’re looking into those kinds of research data that conducted among workers with a balanced mix of age, industries, rows and company size for those people who are using the Google Workspace tools versus those who are using the old way of working tools, sending the file back and forth to your teammates, making multiple copies in order to maintain different versions, you will find that those teams using the Google Workspace, which was built based on Google’s philosophy of collaborative culture, will have a higher ratio of enjoying work more and being more innovative and has had a significant positive impact on the way they work.
So, I can just share with you some more detailed data that I have. So, 98% of them say they are able to get what they need from other team members quickly and easily, 97% of them say they can track the feedback on their work from other team members efficiently, 96% say they have easy access to the information they need to make decisions, and 92% of them say real time collaboration has become the standard practices for their team. And last but not least, 84% of them say the team reviews and edits within the same document during the meeting together.
There’s no doubt that the tools that are there are very incredible, especially compared to what we were working with. Just like you said, emailing things back and forth, and final version two, final version three, and all sorts of different things, it is just ridiculous for the way we work today. So, I’m glad we’ve solved that problem. But even just thinking about that culture versus tools dynamic, I feel someone could even have a very non-transparent culture and still use Google Workspace. You could still lock down all your documents so that no one else can have access to them. You could put really tight controls over that. So, on the one hand, it’s nice that people have the option to do that. But like you said, even when you start a new document, you have to go up there and change the setting. Right? You have to think about that. Whereas a different tool might say, hey, by default this is shared with everyone in your organization. You have to go push that button if you want to restrict it. So, even that kind of thinking about, what is this tool prompting me to do or not prompting me to do, is a difficult thing to think about, and especially as CEOs creating that culture, which one do you want to have and go in that direction too. So yeah, I guess the one question I’ve always wanted to ask you specifically as it comes to this is, what’s the one non-Google tool that you are most reliant on? So obviously, you do things like Meet for video, Drive for storage, Docs for things. But what’s that one secret thing, or maybe not so secret, but it’s not a Google product but it’s still very essential to your Workspace?
Can I say that, well, if you’re talking about non-Google products, I mean, it’s not being officially launched, right, but it still could be those internal tools that Googler’s are using every single day.
Whatever you’re allowed to share. You’re checking with your PR team, right?
Yeah, yeah. I don’t know whether I’d be allowed to share or not.
You can give me a more general feel like it solves this problem that we haven’t been able to solve yet. I’ll just give an example from my world. I love Google products, but I find if I want to automate a process, for example, there’s not a simple, easy-to-use Google tool that lets me create those automations. I can write Google scripts and do those things and piecemeal things together. But to really create a nice fluid process, is there. Project management is another thing that I think Google hasn’t really entered into. They probably have some things in the works that are coming up, but that still feels like, at least for the mainstream people, we got to find some other product to bring in there. So, those are more structured collaboration pieces I feel still are outside the Google Workspace. Are there any big things that you also feel that Google’s just not ready to jump into or it’s going to be several years before they decide to enter into those worlds?
Well, I think those two things you just mentioned, one is the project management, and also another one is really about the automation part. So, we do have on the AppSheet, which is a no-code development tool Google just acquired several months ago. So, with this particular tool, even for those people who don’t really have a tech background, they will be able to just create a process much more easily. And they can create internal workflows. They can create a process easily to integrate with the Google Workspace tools, like Google Sheets, Google Drive. So, we do have that level of tools. And speaking of project management, we are enhancing the Google Sheets.
So, if you watched the Google I/O this year, we’ve actually announced a lot of new cool features in Google Workspace which are going to come in the next few months. And one of the biggest features I love very much is about project management. So, later this year, I think it’s already public now, so it should be fine. So, when you open up a Google Sheet, we will give you a timeline view which will be much easier for you to manage the projects and also to manage the timelines for the projects.
Yeah. Cool. Yeah, yeah, go ahead.
But if you’re asking me the tools that I’m using every single day but it’s not a part of Google Workspace, to be honest, it is the Salesforce. Because, I mean, you know how sales is, right? And I have to use the sales CRM system every single day and that’s the Salesforce tool that I’m using and all the Googlers in the sales team are using every single day. However, even though it is a third-party tool, it integrates pretty well with scalable space. And that’s because of the API that we have in Google Workspace. We do allow the third-party applications and tools to be able to integrate with the Google Workspace application.
So, for example, if I receive an email from my prospects, the add-ons will tell me the historical activities that are performed on that particular account and also all that related information that I have in the CRM system. That is also another cool thing that Google Workspace does here, allow the entire partner ecosystem to be able to create those add-ons and also, we allow those third-party tools to be able to further integrate with the Workspace tool that the users are using every single day.
Excellent. Well, we’ll be excited to see what comes on, what’s new coming from Google. You guys always deliver interesting things and products to do. Alpha, where should people go if they want to follow along with what new is coming out? If they want to connect with you, where would you send them?
Well, I would say we do have an official blog for Google Workspace. So, I would definitely recommend you guys to just follow the blog we have. So, I will recommend you to subscribe to Google Workspace update blog. The URL is workspaceupdates.googleblog.com in which we have all those newly released features on the blog.
Excellent. We will put that in the show notes so that everyone has quick access to that and that’ll be great. Alpha, it’s been really fun to talk to you. Thanks for the work you’re doing and for everything you’re looking at and building, and we look forward to staying in touch with you.
Thanks Neil, for having me here. It was fun catching up with you and sharing my views for the digital workspace for the future.
Alpha Zhang is the Google Workspace and Cloud Search Technical Specialist Lead for APAC, based out of Singapore. He comes with more than ten years of experience in the design of the productivity & collaboration transformation journey for large multinational companies. Alpha is passionate about inspiring enterprises to reach their potential by accelerating their digital transformation through the power of the technology – AI/ML, Collaboration and Communication, IoT, AR/MR/VR, etc.