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Google Workspace: a Practical Guide


Google Drive is a key part of Google Workspace. Getting to grips with it as you're learning about the Google apps is crucial to being able to collaborate effectively with others and use files across other parts of Google Workspace. Let's take a look at how Drive works and tips for using it.

Google Drive is a cloud-based file storage system that allows you to not only store files created elsewhere, but also create online documents and other kinds of files using Google's apps built in to Drive.

Elsewhere on this guide we'll explore those apps in more detail, but here we'll look at Drive in general. We'll start by looking at how Drive works in terms of the cloud, and then look at how to navigate the Drive interface as well as the specifics of the two areas within Drive: My Drive and Shared drives.

Living in the cloud

What makes Google Drive any different to the sort of networked drives we've been using for decades?

A filing cabinet full of files full of documents...

Here's a filing cabinet. Each draw contains a number of hanging files, each of which may contain a number of documents. When we started using computers, we took this model with us to create the sort of file structure you'll have on the computer you're using now: documents arranged in directories or folders. But the filing cabinets in a computer could play with space in a way that physical filing cabinets can't: on a computer you could have filing cabinets within filing cabinets! You could have a file-path of nested folders, allowing some impressively complex organisation.

A network drive icon, and a folder containing two Office documents

A network drive is just a computer that lots of people can access, in the same way that lots of people might be able to access a shared filing cabinet. But the files tend to work in a very similar way in both cases: if I take a document out of a filing cabinet, only I can see it and interact with it; if I open a document on a network drive, it's locked for editing and the only way anybody else can look at it at the same time is to make a copy (or come to my computer and look over my shoulder).

A filing cabinet full of kittens

Both the filing cabinet and the network drive are examples of shared working spaces. In contrast, Google Drive is a collaborative working space: it's still essentially just a computer we can all access, but it's one where we can all be editing the same documents at the same time. It's a bit like if we were all on the one computer, only with less fighting over who gets to use the mouse. Or it's a bit like if we were all in the filing cabinet together...

The Drive interface

By default, the first page you see when you open Google Drive will be "Home". This will show links to various files saved within Google Drive that Google thinks you might want to access, either because you've opened those files recently or due to other activity with those files.

An image showing the Home screen in Google Drive, including a list of files.

The "Home" page can include files saved in your My Drive, files which have been shared with you, and files saved in a Shared Drive which you have access to. If there are icons displayed next to the file name, these often tell you something about where the file is saved or how it has been shared:

An icon showing two people in silhouette. This icon means that the file has been shared (either shared with you, or a file owned by you that you have shared with others)

An icon showing two silhouetted people within a box. This icon means that the file is saved on a Shared drive.

You can find out exactly where a particular file is saved by clicking the 3 dots icon next to the file, then selecting File information > Details.

It's possible to change the default page that opens in Google Drive - if you'd prefer, you can set it to open on "My Drive" rather than "Home". To do this, go to Settings (via the cog wheel icon at the top of the screen) then change the option selected for "Start page".

There are also sections for Workspaces, Shared with me, Starred, and Recent, which we'll explore later on this page.

Making sense of Drive

"Everything is just a link" — understanding the structure of Drive

Google's most famous product is, of course, a search engine. They've applied the same approach to Google Drive.

Don't expect Drive to look tidy. It won't. By its very nature there's no real structure to Google Drive: it's just a big pot of files. Yes, you could impose some order by adding files to folders, but this does not actually change the underlying structure. Every file has a unique ID which forms part of its web address, and (unlike with a filepath on a computer) this address remains the same regardless of any folder location you may try to impose. Indeed, because the documents you see in your Drive are essentially just web links. Alternatively, a file could sit in no folder at all. It would still be discoverable via its web address, and via the search box.

What's more, because of the collaborative nature of Google Drive, you could share access to a document without sharing access to the folder structure around it. Therefore, you can't rely on a folder structure to a) give context to a file, or b) help other people locate it.

Sharing a link

Since all Drive files and folders are essentially just links, you can use the web address to bookmark items in your browser, or send the link to others by copying and pasting. You will, of course, also need to have granted them appropriate access permissions to the file in order for them to actually see it once they've followed the link.

Finding files in Drive

Given the fluid nature of Drive, there will be times when you are not sure where a document is located. Files may appear in multiple locations, or no location at all. Don't rely on a folder location to tell you what a file is. Even if you can see a folder structure, other people may have access to the file without having access to the folders. File names are therefore particularly important if people are to be able to find files via the search box.

Some tips


Make it easier to find documents you are currently working on by adding a Star or even adding them to a Workspace (see below).


Find recently edited documents in the Recent list


Use the search options dialogue (accessed via the toggle to the right of the search box) to search by file-type, date, owner, and more:

Search options

Use sensible names for files to make them easier to locate by searching! Try to second guess your future self who is desperately trying to find the file you're creating.

Workspaces to find files again

Workspaces are a feature of Google Drive which allows you to put together files from different locations so you can more easily find them, under a common title/theme. Confusingly, Workspaces have the same name as "Google Workspace", which is the name for all of the Google apps as a product as well. Workspaces allow you to add files from across Drive to lists and then go to that Workspace to find links to all of those files. It gives further options than starring files, as you can have multiple workspaces with different titles/themes, but you cannot have more than 25 files in a single workspace. Workspaces are not shared, so you are creating them only for you to see.

Workspaces are found on the Workspaces section on the left hand side of Drive or specifically through this Workspaces link. Once in this space, you can view any workspaces you have and create new workspaces (when you first open it, you'll just see the option to create a workspace):

When you click on the Workspaces option, you get the option to create a workspace.

To create a workspace:

  1. Choose Create workspace.
  2. Give your workspace a name (choose something that makes sense to you): Give your workspace a sensible name.
  3. Add some initial files to your workspace by choosing Add files and selecting files from the sidebar. Once you choose Add Files you will be able to select files from the sidebar by navigating around Drive.
  4. Choose Done and your workspace will appear.
Workspaces are lists of files - they will show some of the files on the main workspaces screen and you'll have to view the workspace in question to see all of the files.

You can add more files to a workspace whenever needed by choosing View workspace and then Add files. The three dots icon by a workspace's name allows you to rename, delete, and hide workspaces as needed. For example you might 'hide' a workspace for a project you aren't working on currently, but will be returning to.


Workspaces are not shareable, so if you want other people to see the collection of files, you could create a shared folder of shortcuts to particular files. Alternatively, you could collect important links in a shared Google Doc or Sheets file or even create a Google Site with links to files.

'My Drive' and 'Shared Drive'

Drive has two bits to it, giving you two different ways to collaborate: My Drive and Shared drives.

These work slightly differently, meaning there's different reasons you might use each one. It's worth bearing in mind that both can contain files created by you or by other people, despite the fact that one is called My Drive, as the 'My' refers to anything you have access to.

My Drive

  • Files and folders have a defined owner, which may mean a lot of admin if someone leaves and the files are still needed.
  • There's a full range of sharing permissions: folder permissions are inherited by the files in that folder, making it easy to share new documents with existing collaborators and to extend access to many files; you can also fine-tune access at a file level if you want that file to be shared differently to the others in the same folder.


  • Owner – every file has one, though they can transfer ownership to someone else, and only they can delete that file;
  • Edit – modify the document and its name, share more widely, and make use of the version history;
  • Comment – add comments, suggest changes, copy, print, and download;
  • View – view the file, copy, print, and download.

Shared drives

  • Files and folders are 'owned' by the Shared drive itself, meaning there are no complications if someone leaves.
  • Shared drives are designed for teams or project groups where everyone needs the same level of access to the same collection of documents; you can still share individual items outside of the Shared drive but there's much less breadth of control in terms of being able to customise the way in which those files are shared.


  • Manager – add/remove members, and carry out all other actions;
  • Content Manager – create/delete files and folders, plus edit access to all files and folders;
  • Contributor – create (but not delete) files and folders, plus edit access to all files;
  • Commenter – comment access to all files;
  • Viewer – view access to all files.

When working on a group project, you'll need to collectively consider the best space for your needs. If you change your mind later, you can still move files from one space to another.

When moving items from My Drive to a Shared drive, bear in mind that this will change ownership from an individual Google account to the Shared drive. If the original owner is not a member of the Shared drive, they will be added as an editor to the item in its new location (unless the Shared drive prohibits non-members being added to items, as in that case you won't be able to move the item to that Shared drive).

While My Drive and Shared drives are different spaces within Google Drive, you will sometimes see a mix of files from both listed - for instance, on the "Home" screen, or when viewing Recent or Starred files.


If a Google Form is stored on a Shared drive, you cannot use File Upload questions, as Google have placed a restriction on this question type on a Shared drive. You will need to store any Google Forms that need File Upload questions in My Drive.

Previously, it was not possible to move folders from My Drive to a Shared drive; instead, you had to recreate folders and move files only over onto a Shared drive. However, Google have now made it possible to move folders from My Drive to a Shared drive as well. You do need to consider important points, like who might lose access to the folder/files within, if the Shared drive has any settings restricting who can access files on that drive, and if you have any Google Forms with File Upload questions, which still do not work on Shared drives. For more on this change, see our UoY specific guidance page:

Managing documents in My Drive

Here's a few things to consider when collaborating on Google Apps documents and other files in Google Drive:


Every file and folder in the My Drive section of Google Drive must have one owner (and this owner cannot be a Google Group, but it can be a non-personal account). The person who created the file or folder will initially be the owner. Ownership can be given away by the owner, but not taken by anyone else - the onus is on the owner to transfer ownership. The owner can also decide whether to restrict the ability of others with edit permission from being able to change sharing attributes.

Drive does not use the term delete but instead chooses remove. If you own a file/folder, remove will move the items to your bin. If you are not the owner it will simply remove it from your Drive view (but if it's in a shared folder, it will disappear for others too!).

When an account is suspended (for instance, when you leave the University), all resources owned by that user will cease to be available, irrespective of location, and so it is essential that ownership of shared documents is transferred to an appropriate individual when someone leaves.


You can control access to the files you create in or upload to Drive. To do this, you can either click on the Share button when you are in a file, or you can right click on a file in Drive and choose the Share menu, then Share.

When you share a file/folder, you first have the choice of leaving it visible only to the defined list (default) or making it more generally available. You can also set the permission level in each case.

Visibility options

  • Add people and groups (default) - The document is only accessible to those users or Google Groups specified in the share settings. You can customise the permission level for each individual or Group you give access to and see everyone who has access under the People with access section;
  • Link sharing: University of York - Anyone signed in with a account and in possession of a link to the document can access it. This can be turned on under General access by choosing University of York;
  • Link sharing: Anyone with the link - Those who have the link to it can access it, regardless of whether they're at York - no Google account is needed to view. This can be turned on under General access by choosing Anyone with the link.

Once you have the General access (link sharing) set to either University of York or Anyone with the link, you can click on the permissions option (e.g. viewer, editor) to also tweak whether the item is searchable or not. If it is searchable, then people can search Drive or the web for the file, whereas if it isn't, they need to be given the actual link to the file.

Permission options

  • View - Can see it but not make any changes. By default, copying and printing are possible, but this can be disabled on a file-by-file basis
  • Comment - Can see it, add comments and ‘make suggestions’ in text documents (similar to ‘Track Changes’); can't change content permanently
  • Edit - Can make any changes to content and comments. By default can also add/remove sharing and change visibility, but the owner can remove this on a file-by-file basis

Permissions can be set to expire after a period of time - either after several days or on a specified date.

Moving files and folders

You can right-click on a file or folder in Drive and go to Organise, then choose Move to open the Move dialog box. Multiple items can be selected using the CTRL key. Alternatively, you can drag items about the place.

Adding shortcuts

Just like with Windows, you can add a shortcut to a file or folder in a separate location. To create a shortcut, right-click select a file or folder, go to the Organise menu, and choose Add shortcut, then navigate to where you want the shortcut to sit. The file itself will not inherit any permissions associated with the folder you put it in, but the shortcut link will be visible to anyone who has access to that folder (regardless of whether or not they have access to the file at the end of it).

If a file has been shared with you, you can use the same method to effectively add it to your own My Drive. You can even organise it within your own folder structure, safe in the knowledge that you won't break anything for anyone!

Folder management

Private folders and shared folders

There are effectively two types of folders in Google Drive:

  •   Private folders – allow you to organise your own My Drive
  •   Shared folders – allow you to create shared storage areas

As soon as you give access to a folder, it will get a little head symbol on it to show that it is no-longer private.


When you assign sharing permissions to a folder, all documents created in or moved into that folder will inherit those permissions.

Inherited permissions can be modified for specific files, to over-ride the inherited permissions. For instance, access might be removed or added on a particular file. File permissions trump folder permissions.

A Venn diagram: The left circle represents the folder permissions, and contains a pink triangle and a blue square. The right circle represents the file permissions, and contains an orange circle and a crossed-out blue square. The intersection contains a pink triangle and an orange circle.

In the example above, a folder (left) is shared with the pink triangle and the blue square. A document in that folder (right) has its sharing permissions adapted so that it is not shared with the blue square but it is shared with the orange circle. As a consequence, the document is shared with the pink triangle and the orange circle, but not with the blue square.

If a file is moved out of a shared folder, it retains any permissions set at a file level but loses any permissions set at a folder level. Predicting the outcome of moving files and folders is not always easy: you'll need to look closely at the file permissions to see what might happen.

If we were to move the file from our previous example out of its folder, the pink triangle would lose access and only the orange circle would be able to see it. Depending on where we put the file, it might inherit some new permissions there.

Remember, if you're worried about moving files, you can always add a shortcut instead: the file itself will not inherit any permissions associated with the folder you put it in, but the shortcut link will be visible to anyone who has access to that folder (regardless of whether or not they have access to the file at the end of it).

General points

  • If you have edit permissions in a shared folder, any rearranging you do will affect other people too - so be careful;
  • Read the messages on dialogue boxes - these tell you what is happening;
  • If a folder is shared with you, add a shortcut to your Drive for easy access;
  • Re-check sharing and permissions after any rearrangement.

Always remember: Only the owner can delete (remove to bin) a document or folder.

Managing documents in Shared drives

While many of the sharing principles from My Drive carry over to Shared drives, there are some specifics to be aware of...


Files in Shared drives are owned by the Shared drive. This overcomes the problem of what to do when somebody leaves the University (though you still need to make sure that each Shared drive has multiple managers to control sharing and content).


Each member of a Shared drive is assigned an access level, which applies across all the files in that drive.

Non-members and external users can still have individual files or folders shared with them, though these options can be prohibited in the Shared drive settings (available on the right-click menu for the drive). Commenters and viewers can also be prevented from being able to download, copy or print the files, at a global level as well as on an item-by-item basis.

When sharing with non-members, you have the same sharing and permission options as you would in My Drive.

Folder inheritance

The way that folders inherit permissions works the same in Shared drives as in My Drive, but the way you can then remove access to subfolders and files is different. Whilst in My Drive you can share a folder with an account and then remove access to subfolders and files as needed, if you try to do this in a Shared drive you will receive a warning message that doing this will remove access to parent folders.

When you try and remove a person from a subfolder or file in Shared drive, a dialogue box warns you this will remove access to the parent folders.

What this means is that you can only share folders in a Shared drive when the user can have access to everything within that folder and all subfolders. This is similar to the way that an overall Shared drive works, in giving a user access to everything within. For more controlled access, you would need to share on a file or subfolder level to give someone the exact level of permissions desired.

Google Drive and external users

You may need to share files and folders in your University of York Google Drive or a Shared drive with external users, i.e. those who do not have a University of York Google account. You can do this by opening the Share dialogue box for the file or folder in question, entering the user's email address and setting the right level of sharing permissions like any other user, but the process for the user may differ depending on what account they have, so we'll explore the options below.


To be able to share files and folders on a Shared drive with external users, you will need to check the Shared drive settings to ensure that "Allow people outside of University of York to access files" and "Allow people who aren't shared drive members to access files" are both ticked.

When sharing anything in Google Drive with external users, consider data security by ensuring that you are only sharing what you mean to with the user and are following GDPR if you are sharing any personal data.

Sharing files and folders with a user with a Google account

If the external user has a non-University of York email address that is attached to a Google account (e.g. a Gmail address, an email address from a place of work or education that also uses Google Workspace, or they've created a Google account using a non-Google email address), they will get the same sharing email as any UoY users would get when something is shared with them, and can use Drive in the same way to organise and access the file or folder in question.

It is worth bearing in mind when sharing with external users what permissions you are giving them and what data they have access to, in case it is anything that you don't want to be sharing outside of the institution.

Sharing files and folders with a user without a Google account

If an external user does not have a Google account attached to the email address you share the file or folder with, the item will be shared with them using Drive's visitor sharing option, which means that the user will get an email invitation to collaborate on the file or folder and will then need to verify their identity with a PIN to access the item. This allows them to collaborate on the file for 7 days, after which they will need to use the original sharing email to verify themselves again using a PIN.

When using this, you may want to signpost to external users that they will need to use this PIN to access the file or folder, so they know what to expect. Note that this cannot be used to give a user access to a whole Shared drive, but you can give them access to folders or files within a Shared drive.

Adding external members to a Shared drive

If you want to be able to give an external user access to an entire Shared drive, rather than just files or folders within that drive, then there are some restrictions. If you cannot give the user access to the whole drive, it is possible to share individual folders with them, so think about what is most useful for the situation.

Firstly, the user will need to have a Google account. There is no equivalent to visitor sharing for Shared drives, so the user must have a Google account of some form, including one that is created using their existing email address if they do not already have a Google account.

Secondly, in the Shared drive settings (from clicking on the name of the Shared drive when you have it open), the Shared drive must have "Allow people outside of University of York to access files" ticked, as otherwise the Shared drive can only be used by UoY accounts.

If both of these criteria are true, then you can add external users to a Shared drive using their email addresses as you would a UoY user.

Google Drive when leaving the University

If you are leaving the University either as a student or a staff member, you will need to think about what you are doing with the files in your Google Drive. There are various considerations, including ensuring that any documents you own that are shared with and used by other people are transferred to a new owner or onto Shared drive. The IT Services information for those leaving the University gives more detail about what you'll need to do.

If you changing roles at the University, for example moving to a new team or department, you may also need to reorgnise your Drive to ensure that any files and folders for your old role are transferred to the right people and you will not have access to anything you no longer should.

Using Google Drive as storage

Google Drive isn't just a place to create files using the Google apps, though when you're working collaboratively these give you the best range of features. It is also somewhere to upload files and store them, share them, and even edit some of them within the Google apps. Using the sharing features of Google Drive you can share these files so others can view or download them.

You can store a huge range of files on Google Drive including audio, image, video, and text files, .ZIP files, and Microsoft and Adobe files. University users have a storage quota of up to 1TB on their Google accounts.

To open these files, it depends on the type of file. For Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files, these can all be opened using Docs, Sheets, and Slides respectively, though this can break complex features that don't exist in the Google versions of the tools (particular for complex PowerPoint files). For other files, you can often view a Preview of the file (for example, you can see a preview of a PDF that even allows you to add comments), but you will often have to download the file from Drive to open it in a program that is designed for that file type.

Drive for Desktop

Google Drive for desktop is an application made by Google which allows you to access Google Drive files via your computer and backup folders and files from your computer. You can stream your files from the cloud to your computer, viewing your Google Drive via a Google Drive (G:) drive created on your computer and making relevant files available for offline access if needed (any edits are sent back to Google Drive when you're next online).

Google Drive for desktop can be a useful way to use Google Drive and also work with files on your computer, or to make certain Drive files available when you're offline.

Bear in mind that if you back up files and folders from your computer on Google Drive, you will need to make sure you aren't over the 1TB storage quota.

Google Docs and Drive session materials

In this session (which staff at the University of York can book onto via the LMS), we take a look at using Google Docs and Drive effectively for collaborative working and file management. We look at how to choose between using Drive or Shared drive (formerly Team Drive) for collaborative work, and how to manage file ownership. We also look at the details of using sharing permissions to work with others, organising files and Drives, and using cloud features when moving files and sharing links, as well as key features of Google Docs.

Forthcoming training sessions

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Here's some suggested exercises to start familiarising yourself with Google Drive:

  1. Add something to Starred. If you've not already, trying adding a file and a folder to your Starred section.
  2. Create a new folder and move a file into it. Try sharing the folder and the file with someone else to see what happens.
  3. Create a test Shared drive. Add someone else to the Drive if you can. Try moving a file from My Drive to the Shared drive.

We also have online exercises for our Google Docs and Drive session for more to have a go at:

Forthcoming training sessions

Forthcoming sessions on :

Taught students
Show details & booking for these sessions

There's more training events at: