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Google Workspace: a Practical Guide

Introduction to Google Workspace

Let's start by taking a look at the basics of Google Workspace: how it works, how it might behave differently to other applications you might've used, and how you can use some of the tools built into it effectively.

Google Workspace is the name given to all of the apps built into a Google account, like the ones we have at the University of York through Google Workspace for Education. This includes a huge range of apps, not just searching, email, and calendar. You may recognise some of their icons.

Logos for all of the Google apps, which can all be logged in to using your York email address and password

Google keep changing their mind about what to call this suite of apps, so you may find examples of us referring to it as Google Apps or sometimes even G Suite (yeah, that one was a bit weird), but for now it's Google Workspace, and that's probably the best name yet... it certainly sums it up quite nicely: it's a workspace by Google after all!

These apps are available via the cloud, which means they are accessible over the internet and the data behind them is stored on Google's servers. This makes it easier to work across devices and collaborate with others. University users have a storage quota of up to 1TB on their Google accounts.

Send vs Share

To help you get your head around Google Workspace, it can be useful to think about working practices and models before we start exploring specific apps.

Working collaboratively at a distance is complicated. Fortunately we can now create documents that multiple people can access at the same time — and even edit at the same time! This has the power to transform the way we work — if only we could stop the bad habits we've been develping for centuries...

Google Workspace works using a share model, which means the focus is on giving access to the right people and then they can access the right files and information over the internet. Let's take a look at how this work in comparison to other models:

The mail 'send' model

An ancient map has the Castle of Earl Siward at one side and the Castle of Lord James at the other. Between are two paths. One crosses a swamp; the other travels through mysterious woods; both are beset by geese and a curious avocado spiral of death.

Earl Siward wishes to negotiate a Peace Charter with his rival Lord James, but both live at opposite sides of a perilous swamp. So Siward writes his terms on a piece or parchment, and entrusts it to his best messenger: a little urchin boy called Scritch.

Scritch sets off from Castle Siward, and carefully descends the treacherous path that spirals around a curious avocado-shaped monolith. Local custom states that this strange landmark is a place of dark magick, and travellers are warned to pass by this spot as quickly as possible lest they be bewitched. So Scritch wastes no time and is soon at a fork in the road. There are two roads to Lord James' Castle: one through mysterious haunted woods, and the other through an unpredictable swamp. It's been relatively dry, so Scritch risks the swamp. The stepping-stones are slippery but Scritch treads carefully and is soon at the other side. He is almost upon Lord James's castle when he is beset by horrifying geese. Fortunately, Scritch brought a sandwich with him and is able to distract the geese and buy his route through. He reaches the castle, knocks on the door, and delivers his Earl's message.

Lord James reads carefully. He thinks a while, and then scribbles out some of Earl Siward's draft Charter, adding some notes in the margin and several new paragraphs on the other side of the parchment. He passes the newly revised Charter to Scritch to deliver back to his master. Scritch sets off again on the journey home. The geese are still there, but now it's starting to rain so they scatter. However, the rain will make the swamp crossing dangerous, and although the sun is starting to set, Scritch has no choice but to take the other road through the haunted wood. Keen to make it through as quickly as possible, Scritch breaks into a jog, but the wood is overgrown and Scritch trips on a bramble, grazing his knee. He dusts himself off and carries on, singing a song to himself to keep his thoughts from fleshing out the eerie noises of the dark and mysterious woods. Sore, tired, and terrified, Scritch finally reaches the junction again, and heads back up the spiral track to Siward's Castle.

This is the way we've written to each other for centuries. Sure, some details have changed: Scritch was replaced by the Post Office; we built a bridge over the swamp and cleared a better path through the woods; but the geese are still there and so is the distance. Technology has reduced the time it takes, but the principle has generally remained the same.

The email 'send' model

Siward's PC is joined to the email server by a wire. The email server is joined to James's PC by a wire. All three PCs have three versions of the same file on their hard drive.

When email came along, we pretty-much carried on doing what we'd always been doing. Only we swapped Scritch for a mail server that would serve as our Post Office.

But one thing was subtly different: rather than the same piece of parchment travelling around in the possession of the loyal Scritch, we're making copy after copy:

  1. The original file on Siward's computer is attached to the email;
  2. A copy of the email and its attachment are written to the server;
  3. James downloads his own copy of the email and its attachment — there are now at least three copies of the same file (perhaps more if Siward's email client made a copy of the original file for the attachment, or if James made a working copy of the downloaded attachment);
  4. James makes a "version 2" copy of the file containing his revisions, and attaches it to an email reply;
  5. A copy is written to the server;
  6. Siward downloads the reply and its "version 2" attachment — there are now at least six copies knocking about;
  7. Siward further revises the document to "version 3", attaches it, and sends;
  8. The server gets yet another copy;
  9. James downloads "version 3" — and now there are at least nine copies of what is essentially the same document.

Three computers, each with at least three copies of the file... and we've only just begun our collaboration. What's more, this is only two people collaborating on a file. Imagine attaching an agenda for a meeting and then sending that out to the ten people who are due to attend. That's at least 12 copies from a single email. And then you notice an error in the agenda and send out a corrected version — 24 copies...

And all of this is taking up more and more storage space and burning more and more electricity.

There are other complications with this model too — it's a very turn-based approach: Siward and James can't work on the document at the same time because then there would be conflicts to resolve between the two different versions. And even in a turn-based approach, there's the risk that you accidentally edit an older version and mess everything up.

If only there were another way...

The 'share' model

There's a shared document in the Google Drive cloud. Two computers are accessing it

Siward and James both have access to some cloud storage. Cloud storage is basically just a shared hard drive, albeit at the end of a very long wire! We've had shared network drives for decades, of course; they're older than email is. But the problem always used to be that only one person at a time could access a document and make changes to it; the other person would be locked out because real-time collaboration was too much for the computer to cope with.

But now we have collaborative documents like Google Docs: documents multiple people can access at the same time; documents multiple people can even edit at the same time.

So now Siward and James can have a single document in the cloud, and both of them can open it and make changes to it simultaneously. There's no longer nine versions of something; there's just the one.

It also means that if you're emailing out something like an agenda for a meeting, rather than attaching the document (which then becomes multiple copies of that document) you can just link to a single file in the cloud which everyone can access. And if something on that agenda changes, it changes for everyone; there's no need to send it out again!

We are living in the future and it is a magical place!

Google Chrome

As the Google apps are web-based, you can access them using any web browser (or specific mobile applications on devices like phones and tablets). However, they often work best on Chrome, which is a web browser built by Google (funny, that). Chrome is the default browser on University computers, though you can use other browsers on them too.

We recommend using Chrome with your University account as you can log into Chrome itself, meaning you are logged in to all Google apps and also saving your bookmarks and browsing history if you go onto another computer and log onto Chrome there.

Your Google identity

Your University Google account is tied to your University email address: sign into Google with your full email address and your usual password.

Once you're signed in, you'll be able to access all of the Google apps we talk about on this guide.

If you've got your own personal Google account, or a second University account, you'll need to watch for conflicts between those accounts. You can manage the account(s) you're signed into from your avatar/initials in the top right-hand corner of a Google application.

If you're juggling multiple accounts, it may be best to use one account in one browser (or browser instance) and another account in another. For instance, you might use your work account in Chrome and your personal account in Firefox. Or you could use two separate instances of Chrome: each synched to a different account. These are known as Chrome profiles.

At York we have Google two-factor authentication (2FA) enabled, which provides an extra layer of security when logging in to Google. IT Services have guidance on using this:

Nine magic dots...

The Google apps launcher but for the Goose's account.

In the top right-hand corner of most Google related pages (including Google Search) you'll find a 'bento box' square made up of nine dots – – This is the app launcher, and it's your gateway to a world of Googly fun!

Listed on the app launcher are all the Google Workspace apps, and a range of other apps associated with your Google account. You can drag these to rearrange if there's ones you want to access more often than others.

If you're new to Google Workspace, using the nine dots is a great way to explore the apps available and see what could be useful to you.

The area that the app launcher sits on is referred to as the Google bar by Google, and it allows you to select apps, change settings and notifications, and change accounts.

Google Groups

Google Groups make it easy to communicate and collaborate with groups of people, such as project teams and departments.

A group is like a mailing list: it contains the email addresses of its members, but it also has its own address, usually in the format for those created at the University.

Using the email address for the group, you can:

  • Email group members
  • Invite group members to meetings via Calendar
  • Share content and access with group members, including Google Drive files and folders, Shared Drives and calendars

This makes it much easier when using the sharing model, as when people join or leave teams and departments, they can be added to or removed from Google Groups, and all of their access to shared files and folders, calendars, and event invitations will automatically be updated.

To see which Google Groups you are a part of, go to or find Groups from the 9 dots launcher icon, where you'll find a My groups list.

You can change the settings of a Google Group to allow external members, though these users still need a Google account (either a Gmail email address or a free Google account attached to another email address).

Creating Google Groups

To create a Google Group, go to or find Groups from the 9 dots launcher icon. On the homepage, there's a + Create group button you can use to create a new Google Group.

Firstly, you have to give the group a Group name and a Group email address, which will by default have "-group" at the end. For anyone using an Google account to create the group, you will be able to have this email address end with or (we would recommend using for all York Google Groups). You can also put a Group description to help people know what the group is for. For example, if it is a Google Group for a particular group of staff or a particular mailing list, make that clear in the description, as anyone browsing all the groups they are in on the Google Groups 'My Groups' list might not know why they're in the group otherwise.

Next you'll need to choose privacy settings for your group. This includes who can search for the group on the Google Groups interface, who can join the group, who can view "conversations" (conversations are any emails sent to the group, essentially), who can "post" (send emails to the group, essentially), and who can view the members of the group. The levels of access tend to be Group owners (who "own" the group - it is good to have multiple Group owners in case someone leaves), Group managers (who may manage members or posts, but may have fewer permissions than an owner), Group members (anyone who has been added to the Google Group), and then Entire organisation (anyone with a email address) and Anyone on the web (be wary of using this option). Each of these settings is a sliding scale, so if group members can do something, so can group owners and group managers (see the screenshot below for an example of this).

Google Calendar allows you to set permission for viewing conversations, posting and viewing members when you create the group.

These settings will depend on how you want to use your group. For example, to create an internal group for people to contact each other, like a traditional mailing list, you might allow group members to view conversations and post, but only managers and owners can view members (see the example above for this scenario). Or to create a team Google Group that other people can contact, you might set it so group members can view conversations and view members, but anyone in the organisation can post, meaning anyone with a email address can email the Google Group's email address.

Finally, you can add any initial members, managers, and owners to your group. As we've already noted, a Google Group should have multiple owners, to ensure the Group isn't "orphaned" when somebody leaves. You can choose to directly add people to a Google Group, which means they are added without an invitation, or if you turn off this setting, they will be sent an invitation to join the group instead. Once you've added any initial members (you can add and remove members once a group is created, too), click Create group to bring it into existence.

Managing Google Groups

Owners of a Google Group can open the group in the Groups interface and scroll down on the left hand side to Group settings to manage the settings of the group. This includes the name, email address, description, and permissions that you might've set when the group was created, but also other features like turning on Collaborative inbox (which allows you to assign emails sent to the group to particular people and resolve conversations) or shared labels, setting whether the group can have external members (people with a Google account but not a email address), and a range of advanced settings like auto-replies to emails sent to the group and moderation of posts. It is worth checking these settings for any Google groups you are an owner of, to ensure they are set as you want.

You can add, remove, and change the role of members from the Members option on the left hand side. If you don't see options to do this, that means you don't have high enough permissions in the Google Group to manage members. You can also tweak individuals' posting rights to the group if needed, for example allowing someone to post even when the settings wouldn't normally allow them to with their role.

From the Group settings page you can also delete a Google Group (the option is right at the bottom), but be careful when deleting Google Groups as often the group is being used for sharing permissions or calendar invites, meaning that access will be removed for anyone in that group when the group is deleted.

Keeping organised in Google Workspace

The sidebar in Calendar showing icons for Keep, Tasks, Contacts, Maps, and Zoom

Google Workspace has various in-built tools for helping you to keep organised and stay on track with tasks. Down the left-hand side in Gmail, Drive, Calendar, and other apps you'll see a side panel (or an arrow allowing you to expand the side panel) containing small icons for Calendar, Keep, and Tasks, plus any other apps Google thinks might be relevant within that app (e.g. Contacts in Gmail, Google Maps in Calendar). Clicking on any of these icons expands the side panel to open a small version of that app (or, in the case of Tasks, the full app) that you can use alongside the current page you're on. This can be very helpful for managing tasks and time without leaving the current tab you're working in.

We'll explore Google Keep and Google Tasks in a bit more detail to see how they might be useful:

Google Keep

Google Keep is an app that allows you to create digital sticky notes to take notes, make lists, and add images and audio recordings, and you can share these notes with other Google accounts. You can access it in a web browser from, through the nine dots launcher icon, or by using the sidebar version in Google apps. There are also mobile apps for Google Keep for Android and iOS.

Google Keep allows you to add sticky notes which can have checkboxes, images, and audio files, and can be tagged up.

To create a Google Keep note accessed through a web browser, you can click on Take a note... to start creating your note. Google Keep notes accessed through a web browser can be given a title, images, drawings, and checkboxes. You can also add labels to the notes to organise them (these labels appear down the left hand side of the Keep interface so you can view all notes tagged with particular labels) and change their colour to help you categorise or find notes. You can "pin" notes to the top of the screen and add reminders to notes. You can also share notes with other people using the Collaborator button and Archive notes once you are done using them.

On the Google Keep app, you'll need to use the plus button to create a new note, or you can click on the checkbox, drarwing, microphone or image icons to automatically start a new note using that feature of Google Keep. Google Keep notes accessed through the mobile app can be given a title, images, drawings, checkboxes and voice recordings. You can add labels and collaborators as with the web interface and can change the colour and background of notes. The main difference with the mobile app is that you can add voice recordings and take photos that are automatically added to your notes, making the mobile app ideal when you need to take notes on the go more flexibly.

Once a note is created, you can edit and add collaborators, add labels, and even copy the note into a Google Doc from the web interface. For notes with checkboxes, you can delete ticked off items, for example if you were creating a to-do list or shopping list and wanted to remove completed items.

For more information on using note taking applications like Google Keep for taking academic notes, see our Note taking Skills Guide:

Google Tasks

An example task list from choosing the Tasks tick icon in Calendar, with tasks like Email tutor, write up notes, prepare for presentation, buy a card, and send a card.

Google Tasks is an app for keeping lists of tasks, which can have a date and time for completion, and marking when these are done. In a web browser, Google Tasks can be opened from Google Calendar, by clicking on the tick in a circle icon in the top right to toggle between Calendar and Tasks. It also appears in most Google app webpages as a tick in a circle icon on the sidebar - clicking on this icon will open the Google Tasks sidebar. You can also get a Google Tasks mobile app for Android or iOS.

To create a new task in Google Tasks, click on Add a task in a web browser or the plus icon in the mobile app. You will be able to add a title and details of the task, and can choose to add a date (and optional time) to the task or leave blank. You can create lists of tasks and add particular tasks to particular lists, and these lists appear as drop down options in the sidebar or tabs in the app. You can also add subtasks to a task, and tick those off separately.

Tasks with dates (and optionally times) will appear in the Tasks calendar that is under My Calendars in Google Calendar. These are not on your main Google Calendar so will not be visible to other people.


If you open the Google Tasks sidebar in Gmail, you can drag emails into Tasks and that creates a task that links to that email - handy for adding an action from an email as a task!

Google Meet

Google Meet is a video communication service available as part of our Google Workspace. It allows multiple users to communicate via video, audio, or live-chat, and to screen-share.

Like a lot of Google applications, it's gone through various names, so you might spot it called older names like 'Hangouts' or 'Hangouts Meet' in places.

Meet vs Zoom

The University has two main meeting tools, both of which can be used with Google Calendar. The other tool, Zoom, has more features and tends to work better in many cases (at least when used through the stand-alone app rather than via the browser version). Meet may cause problems on less powerful computers or mean you cannot use other browser tabs at the same time, but is also very useful for setting up quick meetings without the other person needing to download Zoom, or for use when one of the participants cannot get Zoom to work.

Scheduling and joining a Meet

The hardest bit of Meet can be getting microphones and cameras to work – You may have to wrestle with your browser settings (often an icon will appear in your address bar). You can switch between cameras via the 'More options' kebab menu (⋮) and the 'Settings' "cog" in Meet. Take a look at this video for more help:


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

  1. Check which web browser you're using. If you're using Chrome, sign in to Chrome, and if you have multiple Google accounts, set up different profiles.
  2. Open the nine dots icon in Google. Try out an app you've not used before.
  3. Open Google Groups. See if you're in any Groups and try creating your own test group. Try adding someone to it.

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