Flat or Google Docs? Yes.

Flat and Google Docs both have a large central content area and comments in the right margin. But the similarities end there – the two apps serve different purposes and actually work great together.

Mar 15, 2023

Google Docs is a powerful collaborative word processor. It’s an outstanding tool for working together to craft polished content like memos, articles, scripts, newsletters, brochures, reports, and more. Documents can be organized into folders, and they can be shared with teammates or collaborators outside your organization.

At first glance, Flat’s topics feel a lot like Google Docs. They both have a large central document editor and comments in the right margin. But the similarity is superficial, as Flat is built for a different purpose: Flat is the home base where your team can organize and collaborate on all your work.

But what does that mean? And why can’t Google Docs be a home base? Let’s consider a quick example.

Imagine a consulting firm that helps small businesses improve their operations. Their client engagements usually last a month or two and go through phases like Proposal ⇒ Kickoff ⇒ Data gathering ⇒ Analysis ⇒ Final report ⇒ Retrospective ⇒ Done.

Google Docs is a good fit for producing many of the team’s work “outputs”: client-facing documents like proposals, contracts, analyses, reports, etc., as well as internal-facing documents like the post-engagement retrospective. Before sending a doc to a client, the team refines it using Google Docs’s collaborative editing and commenting features. And they organize all the docs in Google Drive with a folder for each client. So far, so good.

Then some questions arise. Who’s working on the cost optimization analysis for client A? Doesn’t she have a lot on her plate already? When did we promise to deliver it by? The client requested we also do a market research report, can we do that within our existing scope of work? We can? Says who? And meantime, why haven’t we delivered a final proposal to prospect B yet?

Status is everything

What this illustrates is that collaborating on work involves more than just the outputs. Teams also need a place to keep tabs on and talk about the work. Things like knowing who’s responsible for what, or how far along it is, or when it’s due, or what’s on each person’s plate. And that’s what we mean by “home base”. Sure, you could try to manage all this in a dedicated “tracking” doc or spreadsheet, but those can quickly get out of control because they aren’t designed for that purpose. Flat is.

People usually think about their work in terms of status, progress, and lifecycle, as in “what’s on my plate right now?”,  “how far along is this project?”, “what’s coming up next week?”, or “what did we accomplish last week?”. But Google Docs are just content, with no concept of status, and they can only be organized in folders, which lack any indication of progress or lifecycle.

By contrast, topics in Flat always exist within a workflow like To do ⇒ In progress ⇒ Done (or something more elaborate, like in the example), so you always know where in your process the work is. And they come with lightweight but powerful discussion threads, so it’s easy to ask a question, make a request, or raise an issue about a particular piece of work without the risk of the balls getting dropped.

Who can see what

Another important difference between Google Docs and Flat, and why Google Docs isn’t a great fit to be your team’s home base, is how they each handle access control.

In Google Docs, access control is set at the level of individual documents (with the option for a Drive-wide default). While that fine-grained control offers flexibility, it’s also cumbersome and error-prone, and by default it’s hard for team members to find documents that haven’t been explicitly shared with them.

In Flat, access control is much simpler: entire workspaces are either public or private. Every public workspace is visible to your whole organization, but private workspaces are visible by invitation only. Flat’s approach helps eliminate silos by making workspaces public by default, while recognizing that some work is confidential and can’t be public. And Flat makes moving between these two contexts clear and intuitive, so you’ll never worry about making a mistake.

So, does your team need to abandon Google Docs in order to use Flat? No, in fact,  Flat and Google Docs complement each other nicely.

Let’s go back to the example. The team would create a workspace in Flat with their workflow (Proposal ⇒ Kickoff ⇒ Data gathering ⇒ Analysis ⇒ Final report ⇒ Retrospective ⇒ Done), then create a topic for each client with an owner and relevant context. Each topic would simply link to any relevant Google Doc(s) or Google Drive folder. And when the firm is working on things outside of a client engagement (like an internal initiative), they could create another workspace in Flat to track and manage that work too.

What about Google Doc comments versus Flat’s topic threads? They’d be used in tandem. The team would use Google Doc comments to talk about and edit the specific words and phrases in each document. And they’d use Flat topic threads to talk about a client engagement as a whole.

The Bottom Line

Flat and Google Docs are great together, not replacements for each other. Flat is your team’s home base, capturing the context and status of all the team’s work. And when you need a collaborative document, you can easily link from a Flat topic to a Google Doc.

Andrew Kallem is Flat's co-founder and lead engineer. He has a background in finance, risk management, and computer science, and he has been writing software for nearly 30 years.