How Google Tables can turn up your productivity

If you haven't taken the time to explore Google's Tables tool for teams, you're really missing out.

google tables
JR Raphael/IDG

Dealing with data sure ain't what it used to be.

'Twas a time, way back in the prehistoric era of modern computing — so, y'know, roughly 2012 or so — when organizing your business meant managing a messy spreadsheet and all sorts of complicated formulae. Heck, you practically had to be the kind of person who'd use a word like "formulae" in order to handle it!

These days, we've got more code-free info-juggling tools that any sane soul could possibly process. From Airtable to Microsoft Lists and all of the other advanced data management apps out there, there's no shortage of programs that'll do the heavy lifting for you and help you stay organized with minimal effort.

And naturally, that's a geekalicious party Google didn't want to miss. The company launched a work-tracking tool called Tables as one of its classic "experiments" last fall, and it's now in the midst of transforming Tables into a full-fledged Google Cloud productivity product.

The final Tables version won't be available for a while, but in the meantime, you can get a taste of what Google's cookin' up by checking out the service's completely free beta version. There's an awful lot to like about it, and if you decide to stick with it, you'll be able to move directly from it into the official Tables version whenever that's released. (Google says it expects that to happen sometime "in the next year.")

The biggest benefit of Tables compared to its competitors is the simplicity and the seamless Google ecosystem integration it offers. Here's a tour of what Tables is all about and how it could boost your business's efficiency.

Google Tables 101: The basics

The easiest way to get started with Google Tables is to open up the website and click on the Templates tab within the site's left sidebar menu. That'll show you a list of ready-made tables you can use as starting points and then modify to meet your needs.

The templates are broken down by category, with options including "Admin & IT," "Customer Service," "Project Management," and "Team Management." You'll find everything from broad-purpose possibilities — a project tracker, a team directory, and a meeting availability management system — to more specific stuff like an applicant tracker for hiring, a new employee onboarding organization center, a product roadmap, a user research database, and even a basic customer relationship management (CRM) setup for any sales-oriented operation.

01 google tables templates JR Raphael/IDG

Google Tables has a decent selection of templates for all sorts of different purposes. (Click any image in this story to enlarge it.)

We'll use the project tracker as an example, since it's relatively simple and broadly relatable. When you first click the button to grab the template and bring it into your workspace, this is what you see:

02 google tables project tracker JR Raphael/IDG

The Project Tracker template in Google Tables, as viewed upon initial import.

A lot to digest there, right? But here's the thing to remember: Just like with Airtable and most other tools along these lines, what you're actually looking at is ultimately just a spreadsheet. It's a more modern spreadsheet, with extra formatting and advanced elements added into the mix — but beneath all of those fancy layers, it's still just a spreadsheet, made up mostly of columns, rows, and cells.

If you click the Columns button at the top right of the Tables screen, you'll see exactly how it works. There, you can edit or delete any of the existing columns or add in new ones. And for every column in your table, you can choose from a variety of different ways to format the information.

03 google tables columns JR Raphael/IDG

Google Tables' column-related options let you take total control over how your data is presented.

That "Person" option is an important one. That's what lets you assign the associated row to a specific colleague from your company domain, if you're using a team-based Google Workspace account, or a person from your contacts, if you're using an individual Google account. Either way, it'll automatically connect to your existing setup, and it'll instantly show full names and even profile pictures within your table when you select someone and bring them into the mix (which causes them to receive an email-based notification about the assignment).

04 google tables people JR Raphael/IDG

Tables makes it easy to interact with the people in your contacts or organization (even if the majority of them are for some reason named Val Potter).

Collaboration within Tables works just like it does in other Google productivity tools, too. You can invite anyone else with a Google account into a table (by clicking the Share button at the top right of the screen), and you can then decide whether they'll be able to merely view the table or be allowed to comment on it, add to it, or even fully edit it. When you're working on a table at the same time as someone else, you'll both see each other's progress appear in realtime — the same way you would with Docs, Sheets, and other Workspace services.

Speaking of Google ecosystem integration, you can also add a column type that lets you link to files from your Google Drive storage — including documents from Docs,  spreadsheets from Sheets, and so on — with a couple quick clicks and no actual uploading. Anyone else viewing the table can then open those files right then and there, without ever leaving the browser.

05c google tables files JR Raphael/IDG

See those circular icons in the far-right column? Those indicate a linked spreadsheet, PDF, and image file, all pulled over from Google Drive without any additional effort.

And if you ever want your table to function as a more traditional spreadsheet, all you've gotta do is click the three-dot menu at the top left of the screen — next to the table's title — to find an option to export the entire thing directly into Google Sheets.

06 google tables spreadsheet JR Raphael/IDG

That same Google Tables database, as seen in its raw spreadsheet form.

Not quite as impressive in that environment, right? But not to worry, for Tables itself has some pretty useful viewing options that'll almost certainly handle everything you need.

The Google Tables viewing options

At the top of every Tables, erm, table sits a button showing the current view type. In our task tracking example from a second ago, the button said "Grid" — since that was the view we were using.

But you don't have to stick with whatever view Tables gives you by default. No matter what that button says at any given moment, you can always click it to see and select from all of the available Tables layout options:

  • The Grid Layout is the standard spreadsheet-plus sort of view we've been looking at so far throughout this exploration. It's the most basic Tables view of all and one you'll probably lean on often.
  • The Kanban Layout, meanwhile, moves your data into a Trello-like series of cards and boards. It's a super-effective way to visualize items across a variety of categories. You can drag and drop things from one column to the next and easily keep track of what belongs where — whether you're using the columns as status indicators, timing reminders, or even just different types of classifications for your various tasks and projects.
07 google tables kanban JR Raphael/IDG

Tables' Kanban view brings a taste of Trello into your Google productivity suite.

  • The Calendar Layout helpfully shows any date-associated data within a month-long calendar so you can see exactly what's coming up and when.
08 google tables calendar JR Raphael/IDG

With a couple quick clicks, the Google Tables Calendar Layout will show all of your date-associated info in a familiar calendar grid.

  • The Queue Layout moves all of your rows into a condensed list so you can see a broader overview and click on any individual item to get more specific info.
09 google tables queue JR Raphael/IDG

In Tables' Queue view, you can see your data in a simple list and then drill down into any individual row for a form-like rundown of its contents.

  • And the Map Layout lets you see any items that include a special "Location" field within an actual Google Map, embedded right inside the Tables website.

Those options add an awful lot of versatility into how you can organize and manipulate whatever manner of info you're managing. And we haven't even gotten into one of Tables' most impressive time-savers — one that works no matter what kind of data or table view you're using.

The Tables automation equation

At the start of this exploration, I said that where Tables really excelled (!) was with its Google ecosystem integration and its simplicity. And here's where the second part of that advantage comes into play.

In addition to giving you an impressive framework for managing practically any manner of data imaginable, Tables includes an automation system that can truly take your info-organizing to the next level. And unlike many such systems, it's impressively easy to use, and it requires virtually no time to learn.

To get started, simply click the Bots button at the top right of any table you've created, then click the New Bot button within the panel that appears. From there, you can give your bot a name (I'd suggest Mr. Gizmo, but you may want something a little less formal) and then click the Select Trigger button to figure out when you want the automation to run.

As of now, you can choose from five possible choices:

  1. Column value changes: This one will cause your automation to execute anytime the data gets updated within a specific column you select.
  2. Time-based: This is the option to choose if you want your automation to run at a standard recurring time — like every Monday morning at 9:00 — for some kind of ongoing processing.
  3. Row added: This next trigger is like the first one, only instead of running when a specific piece of data gets changed, it runs whenever a new row gets added into the table.
  4. Row removed: Pretty self-explanatory, wouldn't you say?
  5. Comment added: Anytime anyone leaves a comment on the row you select, this'll cause your chosen action to occur.

Once you've picked your trigger, you'll see an Add Filter button that'll let you limit the automation to one specific row within your table. If you don't click that and select a row, the automation will apply to any row in the table by default.

You can go a step further, too, and have an automation activate only if the data within a particular row is changed in some specific way — if, for instance, the checkbox in your "Done" row is checked, or if the data in a certain cell is adjusted in a manner that makes it match some other cell within your table.

10 google tables automation JR Raphael/IDG

Tables' Bots system guides you through the automation creation process and makes it easy as can be to add all sorts of advanced intelligence into your workspace.

All that's left is to select what action you want to happen whenever your trigger condition is met. You can have Tables send a custom email to either a predefined address or an address from somewhere in your table, update a row in some specific way, add or delete a row, or even send the data to some external app, if you really want to get ambitious.

11 google tables automation email JR Raphael/IDG

With about 20 seconds of configuration, you can tell Tables to email all of your team members with an update every time a task gets finished.

Doesn't get much easier than that.

Final Tables takeaways

For the moment, Google Tables is completely free to use. It does have both a free and a premium tier of service, with different limits for the amount of activity that's allowed, but you can currently upgrade yourself to the premium level without any fees simply by clicking a button within the website. Early on in the Tables experiment, that higher-level option cost $10 a month, which might give us an indication of where the service might be headed once it's out of its beta form.

One could certainly question, of course, whether Google will remain committed to Tables over the long haul. Given the company's history of pivoting and giving up on non-critical services — especially those that overlap in some way with an existing service, no matter how useful and forward-thinking the newer version may be — it's a perfectly valid concern and one that's impossible to brush off entirely.

As of now, though, Tables certainly looks like a promising service with tons of productivity-boosting potential. If you're already invested in the Google ecosystem and looking for a simple yet effective way to track and automate work within those virtual quarters, Tables might just be worth pulling up a chair to check out.

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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