04 November 2021

Google Workspace vs. Microsoft Office in the workplace

Between all the job changes I went through this past year, I managed to land at a company using Google’s office suite, not Microsoft’s, as it was the default for most of my career. Coincidently, a good friend also recently switched jobs and discovered her new company uses Google Workspace as well. Naturally we exchanged tips and complained privately about the various ways this suite is different, mostly for the worse, than what we were used to.

I wanted to gather these in a blog post, since it feels relevant to other people and to the general themes I write about. I am not touching on the Docs/Sheets/Slides portion of Google Workspace, as we almost never use those – both companies also provide Microsoft Office to their employees, just older versions, not the subscription-based Office365. And I hope no one in their right mind would use the web-based Sheets for complex accounting tasks instead of Excel…


I loved Gmail for my personal use for years, but with the rise of smartphones I use it much less nowadays because most of my communication with friends takes place on WhatsApp. As a business tool however, it feels cumbersome to use compared to desktop Outlook. The only advantages in my opinion are the Snooze function and how easy it is to schedule emails – in Outlook there are several steps involved, and I assume many users are not even aware it’s possible. On the flip side, Gmail has no message recalls, except in a very short window after sending – again, this is relatively hidden in Outlook, but there are no time limits for the recall, only that you must recall before the recipient reads the message.

Smart Compose is nice, but of limited use in my experience. It mostly suggests very common phrases, including opening and closing lines. The best thing about it is how when you type a greeting it suggests the first name of the person in To – great for not screwing up uncommon names, but it can easily fail if their email address is not in the common first.lastname format.

Organizing your inbox can become needlessly complex and confusing in Gmail, between labels, important messages, categories, several types of stars, and the options to create sections or tabs for each of these. I have always stuck with combination of classical labels and stars, and ignored categories and message importance completely. Over the past years however, it feels label handling has regressed in Gmail: nowadays, if you apply a label to a thread manually, it does not apply to future emails in the same conversation, so if you search for a keyword combined with a label you may miss emails that were not labeled, even though visually the thread containing them seems labeled. The behavior inexplicably changed somewhere down the line because I distinctly remember this worked correctly in the early days of personal Gmail. I assume some people who didn’t understand it complained vociferously and Google relented. Ironically, Outlook changed its behavior in the opposite direction: if you apply a category to a conversation, future emails will inherit the category – and you can still label emails individually if needed.

At some point, Gmail used to have an experimental feature to save complex searches, but apparently it was discontinued. The current recommendation is to bookmark the search page in the browser – needless to say, Outlook has this built-in. Without saved searches, stars lose some of their functionality – you could use different stars for different purposes and quickly find the ones you needed with a saved search – now they are all mashed together in a single place, chronologically. The Outlook equivalent, flags, are tightly integrated with reminders, but in Gmail you must set reminders manually. I guess Snooze performs a similar role there, but I personally prefer a popup reminder instead of a message showing up out of nowhere at the top of my inbox.

Composing is another area where Gmail could use a lot of work. If you respond to a longer thread inline, it’s very easy to scroll away from your reply and lose your place in the conversation. And you cannot fully pop-out compose windows, instead you must wrestle with an overlaid box that is either too small for comfort, more akin to chat, or too large to see the inbox and potentially reference other information. The small compose box is significantly better on a larger screen, but alas companies don’t give out top of the line laptops for remote office work, so I had to manage on a 13' screen. Outlook has moved towards integrating replies in the main window as well over the past years, but you can still open an independent window. That way you can have the best of both worlds: a maximized window for more writing space and the original window to check back on previous messages.

While on the subject of composing, the way Gmail handles inline pictures is horrendous. When pasting a screenshot, you can choose between ‘Large’ (way too small) and ‘Original size’ (giant). If you go with original, the layout of your window and the entire thread is screwed forever, because the image causes the whole conversation to become extra wide to accommodate it. All the text rearranges inside this larger container, making lines extra-long and hard to follow, and this also causes horizontal scrollbars, so you can’t even read a line from start to finish without scrolling!


I have used the calendar features far less than mail, so most of the points in this section come from my friend. One of her top criticisms was how convoluted multitasking is in Google Calendar: when you receive a meeting invite and want to check your schedule, you need to open a separate tab for that purpose. Same thing when you’re editing an existing event: since the edit page takes over the entire Calendar, you have no other choice than to reopen Calendar in another tab to reference your agenda. Another weird shortcoming is that you cannot change the event color on mobile for incoming invites, only for invites you send out. Color-coding is a good technique to visually organize your agenda, but it falls apart if you can only apply it to some events, but not others.

A complaint shared between both of us is how inconsistent event notifications are. As Calendar is a webapp, like the entire Google Suite, these notifications depend on browser settings. There are no pop-ups before a meeting, like in Outlook, unless you always keep the Calendar tab or webapp open, something I don’t like to do because it needlessly clutters my desktop. I ended up adding my work account to my personal smartphone to receive notifications there, otherwise I would have missed many of my appointments.

Another confusing aspect is the distinction – or lack thereof – between Reminders and Tasks. They do basically the same thing, but exist in two entirely different spaces, with no connection or overlap.


I have almost no complaints about the video and audio quality of Google Meet, but the interface and functionality could use some improvements.

In video calls, none of the layouts work particularly well to focus on the presentation or the person currently speaking. There is a lot of wasted space with dead areas at the top, bottom, and right side. The top strip shows static meeting information – completely redundant once you connect – while the bottom one hosts meeting controls. People’s video feeds are pinned on the right side and cannot be removed – you can’t even fully hide your self-view, only minimize it and have it dangling awkwardly in a corner. I cannot grasp why there is no option to automatically hide people without video feeds – it’s not like seeing static faces during the entire conference delivers some crucial information to participants. In contrast, Teams has controls floating above the video content and hidden by default, appearing on hover. The participants’ list is also off by default, therefore there is much more room for actual meeting content.

Another major missing feature is the inability to use remote control during a call, as in Teams and Webex – most likely a technical limitation of the webapp. This is especially important when collaborating or teaching.

One unexpected advantage of Meet over other software is how, before joining a meeting, you can preview who else joined before you. That way you could wait a couple of moments before going in, if you don’t want to interact with that particular person or group. Some people like to engage in opening small-talk, and you may avoid it by joining a bit later, after most of the guests connected.

Integration and design

One of the aspects where Google Workspace falls short of Office is cross-app integration. For example, when setting an out-of-office message in Gmail, Calendar doesn’t know to automatically reject incoming invites for that period, and you need to manually block your calendar with a special out-of-office multiday event. In Outlook however, you simply need to activate a setting and it’s done.

The same story in Chat: when joining a meeting or during blocked time slots in your agenda, your Chat status does not switch automatically to busy or in a conference call, as with the Outlook-Teams combo, you need to do it manually. Moreover, in Teams you can directly call a person or group you are chatting with, all it takes is a single click; whereas in Google Chat you need to share a meeting link for the participants to join in a separate tab or window.

Since I mentioned color-coding in Calendar before, this is another example of missed opportunities for deeper integration: in Outlook, colored categories apply uniformly throughout the app, from emails to events to tasks, so you can have a consistent system everywhere without much effort. In Google’s suite on the other hand, labels are confined to Gmail, so you have to recreate the color scheme from scratch in Calendar, same with the lists in Tasks, the labels in Keep, and so on.

Several Google Workspace apps installed as webapps in Microsoft Edge
Several Google Workspace apps installed as webapps in Microsoft Edge

One final remark on the design: mirroring the lack on integration, the design of individual apps is weirdly inconsistent. You can customize Gmail with various themes, but they don’t extend to any of the other services; Meet and Calendar only support light mode, which is especially jarring to me who switches everything I can into dark mode; Chat recently added a dark mode, but the title bar remains white when installed as app in Edge; Keep has a dark mode, but with a tinted title bar! Almost like these apps are not even from the same company…

The conclusion of this lengthy article is not that Google Workspace is incapable of delivering results – obviously many companies are using it, more than I would have expected – but that small shortcomings and frictions add up throughout the days, weeks, and months. For heavy users especially, managers who spend most of their time writing emails, coordinating people on chat, and participating in conferences, the lost time spent working around these gaps in the software will negatively impacting their efficiency.

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