Office automation: some tips for better collaboration on spreadsheets and word processing

I collaborate a lot on shared documents. Most of the time, these collaborations go off without a hitch. And once in a while, however, things go wrong.

It could be a missing document, lost paragraphs, formatting issues. Or even document impossible to open. Over the past 25 years, I’ve experienced the full extent of the problems associated with collaboration on office documents.

In the late 90s and early 2000s, one of the biggest problems was finding a compromise with a file format that everyone could use. I worked with StarOffice, OpenOffice, Corel, AbiWord and any other word processor I could install on Linux. These kinds of problems shouldn’t exist anymore, right?

Unfortunately, these difficulties persist!

For example, I’m co-writing a new series of books with someone who only uses Microsoft Word. I’ve been using Google Docs for first drafts, for years. And I’ve had only minor issues with editors who prefer to work in one of the many versions of Microsoft Word. But recently, my editor contacted me to tell me that there were serious formatting issues.

Let me describe the process followed.

  1. I’m writing a chapter in Google Docs.
  2. My collaborator writes a chapter in his locally installed Microsoft Word, then does a quick copy and paste into Google Docs.
  3. We go back and forth until the first draft is finished.
  4. I export the draft as a .docx file and send it to the editor.
  5. The editor opens it in Microsoft Word, and it’s a mess, and he tells me that he has formatting problems!

It was only recently that I discovered that my co-author was using Microsoft Word 2010, which reached its life limit in 2020. What does this life limit mean? End of life means that the software no longer receives updates. End-of-life software should be considered dangerous and should not be used.

But it’s not for me to tell a fellow writer how to do their job. But I thought I could still give some advice here on how best to collaborate with such documents.

Use the same tool

I know that it is not always possible for all employees to use the same office suite. In the age of cloud-based office suites, there’s absolutely no reason why someone has to fight back and forth saying “You have to use the same tool as me!”.

This is no longer relevant, as you can still use Office 365, Google Docs or iCloud. There are enough cloud-based, free, and user-friendly options out there that anyone can find their way around quickly.

I also understand some people’s need for confidentiality. They are rather reluctant to save their files and information in an online space. If so, a locally installed application will be required.

If not everyone involved in collaborating on office documents has Microsoft Office or Apple Pages, you might consider having everyone install a free solution like LibreOffice. Using the same tool will avoid many problems.

While you’re at it, make sure you’re using the latest version of the tool you have. If you’re running a version that’s two iterations behind, you’re not only missing out on security updates and new features, but also formatting updates and file compatibility fixes.

Use copy-paste only when absolutely necessary

This is probably the biggest problem I have faced. I happen to collaborate with someone in Google Docs and find that they write their part in a locally installed word processor and copy and paste it into Google Doc.

My first piece of advice is that if you’re using a service designed for collaboration, all parties should use the same tool (see above).

Copying and pasting can cause formatting issues. If you absolutely must copy and paste, I recommend doing it unformatted using CTRL+Shift+V. In some word processors, you can right-click and select Paste without formatting. Be aware that the formatting of one word processor does not always correspond to the formatting of another word processor. Although it may “appear” to be the same, it is not.

So if you need to copy and paste, paste without formatting.

Use the same file format

Do not mix up your file formats. If you work in LibreOffice, save as an .odt file, and your collaborator works with MS Word software and files with the .docx extension, you are going to have problems. But luckily LibreOffice can easily save in .docx format and Office 365 can work with .odt files (from LibreOffice).

If you want to use a format that is more suitable for going back and forth between applications, save the file in .rtf (Rich Text Format) until the collaboration is complete. Once complete and properly formatted, you can export this .rtf file to whatever file type you need (even PDF). If you use a mix of file types, you may run into problems!

Use the cloud

Ultimately, the best way to help you is to use the cloud. I know some people shrug their shoulders for fear of hosting their work on a third-party site, but the reason these cloud services are so ubiquitous is because they make collaboration easier. And with tools like Google Docs, you can control how each collaborator can interact with a document. You can grant some users read-only access while others will have permission to edit the document.

But the most important reasons to use these cloud services come with the benefits we discussed above. Everyone uses the same tool, works with the same type of file, and there’s no need to copy and paste from a desktop application.

Another thing, make sure, if possible, that all parties are using the same web browser. Indeed, some cloud-based services work better with some web browsers. You may think I’m exaggerating, but I’ve experienced it. For example, Firefox doesn’t always work as well as Chrome with some online editors.

And when collaborating on longer documents in Google Docs with Safari, Apple’s web browser can tend to bog down due to memory issues. It is very frustrating when we know that part of our activities take place in the cloud. Every web browser should work and interact in the same way with these tools. Alas, there is no guarantee that this will ever be the case.

Collaboration doesn’t have to be easy. With a little planning and perhaps a slight change in the way you work, you can collaborate on documents without having to deal with the formatting or incompatibility issues that often frustrate those who must work together to complete a project. .

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