Whiteboarding in a remote world
In the United States, offices are packed with meeting rooms. The general rule of thumb dictates that each office should have one meeting room per 10-20 employees. Depending on the industry, this ratio quickly changes. Anyone working in marketing, IT, or in any company where product and program management are bread and butter knows how heated the competition is for a good meeting space.
What’s so important about the room itself? It’s not the furniture – that’s table stakes (sorry, couldn’t resist) and easily satisfied by other alternatives. Perhaps it’s a sense of privacy? This definitely plays a role but, indeed, most work meetings are not clandestine. If you ask your colleagues, more often than not, the purpose of the meeting room is to facilitate discussion or collaboration. And at least one of the reasons why such discussions must take place in a meeting room is the presence of the all-important whiteboard.
Indeed, one of the critical must-have elements of any productive meeting space is a whiteboard or other shared surface. But why? Why are meeting rooms covered in boards, slathered with whiteboard paint, or built of glass or other writable surfaces? The answer lies in the inherent characteristics of this omnipresent productivity pal.
Whiteboard – instantly intuitive tools
Have you ever seen an instruction manual for a whiteboard? Of course not: it’s in the elite category of “instantly intuitive tools” – like beds or roofs. Everyone, regardless of age or background, knows exactly how to use it; moreover, anyone who approaches a whiteboard is compelled to use it. Its ease of use is so strong it actually begets use. Let’s keep going: what happens when more than one person approaches the board? Activity increases further. The draw to create is, indeed, amplified through participation.
At least one of the reasons for the whiteboard’s success is its alluring simplicity: a large, comfortable, easily erased surface – no more. This simplicity – along with incomparable cost-effectiveness – allows the whiteboard to triumph over a myriad of newfangled look-alikes. No touchscreen or smartboard is as comfortable as a good ol’ whiteboard. And no electronic alternative elicits the same reckless creativity.
Now, what happens when you can’t get in front of a whiteboard with your colleagues? What happens when a greater hurdle than a packed schedule prohibits you from covering that shared canvas? How do you go about whiteboarding when stopped by a pandemic, car trouble, sick kids, or the increasingly common remote/hybrid work situation? What has the world done to replace this instantly intuitive tool that elicits collaboration at the speed of thought?
Over the last few years a smorgasbord of “digital whiteboards” has appeared: tools that promise endless canvases, adorned with limitless digital doodads. While these tools do, indeed, work well in specific situations, their ability to actually squeeze out shared creative juices is limited. The reasons here are still tied to those inherent characteristics of the board itself: its simplicity means there is no learning curve. When in the throes of a productive brainstorm, any hesitation can derail your train of thought. Its size means you’re doodling/drawing/writing using your full arm – shoulder, elbow, wrist, fingers – just as nature intended. If no touchscreen can compete with the whiteboard interface, what chance does a mouse or trackpad have? Its price tag fits in any budget – unlike most digital alternatives, when scaled to your whole organization.
Barring health restrictions, some organizations cope by coordinating whiteboard sessions. Some go to incredible lengths: flying teams together, paying for lodging and transportation, just to have that time with a shared surface. Such solutions are costly in every way and offer no lasting benefit. Moreover, their key assumption – shared presence – is sometimes undermined, crippling the effectiveness of such an expensive plan. All it takes is for one member to not be present and you’re back to the same problem – at least partially. Indeed, the “hybrid scenario” – where only part of your team is physically present – presents challenges of its own.
The fact is, any lasting solution to this problem has to exhibit the same characteristics of the board itself: simplicity, ease of use, cost-effectiveness, frictionless collaboration. ShareTheBoard, a new entrant to the remote collaboration space has proposed a viable solution. Their recommendation for delivering true remote whiteboarding? Why, with a whiteboard, of course.
Makes sense: the whiteboard is the part that works flawlessly – why would we replace that? The question becomes: how can we make the whiteboard accessible to remote and present participants simultaneously? Here too, ShareTheBoard’s reasoning is sound: any true solution – just like the whiteboard – shouldn’t require deep pockets or a PhD to operate. Indeed, the company’s solution sees us adding no new tools or hardware or requiring new skills of any kind. How? By leveraging the other omnipresent guests in each meeting room: laptops and smartphones.
Even though laptop cameras are stuck in the stone age (some more than others), their stability and reasonable proximity to whiteboards in meeting rooms make them excellent candidates for sharing board contents with remote viewers. The typical problems accompanying this setup – strange viewing angles, backwards text, obstructions by team members – are all solved by the ShareTheBoard app: users can straighten viewing angles and all obstacles are made to appear transparent. But what about content contributions? How can remote participants join in the fun? Though there is still much to be done here, the company offers a first step: digital annotations that allow anyone to supplement content from the physical board with e-content. The earliest tools in the arsenal here are a simple marker, laser pointer, and sticky notes – all critical to engage your distant colleagues. The real magic occurs when participants combine content from the board and from digital contributions into a single, layered file. These can be saved locally or easily uploaded into third-party applications. Now that’s hybrid collaboration.
Though the software is not perfect – particularly when dealing with small text, distant boards, or poor lighting – it reflects an elegant attempt at delivering a cost-effective solution to a global problem. Moreover, it leverages the inherent strengths of one of the world’s best tools. And in a world that’s gone remote and doesn’t appear to be going back, any solution which brings us back to the real board is worth sharing.