New Virtual Whiteboards Can Mimic In-Person Collaboration

By Kevin Steeprow on September 1, 2020

In the spring, schools and business experienced a dramatic and immediate change to Normal, shifting to a work from home environment literally overnight. Many organizations scrambled to quickly identify a collaboration platform that would enable interactions through chat, voice, and, in some cases, video. From startup to established stalwart, the growth has been exponential, and we’ve seen each vendor grow and scale in different ways, some to address exposed vulnerabilities and others to continue to build on an established platform yet continue to differentiate themselves.  


While the initial strategies planned for that shift as a short-term requirement, spring came and went and summer’s swan song is rapidly approaching with hope on the horizon but, for now, many organizations continue to operate in a remote-based model. There are several aspects of remote models that are impactful both positively and negatively, but, as an engineer, one area that I have missed is the collaborative whiteboarding that my colleagues and I use to flesh out thoughts and ideas.  


Virtual whiteboards have been around for a while, but my previous experiences using them have always left me with a sour taste thinking, “this isn’t even close; after all I’m not a master writing and drawing with a mouse and the “interactive” aspect was to draw something, upload, email, or otherwise share it for the next person, who would make the change and send it on to the next, and so on…it was almost easier to use PowerPoint or similar tool and a file-sharing system. Even as the interactive-sharing capabilities improved, the ease-of-use factor was a significant barrier. Did we all have the right version of the application? Did we log in using the correct accounts in the correct tool within the collaboration suite? What about the “drawing” feature – after all I had an iPad with the Apple Pencil while others had touchscreen laptops and various other devices, could we use those capabilities, or, even, those devices in general? 


Admittedly, I kind of gave up for a while, even as a primarily remote workforce, we were face-to-face frequently enough that we could use the whiteboards in one of our offices. With the recent “new normal,” even if we are able to be in the same room with a whiteboard, sharing markers or touching the same surfaces is a challenge, especially as digital boards replace the old fashion whiteboard – there’s often only a single stylus that needs to be wiped down when handing it off which disrupts the flow, and even if everyone has their own stylus or set of markers, maintaining social distancing principles also disrupts the natural flow of a vigorous and collaborative whiteboarding session! Based on this, I’ve been giving virtual whiteboards another look, and, while still not perfect, have been able to satisfy my whiteboard “itch” much more completely than before. I’ve collaborated with colleagues and friends drawing diagrams, flow charts, timelines, and even helping solve math equations, all in an interactive fashion across various devices using different input devices. 


As my personal experience continues to improve, I can’t help but wonder how many organizations have licenses to these tools and make them available to their workforce – this includes not just corporations, but schools as our teachers, students, counselors, etc. in many locations are working to provide improved learning conditions vs what they were able to last Spring? At Red River, I’m fortunate to work with very knowledgeable individuals who could help me navigate the platform and understand how to technically use various features, but not every organization has those resources, or, they are stretched so thin that they don’t have the time to support these requests.  


After reading press releases, news articles, and having conversations with customers, an expanded remote workplace is here to stay. Collaboration tools are continually updating their products answering the challenge supporting more devices and adding more features. Artificial Intelligence based improvements to handwriting, character, and layout recognition are coming that convert the whiteboard drawings into text and vector-based figures as well as identification of tabular data and other layout aspects. As these advancements are realized, we can convert an electronic whiteboard session directly into the rough first draft of a document or report – how many times have we drawn something on a whiteboard, taken a picture or it, and then had to recreate it electronically? 


There will always be a need for a degree of being together in-person and certain businesses have additional constraints limiting a remote workforce, but to ignore the lessons we’ve learned from this experience and simply revert back to the “old” normal and not build upon the momentum and positive aspects of this time period would be disappointing.  


We’ve published video series on using the Microsoft Teams environment including the whiteboard feature and we are creating a similar series around Cisco WebEx. While these aren’t detailed training videos, they can help get you started and I’d encourage everyone (educators, business professionals, friends of all ages) to take a chance and try it out – it’s only by using the tools that we discover where they do and don’t fit, increase the sample set from which AI derived improvements are based, and share what the next “killer” feature would be. If your organization doesn’t have this capability, contact us; we’re here to help you find the right tool and then adopt and leverage that technology!