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Solving the Whiteboard Problem - Working Remote Like a Pro
One of the things that's hardest for remote teams to adapt to is no longer having access to the collaborative "draw it on the whiteboard" meeting. Drawing something out is a great way to force someone to think. It can take less than 5 minutes to get your point across and get everyone on the same page. There's simply no good substitute for it.

It's the one thing that most new remote workers continue to bump up against, long after they've gotten comfortable in their new routine working away from the office.

The conference call software (Zoom, GoToMeeting, Webex) have all attempted to address the problem but, if you're like me and like to draw pictures to illustrate how things work, the solutions range from somewhat unsatisfying to too frustrating to bother with.

After decades of working in a virtual company and with remote customers, we've tried everything and, in our usual requirements gathering way, have some advice to those of you who are new to remote working. We have options for you -- from free to expensive -- that you can do right now today with tools you already have or can get relatively quickly.

Let's get the low hanging fruit out of the way first...

Option #1: Use the drawing tools built into the conference call software

These are the screen-overwriting tools. In Zoom, it's "annotation"; in GoToMeeting, it's "Drawing Tools."

Using these you can highlight, spotlight, draw, stamp, add text or arrows or boxes, etc., on top of whatever is showing on screen.  Zoom gives you the option to have a white canvas instead, but it uses the same drawing tools as are available in the annotation feature.

The tools function and work much like the drawing tools found in any basic drawing program (i.e., Microsoft Paint).  In fact, for years I did use Microsoft Paint for ad-hoc whiteboarding over screen sharing for the task.

I would get frustrated because I would spend a lot of time switching tools, switching colors, moving things around because I'm terrible at drawing with a mouseI would forget to switch from box to arrow or text. I'd forget to change the color. I was so bad that I would always preface things with, "I'm a terrible artist and I'm using Paint."

Conference call software's built-in tools are no better, if not worse. I find it hard to remember what all the tools are, how to get to them, how to get the impression I really want, and they take too long. I'll never become a Zoom Annotation Expert because what's the point? Expertise in Zoom Tools don't pay the bills.

What I want is a whiteboard everyone on the call can see so I can quickly get my point across and move on to the important stuff. And to do that, I need to be able to:

  1. Draw pictures
  2. Point to important stuff in the picture
  3. I need to be able to erase/start a new picture
  4. I'd like other people to be able to interact with my picture as well

 

Option #2: Draw and take a picture

Sketch it out, then take a picture of the sketch. Share the picture with other people either on the call, by email, or some other method. This can be a quick and dirty way to create a sketch that needs a fair amount of detail that simple drawing tools just won't convey easily. It's also often faster than spending hours in PowerPoint or Visio to achieve the same goal.

Interestingly, when you're having trouble understanding what someone else is explaining to you, ask them to draw a picture and send it to you. Drawing solidifies things in people's minds and can help the other person organize their thoughts as much as it will help you understand where they are coming from.

MacOS New menu item "Import from iPhone"

For MacOS users, there's an option that's makes this method even better (read: faster). This is new in MacOS and hasn't gotten a lot of attention.

If an application supports it, there's now a new item in the File Menu: "Import from iPhone". If your device is plugged into your computer, this menu item will trigger you device to use the camera to take a picture. Once the picture is taken, it will be immediate pasted into the application wherever your cursor is.

And if you're already sharing your screen, this is probably the fastest way to get your picture in front of all the people on the virtual conference call:

Option #3: Pen & Paper... and a Camera on Tripod

One of the first things I tried was putting my phone on a tripod and pointing the camera at my desk. Below the camera I had a piece of paper and a pen. I could stream the phone's camera into the meeting and everyone could see me drawing in real time.

This is really not a bad option at all. it is fast, easy, and you likely already have the tools at hand. Just watch out for balance issues with the tripod.

Option #4: Use Your Mobile Device (it's a touchscreen!)

Drawing with your finger on your touchscreen is a million times easier than drawing with a mouse and every tablet and smart phone is a touchscreen. So put a drawing tool on your device and share its screen on the conference call.

Benefits? No drawing with a mouse. Actions are natural, fast, and you can save them to a file and share them later if you want to. There's nearly no downside, it's just not something any of us think to do.

I'm embarrassed to say that this one took us the longest to figure out and it really shouldn't have: I've been using and traveling with a Microsoft Surface with its password-draw feature to unlock the device for over a year.

Anyway, all the major screen sharing/video conference calling applications have a share screen option. Launch a new connection to the conference call from a second device and draw more naturally with your finger or a stylus. It's a beautiful solution that works everywhere. If you're looking for somewhere to start, try one of these:

  • Android: Autodesk SketchBook
  • iPhone/iPad: Microsoft Whiteboard
  • Microsoft Surface: Paint!

Last but not least...

Option #5: Get yourself a better input device (Wacom Cintiq)

If you really want to Whiteboard like a Remote Worker Pro, you've got to look toward a better input device like the Wacom Cintiq. The Cintiq is really aimed at professional artists. The artist we work with (the one who did the graphics for the Arbortext Monster Garage and the TC Dojo) has one of the high-end professional versions. But she needs it.

I don't. What I need is good whiteboarding in the virutal world. The Wacom ignores your hand and only responds to the stylus. You can draw as naturally and normally as with a pen and paper. Plus, this device acts like another monitor. You can either mirror your desktop or be an extension to it.

You don't even need an expensive drawing program to go on it, you can use Google Drawings. Google Drawings is another part of the Google Docs suite and you can have collaborative multi-user simultaneous drawings that everyone can see. Super cool - Requirement #3 met.

Now, Wacom is expensive, but that's to be expected because they're the leader for this kind of device.

Luckily those of us who simply want better virtual whiteboards, can choose one of the low-end competitors that have reasonably priced versions that have just enough features to satisfy the virtual whiteboard need we really want.

A lot of organizations have employee stipends for equipment necessary to make home offices more ergonomic and complete for remote workers putting these low-end devices well within reach of the professional remote worker!

Work Remote Like a Pro

There's a lot of advice out there. A lot of self-proclaimed experts with little practical experience informing their advice. Don't rush to buy the hottest thing just because someone else says it's "The Best." Approach your remote work environment like a professional and know what you want and why you want it.

We've been a fully-remote and highly interactive company for 15 years. We work virtually with our customers and with each other. When the current pandemic hit, we didn't skip a beat and are busier than we've ever been.

In addition, we are well known for our advocacy of requirements gathering. We believe that you should decide what's best for you rather than letting someone else tell you what you should want. Like professionals do.

This is why we give our reasoning and expose our decision making. We want you to evaluate tools and processes to get those that best fit your patterns, habits, and budgets.

Anyone who doesn't give you that has an agenda that you should watch out for.

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Key Concepts:

best practices, collaboration, productivity, techcomm tools

Filed under:

Blog, Liz's Tech Corner, Single-Sourcing Exclusive

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