Working remotely: I want my shared whiteboard!

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I am one of those people who always jump to the whiteboard to scribble and draw. It does not matter whether I am talking or listening. When it gets complicated (in my head), I need to draw something. And quite often it is helpful for others in the room as well. Recently at a customer site I met a brilliant product owner who could explain complicated ideas in many details without ever drawing anything. She was able to summon into my head very clearly the structure of the whole problem and where she currently was. I was never lost. A rare talent. I still scribbled into my notebook. But I never felt the need to get the stream of thought structured on the wall. In my experience this is an exception. As for me, I seem to be unable to think clearly without a pencil and some boxes and arrows.

Working remotely without a physical whiteboard

Over the last two years I tried multiple remote whiteboards and nothing really worked: cumbersome to use, slow, everyone needed to use an iPad, etc. Now—because of the Corona Virus—I have to work without a physical whiteboard …

Here at codecentric we use Zoom for video calls, so I gave the Zoom whiteboard one more try and it kinda works. It is not as quick and seamless as a pencil in my hand, but at least, together with my iPad, it is getting there. And everyone can join, even without a tablet – just not as smoothly (if you do not use Zoom, skip to the end of the article for some alternatives).

1. Sharing a whiteboard in Zoom

When you are in a meeting, you can share an application, all of your desktop, your iPhone or a whiteboard!

Sharing options in Zoom

Choosing the shared whiteboard

Now everyone should see something like big white rectangle, but for now currently only you can draw …

2. Everyone who wants to draw …

… must now click on “View Options” at the top and then on “Annotate”:

How everyone can draw on a shared whiteboard: "Viewing Options" and "Annotate"

Now everyone sees a toolbar and can draw on the whiteboard together:

Multiple participants drawing on the shared whiteboard

As you can see, in the image above: “Victor Volle” just drew a blue-ish rectangle and “Kontrafiktion” drew the red rectangle-thingy. You can even undo your steps, but only your own.

This is how our whiteboard looked when we were trying it for the first time and just goofing around:

Goofing around on the shared whiteboard

3. Bonus: Using an iPad with a pencil

If you own an iPad with a pencil, you can use that as well. There are two options:

  • Just join the Zoom session from your iPad (the camera will just record you from a rather unflattering angle) – especially when you are drawing …
  • You could use “Sidecar” (or “Astropad” or “Duet Display” – but Sidecar is part of macOS/iPadOS) to use your iPad as a secondary monitor

4. Possible alternatives

  • Miro offers a great, easy-to-use shared whiteboard. I haven’t tried it yet with a tablet.
  • One of my colleagues prefers Figma, because it seems to be faster – I think it might be geared more toward design work, but for that it seems like a great solution (you might want to check out Invision as well)
  • Google Drawings

Please send me any suggestions for shared whiteboards you like.

Coda

I must admit, only with an iPad and a pencil I feel that this solution approaches the fluidity of drawing and thinking that a physical whiteboard provides. You do not have to go as far as some philosophers, who claim that consciousness is not in our heads but something we do or that the tools we use to help us think may be part of thought itself. But still, for me, drawing and thinking often feel like the same thing, especially when I need to get something out of my fuzzy head into the open.

Victor Volle

Victor is often impatient, but most of the times he can hide this quite well. He loves to write code, but nowadays talking with and listening to people takes most of his time (he is trying to get better at the latter). He simply wants to get the system “through the door” and he just cannot stand red tape.

Some things you can expect to hear from him: Why? And: What is the goal? And: How would you recognize that you have reached that goal? He can be quite annoying, if you try to deflect these questions …

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