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Be Virtual but Feel Like You Are Working Face to Face

Back view of business woman talking to her colleagues about business plan in video conference. Multiethnic business team using laptop for a online meeting in video call. Group of buinessmen and businesswomen smart working from home. (Back view of busi

The COVID-19 pandemic immediately thrust us into virtual ways of working as businesses closed and employees worked remotely. In recent months, we have become accustomed to interacting through streaming video platforms such as Zoom, WebEx, and Microsoft Teams.

While these digital collaboration platforms allow us to communicate remotely, video platforms alone do not replicate the value of working together face-to-face. When we are in person, we can see someone’s body language and facial expressions. It is easier to have informal sidebar conversations. We can use hand gestures to illustrate our point.  We can gather with a colleague and have an impromptu conversation.  And, we can instantaneously draw diagrams on a whiteboard or flipchart.

Remote work has also introduced scheduling constraints.  We long for the days of simply walking over to someone’s desk for a quick chat. I can’t just stand up, look over the cubicle wall, and say, “John is at his desk; I’ll walk over there.” Now I need to contact John, ask when he is available, and set up a Zoom call. This is not an arduous process, but it involves more logistics – particularly if you want to talk to multiple people simultaneously.

Another shortcoming is that many digital tools do not provide a flexible space where people can collaborate in creative and flexible ways. There are virtual platforms such as Google Docs where we can share and co-create documents, but they are somewhat rigid. For example, if I open a document in Google Docs, I have to use words and narrative: there is no surface to create an illustration. I could use PowerPoint, but its drawing capabilities are limited. It’s hard to just grab a pen and start drawing because that doesn’t work online. You have to use your mouse, digital pens, and other accessories on a mobile device.

Similarly, most virtual collaboration platforms limit the size of your workspace to the equivalent of a single sheet of paper or the size of your screen. They do not have the expanded space available like on a physical white board.

Given these limitations, there is a growing need for a virtual workspaces or a digital whiteboards where people can come together in a common place to collaborate jointly without the rigidity of a standard document or a slide format. Teams need an open canvas that functions more like a traditional whiteboard. We also need a digital workspace that is easy for people to access and use; one that is safe and secure; and one that allows for work to happen in person or remotely.

Before the pandemic, we typically worked face-to-face using whiteboards and flipcharts. Now teams are looking for digital workspaces where both remote and on-site employees could work together. We found some tools that got us through, but their shortcomings underscored the need for more dynamic capabilities and infinite possibilities.  The next evolutionary step in how we work should be a robust virtual whiteboard where we can work together when not everyone is sitting at the same table.

For example, our firm now uses a platform where multiple people can log into simultaneously. The workspace provides a huge whiteboard where we can add virtual Post-it notes, or draw pictures, lines, and diagrams. After I add something, a team member might read it and say, “I like that, but I want to add something.” Then they change it themselves. You don’t have to ask me to do it: I see it instantaneously while my team mate is editing.

We all understand that how we work is changing rapidly. Digital platforms exist to enable new, virtual ways of working.  As new virtual collaboration technologies emerge, teams will flock to digital workspaces that accommodate both in-person and virtual ways of working.

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