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The Rise of Online Virtual Canvases: Taking Collaboration Beyond Video Meetings

As we move toward this mix of working in-person and online, we're shifting all our office tools into the digital world for remote workers. Instead of physical files, we're using Google Drive and One Drive, our usual computer tools are now cloud-based, and we stay connected with our team through chat and video calls.

But here’s where it gets interesting. The shift to virtual gives us the opportunity to go beyond copying our physical office setup into the digital space. We're now using software to create completely new ways of collaborating that we couldn't even think of in a physical office. The best example is online collaborative canvases. These types of tools only make sense in the online world, taking collaboration way beyond what we're used to in a typical office.


The Traditional Constraints of Collaboration Tools

In the past, our reliance on conventional collaboration tools, primarily centered around video meetings and file-sharing platforms, posed significant limitations. These tools, while essential, were designed around the premise of replicating in-person interactions virtually. They were great at connecting individuals in real-time there’s simply more to collaboration than meetings.

The problem is that meetings, virtual or in-person, aren’t always the best way to get work done. Sometimes meetings are great for talking about the work we are doing, but something more is needed to dig in and move the project forward.

Another problem with meetings is that they end, but the work still needs to continue. We need a new type of project workflow tool that can facilitate the organic flow of ideas, brainstorming sessions, and project collaboration that often occur spontaneously outside of a meeting.

These obvious limitations of using meetings for everything highlighted the need for a new approach, a departure from replicating physical office structures to embracing digital solutions that support project work beyond in new ways.


The Emergence of Collaborative Canvases

Enter a new breed of collaborative tools: online collaborative canvases. Platforms like "Notion," "Microsoft Loop," and "Zoom Docs" have revolutionized the collaborative landscape by offering dynamic, virtual workspaces without the limitations of traditional tools.

To be clear, the concept is not new. I’ve seen countless demos of canvas type solutions at collaboration tradeshows over the last decade. But none of these solutions seemed to take off. They were either too expensive, too complicated, or perhaps the world just wasn’t ready for it. This has all changed, as the current generation of these solutions seems to have “gotten in right” this time around and the new flexible workforce is far more open-minded about trying new collaboration tools.

Equipped with a versatile array of features, these canvas solutions allow users to create, organize, and collaborate on projects in real time, regardless of physical location. They literally offer a virtual canvas for brainstorming, planning, and executing tasks. These canvases are basically virtual whiteboards with a project-based workflow and a host of additional features, integrating elements such as documents, spreadsheets, multimedia, task boards, and more within a single cohesive interface.

The flexibility of these canvases accommodates various work styles, whether it's individuals brainstorming independently, teams collaborating synchronously, or asynchronous contributions across different time zones. This flexibility, and the ease of use of these platforms, encourages spontaneous collaboration and idea generation in a way that was previously inconceivable within the confines of physical office setups.


Advantages and Use Cases of Collaborative Canvases

The big draw of online collaborative canvases lies not just in their versatility and the host of benefits they offer, but in the way they are perfectly suited for today's hybrid work landscape. This applies to countless use cases.

Firstly, these canvases are ideal for any team engaging in creative brainstorming, while trying to keep a structured project on track. Teams can outline project milestones, create interactive task boards, and concurrently brainstorm innovative ideas, all within the same platform. In other words, you can leverage your canvas for both planning and execution.

One of the more exciting aspects of these solutions is that the canvas-based workflow creates a more democratized environment for idea generation and project contribution. Team members, regardless of their geographical location or time zone, can actively participate, provide input, and collaborate asynchronously. It encourages a more diverse range of perspectives, fueling innovation and problem-solving.

It’s important to understand that these canvases are not just the virtual “sticky note boards” of the past but support rich media content. So, for industries such as design, marketing, and product development, these canvases can serve as virtual collaboration hubs, including multimedia elements, mock-ups, design drafts, and feedback loops. The accessibility of these materials to everyone on the team through the canvas streamlines the iterative process, enabling real-time modifications and moving the project forward faster.

An obvious use case, and unsurprising early adopter, has been educational institutions and training programs. This market has embraced these canvases as interactive learning environments. Students collaborate on projects, share resources, and engage in collective learning experiences, beyond the confines of the classroom and class time.

Overall, the adaptability and multifunctionality of these canvases make them indispensable tools for modern hybrid workplaces. They enable fluid collaboration, nurture creativity, and empower teams to maximize productivity within our new hybrid workstyles.


Embracing a New Era of Collaboration

So how big of a deal is this? Is this merely another productivity tool in our toolbox, or is a reimagining of how teams collaborate and innovate in the digital age?

It may be too early to tell, but these canvases could be part of a fundamental transformation in our approach to teamwork. By harnessing the power of software to create dynamic and interactive spaces, teams can break free from the limitations imposed by synchronous workflows. Work could truly be about getting the project done, and not just about putting in the hours.


Overcoming Challenges and Future Outlook

While online collaborative canvases appear to be perfectly suited to our new era, and an answer to our prayers in many ways, their widespread acceptance isn’t a given. Just because analysts, experts, and early adopters are excited about a new technology doesn’t mean it will necessarily have legs. It is unclear if this will be a self-adopting technology, or whether it will require a push to get workers initially onboard.

One thing that makes this space particularly exciting is how new it is. Notion has grown from 1 million users to 30 million users in the last 4 years, while Zoom Docs and MS Loop are completely new. When a new product category starts growing this quickly, users often find their own clever and innovative ways to use the technology. So, we can expect the unexpected. The entire way we work is still evolving rapidly and this space will remain interesting for some time to come.