mcSquares Whiteboard Tiles.
Image: Patrick Gray

There’s nothing quite like a white board for collaborating with colleagues, or working through complex ideas. While I’ll gladly trade memos for email, or long-hand documents for Microsoft Word, I’ve tried various technology-based replacements for the whiteboard but never found anything that matches the tech-free ease of drawing, considering, furiously erasing (usually with one’s palm), and then refining that comes so naturally on a whiteboard.

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I’m also a huge fan of the whiteboard’s frequent partner in crime, the sticky note. Much of my work involves distilling research and data into broad themes, an activity that was relatively easy when my team was together in a specialized “collaboration space” which was basically a room with floor-to-ceiling whiteboard walls, and stacks of sticky notes and markers. Soon after arriving, my teams will have turned the gleaming white walls into something that looks like it came from a police drama, with walls full of notes with multi-colored circles and arrows connecting them, creating a sense of order for those that created it, and seemingly adding to the chaos to the uninitiated.

As I’ve transitioned to the remote working world, aside from the benefits of physical collaboration, I’ve also missed easy access to whiteboards. I have limited wall space in my home office, and also work in other spaces in my home, making a fixed whiteboard impractical. A quality whiteboard of a reasonable size is also not cheap or easy to transport, so I made do without one.

Taking notes on mcSquares.
Image: mcSquares

Enter the square

I was recently contacted by mcSquares, a company I’d seen on Shark Tank, and remembered from the founder’s “busy” sport coat. The company offered to send me a starter pack of their whiteboard tiles, which are essentially square pieces of whiteboard material that contain magnets and special pads that allow the squares to be attached and removed from non-porous surfaces like glass or a smooth wood desk (although unfortunately they don’t seem to adhere to walls). I received a large square that’s about 11 ¼-inches on each side, and smaller squares that are about 5 ¼-inches on each side, as well as a pack of multicolored bands that loop onto the smaller squares.

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I love new organizational and collaboration tools, so was rather excited when the box arrived. However, with a collection of squares, markers, and a rainbow of colored bands arrayed on my desk I wasn’t quite sure where to start or how to best make use of my new tools.

This was my first challenge with mcSquares. It felt like there was a great deal of thought that went into the product, but very little guidance was provided on how one might use the squares and bands. I visited the mcSquares website and again found little practical guidance on how one might use the squares, even something as basic as what materials the adhesive, which is apparently not an actual adhesive in order to avoid marring any surfaces, would stick to.

The sticky notes option of mcSquares.
Image: mcSquares

Sticky note 2.0

The most obvious use I found for the smaller squares was as a sticky note alternative. Each square has a circular “patch” on the back that serves as a magnet and attachment point. Squares neatly stack due to the magnet, making it easy to grab a tile, and write the random notes that I’d usually scribble on a sticky note that ends up in the trash. Aside from the environmental benefit, the squares are easy to manipulate and slide around on a desk. This is great for storyboarding or sequencing ideas.

The small tiles also magnetically stick to a quadrant of the larger square or a magnetized whiteboard. This was novel and fun for creating the classic 2-by-2 chart, but not as useful as the magnetic feature would be with a large whiteboard. The other challenge I had with the smaller tiles was that the seemed to have some sort of residue or different coating that caused the dry-erase markets to not perform as well as on the larger tiles. A wipe with some household cleaner fixed the problem, but it was an odd difference between the two tile sizes.

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The larger squares worked well for taking notes, or sketching diagrams. When using a bold color, it was also relatively easy to hold up a board for my webcam to share a concept on a video call. The large squares are similarly magnetized, allowing them to stack and stay together like their smaller siblings.

The bands seemed very interesting, and my kids loved them as bracelets or making “rainbows” on the smaller boards, but despite some attempts I didn’t find much use for them. The mcSquares website suggested you could use the bands to link smaller tiles together, categorize squares, or use the markings on the squares to do things like create a weekly schedule. This again seemed like an interesting concept, however without any concrete guidance on how one might effectively use them. I tired using the bands to categorize tiles, but found the exercise to be more trouble than the benefit.

A round version of mcSquares.
Image: mcSquares

Sticking around

The “adhesive” disks on the back of the tiles were interesting in that they apparently use a suction process rather than any actual adhesive. This prevents any residue or marring from occurring. This is an obvious positive, and I did not notice any marks when sticking tiles on glass or furniture, and the disks were way more effective than sticky note “glue.” The main problem with the disks is that they only adhere to smooth surfaces like glass, metal, or polished furniture. This is great for keeping a tile planted to your desk while taking notes, or sticking to the door of a cabinet, but they don’t stick to walls, at least the various walls I tried in my home.

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I was frankly hoping I could stick several tiles to a wall and create a temporary whiteboard of sorts, or simulate the effect of storyboarding or categorizing thoughts while standing. To be fair, sticky notes struggle to stick to walls, but they’ll generally stick and eventually fall versus mcSquares not sticking at all.

Are Squares for me?

After a month of trying to integrate mcSquares into my daily workflow, it seems there are two beneficial use cases for remote workers. The obvious one is a more environmentally friendly alternative to paper and sticky notes, and a lower-cost alternative to a large whiteboard. The second is perhaps more subtle. If you’re trying to develop a complex story, or categorize disparate information, the ability to lay a dozen tiles on the kitchen table and quickly sort and adjust is beneficial. I believe this effect would be even more profound if one was working with a team, a scenario where the bands might play a bigger role. I’d love to have a stack of the mini-tiles in every conference room I encountered for exactly this purpose.

Various starter kits are available from the company, and a variety of additional shapes are available, allowing users to create customized categories, Kanban-style boards, or whatever their imagination can conjure. For the remote worker, a stack of small and larger tiles are a worthy addition to one’s desk.