Have you attended your first virtual board meeting yet? If not, I’m sure there’s one just around the corner.
Organizations big and small have been adopting virtual meetings to enable seamless board governance in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and the consequent social distancing and isolation requirements. Large, geographically dispersed companies may have been using video conferencing for their board meetings for some time already. At the other end of the spectrum are boards of small, local organizations that may not have yet ventured into the online world for their governance needs.
I spoke to a few of my colleagues who have recently chaired or attended their first virtual board meeting. And I canvassed my LinkedIn network for observations about what makes for a successful virtual board meeting. In this blog, I’ll share with you what I learned.
But first, what’s a virtual board meeting? I like BoardSource’s definition: “Virtual meetings are any kind of official board gathering that doesn’t take place in the traditional way – with all board members physically present together.” A meeting might be fully virtual – where everyone is remote – or hybrid – where some are in the boardroom and others are remote.
Virtual board meetings can take place via telephone conference, but video conferencing enables a more engaging experience. Being on screen keeps participants focused and prevents them from trying to multi-task during the board meeting. As one colleague put it,
“I'm getting a lot of positive feedback where each person in the team can see all the other participants, and where what's being seen on the screen is a shared experience. … The magic comes from not just dialing in to a faceless phone call.”
Fortunately, the platforms necessary for successful video conferencing are readily available these days and affordable for almost all. In most cases, the choice of platform is not made by the board but by management and is heavily influenced by the technology they use in operations. Keeping in mind that I’m not a technical expert, here are a few choices that were mentioned to me:
Regardless of the platform, technical glitches are not just possible, but probable, and should be anticipated and planned for. To be honest, the glitches are just as likely to be with the users as with the software or hardware. Let’s face it, some board directors are less “tech savvy” than others. And their home office set up may not be ideal for video conferencing.
Don’t get discouraged by all the things that could go wrong. When first going virtual, the meeting organizer should try to anticipate these things. The best advice I heard was to provide some basic information and try out the technology with each board member ahead of time. The administrator sends out a test meeting invite, the board member clicks the invite to join the meeting, and through this process glitches can be identified and dealt with ahead of time.
This process is especially important for those who are new to the platform. As one colleague pointed out:
“What would have worked better is for someone who knew the platform to reach out to those who hadn't in advance and run through the experience once.”
Another piece of advice: It helps if board members join the meeting early. Otherwise it’s easy to lose the first ten or fifteen minutes trying to sort out technical glitches and access problems.
Chairing a meeting is a bit of a different animal than attending. One of my colleagues shared with me that she felt a little anxious before chairing her first virtual AGM and board meeting. One thing that really helped was doing a walkthrough of the platform functionality ahead of time – just finding out what is feasible, where the buttons are, which settings are optimal, etc. She learned about the chat function during this walkthrough and made use of it during the meetings.
Another colleague is in the process of conducting a trial run:
“The governance committee of a board I chair is doing a trial run using Cisco WebEx this afternoon. We will try to work the kinks out before the actual committee meeting next month.”
Be clear about the meeting’s objectives and design a tight agenda around that. Pare the meeting down to what is essential right now. It’s not the time for “nice-to-know” items. The agenda and supporting material can be distributed as usual, whether that is through a board portal or collaboration platform, via email attachment, or whatever.
Decide ahead of time who will do what. For instance, if documents will be shared on the screen, who will control this function? Hint: it shouldn’t be you.
“I don't suggest letting the Chair do this, they need to stay focused on running the meeting and keeping directors engaged.”
Once everyone has joined the meeting, it’s best to lay out the ground rules and clarify the etiquette for a virtual meeting. One colleague mentioned that, before starting business, she acknowledged that the board was new to virtual meetings and that participants should be tolerant and patient with any technical issues. Here are some of her suggested ground rules:
It’s important to keep all participants engaged, even though this is more difficult to do than in a face-to-face meeting. You want to ensure that everyone has a chance to raise critical questions and engage in the dialogue. As chair, remember to scan the faces on your screen just as you would monitor the expressions and body language of those around a board table. And don’t forget the directors who have phoned in – you will have to check in with them specifically.
One colleague shared his technique:
“I would go around to each person one by one on each item rather than trying to have people jump in. Really worked well. People really talked when they had something important to share or had a really good question. No-one used time that wasn’t necessary.”
When it comes to voting on motions, it’s even more important than usual for the chair to be crisp and clear.
A few final words for those who are participating, not chairing, a virtual board meeting. First, try your best to set aside some uninterrupted time in a quiet place for the meeting. Second, find out about the platform being used and make sure it works for you. Third, during the meeting follow the ground rules and stay focused. Avoid multi-tasking and other distractions. And finally, provide feedback after the meeting. One colleague who had just chaired a virtual meeting was happy to receive a thoughtful email from a board member that simply said, “Nice job today.”
Thank you to everyone who shared their experience with virtual board meetings.
Scott Baldwin is a certified corporate director (ICD.D) and co-founder of DirectorPrep.com – an online hub with hundreds of guideline questions and resources to help prepare for your next board meeting.
Share Your Insight: What advice do you have for successful virtual board meetings?