Secrets of Successful Virtual Board Meetings

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.

 

Technical Stuff

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: 

  • Microsoft Teams is a powerful collaboration platform for business, including video conferencing. Check out The Savvy Director™ blog post from two weeks ago, Business Continuity for the Board, for inside information about using MS Teams for board meetings. (Full disclosure: DirectorPrep uses MS Teams.)
  • Zoom has been used by several of my colleagues and was found to be easy and functional for a board meeting.
  • Webex is another well-known product that offers high quality video conferencing.

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.

  • Maybe their computer doesn’t have an integrated camera and they don’t have a webcam. In that case they could see other participants on their screen, but they would not be visible.
  • Maybe they don’t have earbuds or headphones, which could mean they are distracted by noises around them.
  • They could have difficulty accessing the meeting. Or their internet could go down in the middle of the meeting. Or the signal could be degraded because of insufficient broadband width at their end. In these cases, they might have to participate by phone, foregoing all the advantages of the visual experience.

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 Virtual Meeting

Becoming familiar with the platform

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.”

Preparing for the Meeting

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.”

Kicking Off the Meeting

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:

  • Ask everyone to mute their microphones when they are not speaking to cut down on background noise.
  • Suggest people use headphone or earbuds to improve their meeting experience and make it easier for them to focus on the meeting.
  • Ask people to raise their hands when they want to speak. For those who are phoning in, ask them to identify themselves before they speak.
  • Reiterate the normal rule about one person speaking at a time. This is even more important than in a face-to-face meeting.
  • Most platforms have a recording function. Make sure that participants know whether or not the meeting will be recorded.
  • If functions such as chat or polling will be used, let people know.
Keeping People Engaged

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.”

Voting

When it comes to voting on motions, it’s even more important than usual for the chair to be crisp and clear.

  • Call for a mover and a seconder and, even if they have identified themselves, repeat their names for the record.
  • Before the vote, for routine business it might be okay to simply ask if there is any discussion. But for meatier items, canvass the group and make sure to remember those who are on the phone.
  • For the vote, ask not only for those in favour, but also whether there are any votes against or abstentions. That’s because it’s harder to notice any unraised hands than it is in the boardroom.

 

What if I’m Not the Chair?

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.”

 

Your takeaways:

  • If at all possible, opt for video conferencing over teleconferencing.
  • Start simple. Don’t try to use every advanced function first time out.
  • Test ahead of time to identify technical glitches.
  • Pay attention to the rules of engagement.

 

Some Valuable Links:

 

Thank you to everyone who shared their experience with virtual board meetings.

Scott

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?

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