Without a doubt, “You’re on mute” was the most heard phrase during board meetings this past year. I encourage all directors and management people reading today’s blog to stop and take a moment of self-reflection and congratulation for a job well done.
You did this. You managed to get through an entire year of virtual board and committee meetings where few had previously been held. Remember what it was like a year ago? Everyone was learning on the fly. Board meetings were happening more frequently, and using technology that was new to most of us.
IT departments were swamped with requests for remote work arrangements and having to manage all the resulting cyber security risks suddenly foisted upon the organization. Webcams were sold out everywhere, laptops were in short supply, and Amazon was out of stock. And then what happened?
Somehow, we figured it out.
And from what I hear, virtual board and committee meetings are here to stay. Certain aspects of the in-person experience are still missed, but no doubt they will return in some fashion in the months ahead as the vaccine rollout draws closer to completion.
We’ve discovered unintended benefits from this experience. Even the least tech savvy directors among us learned how to get online and participate in virtual meetings.
The demands on our board chairs escalated immediately. Not only did they need to continue their leadership role as the person in charge of the affairs of the board, but they also needed to get comfortable, quickly, with running a board meeting online.
It made perfect sense at the time to have an office person assist with the tech, but now we’re seeing our most veteran board chairs getting comfortable with running the tech themselves.
One positive outcome of the pandemic – the virtual meeting environment ramped up incredibly quickly - by a factor of years, not weeks or months. The immediacy, urgency and reality of the situation pushed us all out of our comfort zones and, collectively, we did quite well in our response.
It’s widely acknowledged that the low hanging fruit include reduced meeting costs and improved attendance. (Where else were people going to go, anyway?)
It does seem that many boards added extra meetings to their calendar, but these were often of shorter duration and greater focus. Management presentations were edited for brevity and prioritized the issues that were most important and urgent.
Strategic plans were revised, and, due to high levels of uncertainty, they often spanned a shorter time period.
Travel costs were pretty much eliminated, as were hospitality expenses. Everyone saved time and money. Meeting accessibility was greatly enhanced, and for many the lower costs meant there was greater and easier access to director education and opportunities to learn from virtual experts.
The Global Network of Director Institutes (GNDI) recently conducted a survey of its 150,000 members across twenty-two countries on the impact of virtual meetings on overall board effectiveness. The survey respondents represent directors from all sectors.
Here are a few highlights from the survey findings which underscore the prevailing view that virtual meetings will continue in some form going forward.
In conducting research for this edition of The Savvy Director, I came across an article published in July 2020 in Harvard Business Review with observations on how boards had adjusted so far, and tips to make the virtual meeting experience even better. Those insights are still valid.
“A number of fast-adapting companies have found that virtual board meetings are better than the real thing. Aside from the obvious benefits of reduced travel and increased attendance, shifting to virtual has allowed boards to improve governance and collaboration through shorter agendas, crisper presentations, more inclusive and bolder conversations, and broader exposure to key executives and outside experts.”
The authors recommend the following eight practices to set your virtual board meeting up for success:
Source: ‘The Upside of Virtual Board Meetings.’ Keith Farrazzi and Sarah Zapp. Harvard Business Review, July 2020
While it can be challenging to cultivate board dynamics in a virtual environment, there are those who believe that virtual meetings offer a better experience than meeting in person, because directors can see everyone on the screen in front of them rather than craning their necks to see or hear someone at the far end of a long board table.
New etiquette guidelines emerged such as having your camera turned on (unless you step away), using the chat function to communicate with other board members instead of texting, and, of course, muting your microphone when you’re not speaking.
Onboarding of new directors is often mentioned as a challenge in the virtual environment. Creative boards and management teams are finding new ways to address this issue with a few well thought out adjustments to the onboarding process, such as intentionally organizing separate meetings for the new director to get to know key members of the senior management team and other directors.
It’s still a bit weird to think we have directors serving on boards who have never met their board colleagues in person. That said, there are many employees in the same situation with their new co-workers. We’ll get there.
We’ve also learned in the virtual meeting space that industry experts and sage gurus are easier to invite and confirm for a segment of the meeting. With no travel costs or time issues (outside of differing time zones), people can attend from wherever in the world they may be located. The availability of these special guests provides a great opportunity for enhanced board development and decision making.
Post-pandemic, there may some confusion as to what a hybrid meeting format is going to mean. The interpretation I hear most often is that there will be some meetings in-person and others online, spread out over the annual board calendar. With that arrangement, boards should be able to retain some of the advantages they’ve discovered, and we’ve discussed above.
Hybrid is not likely to mean that some directors are present in the room while others are online at the same time. The board chairs I’ve spoken to have expressed that they would find that mix quite difficult to manage. There is a burden on the chair to keep all directors engaged and productive at the best of times, but having to lead the meeting in a mixed environment of online and in-person would be even harder. Their clear preference was either in-person or virtual, but not both at the same time.
Yet to be determined is what the ratio of in-person to virtual will be, how it will break down between board and committee meetings, and how it will differ among boards. You can be sure that a national not-for-profit charity will take a very hard look at keeping its travel expenses in check by holding many board and committee meetings online to save on expenses.
That said, most everyone seems to agree on the need to intentionally plan for some in-person meetings when they become possible again. It’s good to know there are fresh options today and that we now have the skills and affordable technology to meet however we choose.
DirectorPrep has produced a ‘Virtual Meeting Guide’ based on the experiences of the past year that are noted in this blog and summarized for your convenience. >>Click here << to download it.
Virtual board and committee meetings will continue post-pandemic with the learnings acquired over the past twelve months. We need to think of the virtual format as an opportunity, not a punishment.
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 is the one thing you would do to improve the virtual board meeting experience?