Making remote board meetings work

Ceri Victory-Rowe and Sarah Loader, consultants in Campbell Tickell’s governance team, discuss how boards can overcome some of the challenges posed by COVID-19.

These are unprecedented times, and they require us to make huge and fast adjustments – not least to new ways of working.

As organisations of all shapes and sizes across the UK (and beyond) adjust to doing business virtually, we’ve given some thought to how Boards can best navigate some of the challenges.

Suddenly, Boards and senior management teams cannot meet in person without putting themselves and others at very real risk – something none of us could reasonably have foreseen or prepared for.

Organisations still need to be governed, but we are being required to harness all our ingenuity and flexibility to work out how, when we very abruptly find ourselves unable to govern in the way it has been done for centuries.

Of course, some will already have practised meeting virtually (using video or conference call facilities) and will have made provision for this in their rules (articles or governing document). As an aside, if your rules don’t make provision for this, it may be time to consider an update. It seems unlikely anyone is going to challenge a pragmatic decision to meet virtually in the current circumstances, whatever your rules say, but nonetheless this current crisis serves as a reminder that building sufficient flexibility into your rules to cover most eventualities is generally a good thing.

Fortunately, we live in a world where there are a whole range of tools available to us to help us do business remotely. Much attention in public discourse has been focused on how these can facilitate home working, but they are potentially just as useful to those of us needing to govern remotely.

Although this can feel daunting, especially if you haven’t done it before, it presents some genuine opportunities:

  • It encourages all participants to help make meetings more focused and valuable (because our built-in tolerance and concentration span for video and phone meetings is generally shorter than it is for face-to-face meetings);
  • It demands less time and effort from participants (who avoid travel time, for example) – and may correspondingly reduce costs (e.g. travel expenses);
  • Over time, it enables participation from people who are more geographically distant but may bring valuable skills or experience to a Board – and may also benefit those who experience physical barriers to attending meetings.

The sticking point is often, of course, making meetings work in practice. So what makes virtual meetings effective?

Our top tips

  1. Remember that the usual rules apply.
    • You still need to ensure that you are holding a valid and properly administered meeting (quorate, minutes taken, etc.). And the normal rules of meeting etiquette still matter (e.g. not being distracted by emails, taking calls or arriving late; being courteous and professional).
  2. Pay attention to set up.
    • Research and choose carefully the system (e.g. Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Skype) you decide to use: each has different pros and cons.
    • Use video conferencing if you can: it helps to overcome some of the challenges of not being in the same room, but may be scuppered if participants have poor broadband connections.
    • Make sure that everyone has access to the hardware and software required, and that they know how to use it – a series of individual tests (e.g. to make sure cameras and microphones are working) can be helpful before you first meet virtually.
  3. Be prepared.
    • Circulate a clear agenda and papers well in advance of the meeting, just as you would normally do.
    • Keep the agenda short and focus on key priorities: online meetings of more than an hour and a half can be testing.
    • Help the Chair to set some ground rules in advance, such as:
      • How to ensure you know who is speaking if someone is dialling in;
      • Making sure that people know how to get your attention if they want to speak (pre-agreed hand signals or use of a live ‘chat’ function can be useful for video conferencing); and
      • Checking in regularly with everyone to make sure they have an opportunity to make their points (and to try to spot whether anyone has ‘dropped off’ the call or video conference).
  4. Make contingency plans.
    • Prepare a list of mobile phone numbers for all participants, and make sure that there is a clear alternative plan in case of failure (e.g. convert to conference call if video conferencing does not work).
    • Be prepared to move to the alternative reasonably quickly if there are problems: too much time spent attempting technical fixes – or trying to continue with a meeting when some or all participants are struggling to engage – can be frustrating and dispiriting for everyone involved.
  5. Maximise comfort.
    • Allow 5 minutes at the start of the meeting which is dedicated to making sure everyone is comfortable with the technology – and to saying hello (much as happens immediately before a face-to-face meeting).
    • During the meeting, make sure the Chair is vigilant. Some people will be less comfortable with screen- or phone-based interaction than others and this can result in some retreating into silence. There is a risk that they are then forgotten, having sometimes become literally invisible in the discussion, so it is essential that the Chair notices when someone is not participating and finds ways to draw them in. On the other hand, if you’re using video conferencing, regularly remind people that others can see them – it is amazing how often people forget they have an audience!
    • Build in short breaks for comfort and to help people to maintain concentration.
  6. Set expectations.
    • Make it clear that the meeting will still be minuted, and how it will be chaired.
    • Let participants know what the ground rules are – e.g. people should:
      • Mute their microphones unless speaking;
      • Say their name when making a point during a telephone conference;
      • Use the chat function or wave their hand if they want to speak – and if necessary, remind people about these rules at intervals during the meeting. It will be important to work hard to avoid people interrupting and talking over each other, so it is helpful if everyone understands in advance that the Chair will need to be more directive than usual in asking for and managing contributions.
      • If the meeting is going to be recorded (which can be useful both for those unable to attend and for the minute-taker), make sure everyone knows this too (including anyone who joins the meeting late).
  7.  Keep connected.
    • Virtual meetings can feel more transactional than face-to-face meetings, with less  scope for informal interaction and, potentially, for rich discussion.
    • The Chair has a key role to play in helping those around the virtual table feel connected: by understanding the needs and communication preferences of Board members; by drawing them into the conversation; by encouraging positive feedback; and by taking care to orchestrate discussion and debate where it is needed and keeping things short and simple where it is not.
  8. Reflect and learn.
    • Doing business remotely to this extent is new to most businesses around the world. It will be critical to take time to reflect together – perhaps at the end of each meeting – on how well new arrangements are working and what could be improved.

To discuss, contact Ceri Victory-Rowe on: ceri.victory@campbelltickell.com or Sarah Loader on sarah.loader@campbelltickell.com

You may also be interested in reading James Tickell’s blog on: How to work remotely

This article also appears in CT Brief – 48: Customer edition

Campbell Tickell is an established multi-disciplinary management and recruitment consultancy, operating across the UK and Ireland, focusing on the housing, social care, local government, sport, leisure, charity and voluntary sectors.

We are a values-based business and firmly place the positioning of our support and challenge on helping organisations to attain change that is well thought through, planned and sustainable. At CT, we want to help organisations create the landscape within which we ourselves would like to exist: fair, inclusive, diverse, engaged and transparent. We build from our values in how we approach all our work as a practice.

Find out more about CT’s governance services.