Making remote board meetings work
Ceri Victory-Rowe and Sarah Loader Governance consultants, Campbell Tickell
These are unprecedented times and they require us to make huge and fast adjustments – not least to new ways of working. As many organisations adjust to doing business virtually, we have given some thought to how boards can best navigate some of the challenges.
In the current climate, 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). If your rules don’t make provision for this, it may be time to consider an update, although it seems unlikely anyone is going to challenge a pragmatic decision to meet virtually in the current circumstances.
Fortunately, we live in a world where there are a whole range of tools available to us to help us do business virtually. Although governing 'remotely' 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 board meetings effective?
Our top tips are:
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.
2. Pay attention to set-up. Research and choose your system carefully (e.g. Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Skype, etc) – each has different pros and cons. Make sure everyone has access to the hardware and software required, and that they know how to use it. Test in advance.
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 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.
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). Move to the alternative 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 for everyone involved.
“Remember that the usual rules apply. You still need to ensure that you are holding a valid and properly administered meeting”
5. Maximise comfort. Allow five minutes at the start of the meeting to make sure everyone is comfortable with the technology – and to say 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. On the other hand, if you are 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 (see point three) 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 how the chair will manage 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. This can be done by:
- understanding the needs and communication preferences of board members;
- drawing them into the conversation ;
- encouraging positive feedback ;
- 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.