By Arden Dalik and Aamani Mohamed
COVID-19 has changed a lot of things: supermarket hours, the availability of toilet paper; handshakes are now elbow bumps and hand-washing is accompanied by a catchy chorus. It has also changed things for board members. While many had already started the migration to electronic materials, before the pandemic (remember those days?!), the ‘holdouts’ who still preferred (or were only offered) printed meeting materials suddenly viewed them as potentially viral infested vestiges of a bygone era! And with the influx of new affordable and flexible board technology offerings, the idea of going fully digital has been embraced. At the same time, the original board portals are showing their age with this sudden push into the ‘virtual spotlight’. Their cumbersome and expensive server resident technology is being left behind as boards begin to run board, even annual general meetings, virtually.
Until very recently, virtual board meetings comprised a very small percentage of board meetings. But in 2020, virtual meetings became a necessity overnight. With all that is going on, it can be challenging enough for a Board Chair to maintain in-meeting efficiency, making sure meeting agendas run smoothly, and keeping members engaged. With the immediate switch to virtual meetings, the saying “business as usual” has been replaced by the “next normal”. In order to advance to this new norm, boards need to ensure that they are utilizing the correct tools and good governance processes to optimize productivity, place crucial information at a board’s fingertips, and encourages confidential collaboration and decision making in a rapid, time efficient manner. Board meetings should continue to run as effectively and engaged as possible, despite new virtual and socially distancing formats. As a board member, you can take advantage of these opportunities for cost effective and productive virtual board meetings by using the following tips:
Tip #1: Know and Continue to Embrace Your Business’ Culture
First and foremost, review your board governance terms to ensure that virtual meetings are allowed in your organization. If virtual meetings aren’t mentioned or you are unsure, speak with your board chair or legal counsel to clarify any potential ambiguities and make adjustments, as required.
Once all is good to go, reflect on ways to ensure meetings are conducted so they are still in concordance with company culture and philosophy. It would be a good idea to take some time to review company tenants and values. Respect? Diversity? Experience? Diligence? It is easy to lose sight of the bigger picture and individuality when stakeholder interaction resides on pixels. Be sure to remain steadfast in implementing organizational culture – it will keep members motivated, reassured, and conscientious.
Tip #2: Update and Embrace Board Technology
Now more than ever - invest in the ‘right’ technology. Does your board use board software? Does it facilitate virtual meeting efficiencies and effectiveness? Is it checking all the boxes necessary for a seamless and optimal virtual meeting? Do you have live video conferencing, a secure document repository, proxy surveys, on-line voting and automated minute taking in one centralized, secure location? Are all the services you use cost efficient? If not, you are not taking advantage of what the 2020 marketplace has to offer. Far too many times boards are forced to spread themselves thin with multiple softwares and tabs open – leading to a disorganized and disheveled (likely fed up) board member. This also means a less productive and motivated board member - which defeats the purpose of using board management software as it is expected to assist meeting preparation and facilitation, not hinder it. Your software needs to be a central location for all board tasks, easy to navigate, with internal communication features that keep board members connected!
Furthermore, virtual members must be able to see and hear other members. Yep – this means no muting the audio or turning off the video feature. Using the camera and microphone is not only essential to optimizing the virtual experience and keeping others engaged, it is the best way to communicate. 55% of communication is body language and another 38% is tone of voice. That’s a whopping 88% of communication! We all know communication is key – so be sure to have both efficient video cameras and microphones embedded into your technology.
Tip #3 Know Your Virtual Meeting Etiquette
It is spring 2020 and for those familiar with COVID-19 will likely be familiar with the popularity of trending web-cam mishaps as professionals take to work in pajamas, undergarments, or half asleep, underestimating the cameras range and unaware they are ‘sharing’ the experience via live video conference.
Yes even board members may need to be reminded to approach virtual meetings with the same respect, preparedness and professionalism as you would in-person board meetings. Meeting time is meant for collaboration, productivity, and attentiveness so losing yourself in the abundance of distractions such as emails, web surfing, texting, or afternoon snacks, is not acceptable. It is not only an egregious waste of valuable time; it is also disrespectful to your fellow board members who are actively participating. Join the virtual meeting prepared by reading necessary pre-meeting notes, mute your phone, speak as clearly as possible, keep movements to a minimal, and hold a standard of discipline just as in any other board meeting.
Tip #4: Contribute to making the Meeting Feel Comfortable and ‘Normal’
As with face-to-face meetings, if all members make an effort to stay focused; actively participating, actively listening, and sharing insight during the meeting it will reinforce the feeling that this is a ‘normal’ board meeting. It is of utmost importance that there is a mutual sense of respect and that everyone feels heard even though you’re not in the same physical room. This means don’t shy away from small talk, humor, and ‘virtual’ bonding – embrace it. But exercise this in a way that doesn’t derail the flow and progress of a meeting. And just a reminder (as we are sure the lines get blurred with digitized work environments): we are human, not robots!
The “attendance” sheet should show on the meeting screen so that everyone can see who’s present and accounted for. Ideally, utilize a ‘gallery view’ in your electronic meeting software so that you are able to see body language and ‘make eye contact’ (ish). This will encourage conversation and collaboration and is essential to productivity.
In virtual meetings, it is helpful to try to address fellow board members by name if you are addressing them directly, as they can’t tell necessarily tell who you are speaking to. The Chair has to pay extra attention that quieter individuals are heard and that their ideas don’t fall through the cracks! Even if you’re relatively new to virtual meetings, watch and learn from your colleagues. Give feedback to your Board Chair if you feel that there’s a better way to run some aspect of the meeting. Some board software, for example, offer a ‘hand-raising’ function. If there is too much ‘over-talk’ in your opinion, you could ask the Chair to request that members utilize this function. You are on a board because your insight is valued – find the best way to share it!
Tip 5: Optimize Your Virtual Meeting Efficiency and Effectiveness
Virtual or not, everyone wants to feel like they have contributed to the efficiency and effectiveness of the board meeting. These approaches help to ensure this in a virtual environment:
- Attention spans can be a bit tougher to manage in a virtual meeting. To mitigate this, keep important agenda items at the beginning when members are most attentive. Agenda items are most productive when concise but conversational, focusing on essential points with regular conversation throughout,
- Similarly, the flatter feeling of a virtual meeting may need additional structure or prompts to keep it moving and feeling “alive”. Assign estimated time to the agenda items to communicate the expectation and assist the Chairperson in facilitating the meeting efficiently. Use your board platform tools (if available) to assist with this and provide audible prompts when an item is running over,
- Exploit the advantages of the virtual aspect of the meeting. For example, take advantage of the ability to screen share videos and images that were not necessarily easy to incorporate into face-to-face board meetings. Or have ‘experts’ on stand-by to be ‘Zoomed’ in, as required, without having them sitting in a physical waiting room for long periods of time, etc.,
- Create/suggest some new meeting norms/processes to enhance the virtual experience. For example, you could have a 15 minute ‘arrival’ period in advance of the call to order to allow for the casual and more personal ‘how are you’s’ that are missing from not being in the same room. This personal ‘verbal’ connection is even more important when you are physically distanced from each other, and finally,
- Set up your ‘meeting space’ to maximize your meeting experience and that of your fellow board members. Ensure that you have a good quality microphone and video camera either within or as adjunct to your computer. Test your Wi-Fi and bandwidth ahead of time to ensure that you can stream the meeting without delays or freezing. And make sure that you are in a quiet space so that your peers do not have to listen to distracting sounds from your environment.
Tip 6: Contribute to Enhancing the Virtual Board Meeting Experience
Share feedback with the Chair on the meeting process and outcomes. This should be both informally through post-meeting comments, and formally through additional questions on the annual board assessment. Utilize the tools within the board platform to share ideas, opportunities for improvement to learn and enhance future meetings.
While, like handshakes, many of us look forward to a return to face-to-face board meetings, it’s obvious that the practice of holding at least some ‘virtual meetings’ is here to stay. The foregoing tips should help to make that reality a positive experience for you as we move to our ‘next normal’. To learn more about technologies that can further enhance the remote board member experience with state-of-the art, affordable technology tools, click here to view an overview of GGA’s emPower platform.