How can remote Board meetings be made to feel less remote?

We are all finding our feet, getting used to new ways of working in these unprecedented times. The same is true for Boards. Maybe you’ve tried for years to nudge your Board towards being more tech savvy, and this has now forced the issue (successfully or otherwise). Maybe your Board was already adept at using technology, but nevertheless you are finding virtual meetings a chore. The atmosphere might feel different to those memories of the “before”, when you would first of all catch up with each other around the tea trolley before the meeting kicked off.

Several weeks into lockdown already, your Board will most likely have already met at least once. But perhaps in the rush to decide how to adapt your services and whether to furlough staff, you may not have had the time or space to sit back and reflect on the best way to adapt the way your Board works, now that all contact has become virtual.
We are advising our clients to be on the front foot in planning for the way the Board discusses and takes decisions to be via electronic means for at least the medium term. At the basic level, this means greater use of email, using the likes of Google Drive or Dropbox for sharing documents, and holding meetings via videoconference sites like Zoom or Microsoft Teams.

You are not alone if you find Zoom meetings much more tiring than the old usual face to face meetings. As this article in ‘The Conversation’ explains, there are all sorts of reasons for this, including missing out on all the informal chat that usually bookends a Board meeting. The fraction of a second time delay disrupts the usual rhythm of a conversation. Having to work harder to read all the usual visual cues that you would unconsciously pick up through body language is also mentally and emotionally draining. And speaking of emotions, let’s not forget that we are all of us living through a global pandemic which has changed our way of living overnight, with no clear exit in sight. That alone will be taking an emotional toll on individuals, never mind the emotional stress of worrying about what impact it is having on the people your organisation serves, your staff and volunteers.
There is so much that we can’t control in this situation. But one small thing we do have control over is how to make the best use of online videoconference meetings. Governance United has produced a free, quick virtual meeting policy that you can adapt to suit your own Board [insert link – can we find a home for the document somewhere? Should we have a ‘resources’ tab too?]. There are a plethora of lengthy guides to hosting Zoom meetings, but ours is a short policy designed to set the etiquette of using videoconferencing for Board meetings.

Behind everything in the policy is acknowledging that we are all humans, living and working in unprecedented times. Some will be anxious about having to suddenly get to grips with new technology, others will be stressing about how to keep the kids from running screaming into the background demanding snacks (just me??). As with most governance policies, it is really just there to set: boundaries; expectations; and a level of common understanding.

It is important not to assume that everyone is au fait with how to download the video software, check their audio and video are working, mute and unmute themselves, etc. So those setting up meetings should send out clear instructions well in advance of the meeting, and be on hand to offer to talk less confident users through the process. I know some board members I have worked with in the past would certainly appreciate having their hands (virtually) held, maybe even setting up a test call with them a few days before the meeting as a dry run.

And set expectations for the practicalities of the meeting itself, like asking people to mute their microphone when not talking, to be mindful of what is visible in their background, and asking all to be understanding of children or other unavoidable distractions in the background.

Perhaps most important though is think about how to structure meetings. Allow extra time in your board agendas for informal catching up at the start of the meetings – it might feel forced in a Zoom context, but it’s important to keep that human level of interaction, and asking the question, “how are you” and listening to the answer has never been more important.

Look closely at your agenda and what you can do to keep the length down. How much really needs to be discussed face to face? Are there items that could be circulated by email? Build in hourly breaks. Ideally, a meeting over video conference shouldn’t be more than two hours. If you have more business that needs to be discussed face to face, could you split the business into two agendas on separate days?

We don’t know how long this will last, but the likelihood is that social distancing, to a greater or lesser extent, will be the norm for the foreseeable future. Online board meetings are therefore going to be here to stay. Rather than just putting up with them, take the time to make them work for you and your board. You never know, when life starts to get back to normal, you might find that they are one part of lockdown that you want to carry through into the “after”.



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