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Virtual board meetings during Covid-19 - and beyond

By Institute of Directors
8 Apr 2020
read time
3 min to read
Empty chairs at a table

With the country in lockdown and organisations operating in extraordinary times, boards are rapidly adapting their practices to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. This may include meeting more frequently and increased reporting from management. While physical distancing restrictions remain in place, virtual board meetings are on the rise. Some boards will already be practiced in holding board or committee meetings online. For others this will be a new experience.

Exactly how a board meets during lockdown will differ depending on the board’s particular requirements and what works best for them. We discuss four key areas below to help boards conduct effective online meetings.

1. Get the technology right

Boards can conduct meetings by audio or video conferencing technology. Each has their advantages and disadvantages. A video conference, for example, allows a more natural conversation and can be more engaging.  Practical considerations may be an overriding factor in some cases. Internet speeds, for instance, differ around the country and boards may find some participants have to phone into the meeting to ensure a more reliable connection.

There are a number of virtual meeting service providers that can be used such as Zoom, GoToMeeting, Skype and Microsoft Teams. Irrespective of medium or platform, security is critical. It is important that there are appropriate policies and procedures in place to ensure the online platform, data and equipment (such as laptops and tablets) are protected and secure. Other points to consider include:

  • Do a short “test run” before the first meeting to ensure each participant is familiar and comfortable using the technology and has the appropriate equipment.
  • Agree meeting etiquette with participants before the meeting (for example, ensuring people do not talk over each other; agreeing processes for participants who want to speak, and ensuring anyone not speaking is on mute).
  • Provide clear instructions on how to access the meeting and enable people to log on early to ensure there are no technological issues and the meeting can start on time. (Don’t forget to take into account different time zones.)

2. Prepare well

Directors are expected to be well prepared for board meetings and virtual meetings are no different. As with usual practice ensure board papers are well-written, concise and distributed well in advance. This will help enable the board to move quickly and focus time on the issues that require discussion. Other points to consider include:

  • Have a set agenda with the timing clearly set out. If possible plan the agenda so the most important matters are dealt with first and the meeting does not go too long. It is easier for participants to lose focus or get distracted when in a virtual meeting so shorter meetings are often preferred. Schedule short breaks.
  • If presenters are joining the meeting at certain times, give them an approximate time and then text or call them when you are wanting them to join. Also ensure that they have left the meeting once their presentation is complete to help ensure confidentiality.

3. The role of the chair is vital

The chair is always critical in ensuring a meeting is effective and efficient, and this is even more important in virtual meetings where there are additional challenges. Some particular matters that the chair can influence include:

  • being familiar with the meeting technology and the various tools and functions available to help them run the meeting.
  • ensuring every participant has an opportunity to be heard. It may be that the chair needs to specifically call on certain people by name to ensure they have the chance to express their opinion. This is especially important when significant matters are being discussed or an important decision is being made
  • supporting minute-takers to ensure the meeting is accurately documented (eg before moving on to a new matter it may be useful for the chair to summarise or clarify certain points or matters).

4. Innovate

Many boards are already meeting and operating differently in response to COVID-19. This includes holding more frequent, often shorter, meetings to deal with urgent matters, alongside the regular monthly or bi-monthly meetings. Others are considering alternative ways to hold their regular monthly meetings such as splitting the meeting into two shorter time periods.

Ways in which boards can meet differently were raised in our discussion paper, Always on duty: the future board. What matters is what works best for each individual board at this time in carrying out its roles and responsibilities including supporting management. Every board is different but operating in a crisis and during extraordinary times, will drive boards to use technology and try innovative practices. This can lead to improved ways of operating and it is likely some boards will continue these practices into the future.

Further reading

See virtual boardroom meetings article  from experienced director Rick Christie CFinstD on what has worked well in his  experience with virtual board meetings.

Also see Diligent’s virtual meeting toolkit (sign up required).

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