Careers

12 elements of great virtual board meetings

Jun 02, 2020
Richard Sheath and Susan Stenson share 12 practical tips to help your virtual board meetings operate smoothly in times of crisis.

December seems a long time ago.  Back then, as a team of board evaluators,  we set out to imagine how boards would work by 2030. Suddenly the virtual board meetings we perceived as futuristic have arrived, forced on us all by the global COVID-19 pandemic. As boards strive to respond to the many new challenges, board and committee meetings must now work better than ever. And given the unprecedented breadth and difficulty of the issues presented, excellent communication, constructive discussion, and clear-cut decisions are vital.

Postponing decisions is not an option, and confusing outcomes will undoubtedly be unhelpful – potentially destructive. Yet these better-than-ever meetings have to be conducted remotely, working with a management team that is likely similarly dispersed. Because we are in contact with many boards that are now meeting virtually, we see what works well and where things go wrong. Based on what we have learnt, here are some practical tips to help your virtual board meetings work well.

1. Get to the point

Work even harder with the executive team to ensure that all briefings and presentations are to the point – the point being what the board needs to hear about, now. That means the board and committee chairs going through the possible meeting business and cutting it back to what is essential – whether it is crisis-related or business as usual matters that cannot be postponed. Then, help managers understand that a virtual meeting requires precise points communicated clearly in literally just a few minutes.

2. Set the scene succinctly

Ensure that the pre-read papers are clear in terms of what is being asked of the board and that the “overview” page works in the way it should. This overview should include critical background information; a quick reminder of the story so far; the risks; what the board needs to discuss; what is proposed – and all on a couple of pages at most with effective signposting to any essential detail.

3. Draft your agenda from scratch

Be extra vigilant in preparing the agenda. Stick to the essential discussion points and ask yourself: can some items be decided by written resolution instead, put in a ‘consent agenda’, or postponed? Start with a clean sheet; do not merely roll-over the usual agenda with some tweaks because that is unlikely to be enough to break the mould. Be clear about the outcomes you need to achieve, and how best to meet them.

4. Prioritise and pace

Keep the meeting focused and put what really matters at the top of the agenda. Maintaining concentration for more than a couple of hours is going to be even more difficult than usual, so the essential items need to be addressed first. If there is not enough time, split the meeting into two or three blocks with long-ish breaks in between – long enough to stretch your legs, get some air, and return refreshed.

5. Choose video over audio 

Insist on video participation to the greatest extent possible, as it makes a big difference – especially as those on audio-only are often forgotten. That means testing beforehand with each participant, with a co-ordinator (probably from the company secretariat) becoming the expert in how to make your chosen system work. Ask everybody to join a bit early so false starts and broken connections do not sap time and patience once the meeting has officially started.

6. Manage the transitions

Sharing documents on-screen can work well on a video call, but the operator needs to know how to do it – and have rehearsed, if possible, knowing what to highlight and where to go. Practise switching between people and a document and back again before the meeting. Switching back is essential – you must get talking heads back on the screen if you want the discussion to flow.

7. Explain the meeting etiquette

Establish and communicate the meeting etiquette. That might include the following: mute when not speaking; turn off your video if you need to be interrupted; how to intervene, and the hand signals to do so; how to vote where voting will be required. A chair who typically takes a quick look around the table to assess consensus may need to make this more explicit (for instance, asking everyone to give a thumbs-up).

8. Facilitate input

The chair must call on individual directors for their input, rather than leaving them to find their own opportunities to contribute. More frequent stops to take the temperature of the meeting are also needed.

9. Encourage down-time

Have comfort breaks at least as often as you would during an in-person meeting. Allow some time during the breaks for chit-chat; social engagement is more important than ever.

10. Stay security conscious

Keep an eye on meeting your organisation’s security requirements. Ensure that the Company Secretary monitors who is on the line and remind participants who are not alone in their home offices that they need to use headphones and speak no louder than necessary. In any shared facility, there is a risk that someone may overhear – even through a wall. Screens must be shielded too. This may seem obvious, but we do see and hear things going wrong, resulting in embarrassment at best or a severe breach at worst.

11. Meet your legal obligations

Check the legal formalities for your meeting (quorum and location requirements, for example). Take a roll-call at the beginning and if you are tight on numbers, keep an eagle eye on the quorum in case somebody falls off the call.

12. Gather feedback

Set aside five to ten minutes at the end of the meeting to ask people how the meeting went and to gather ideas for future virtual board meetings. Alternatively, you can use a short questionnaire if time is short.

A checklist for virtual board meetings

Here is a list to help you consider the elements of a productive virtual meeting.

Be extra vigilant when preparing the agenda and pre-read material

  • Stick to the essential discussions and focus the agenda.
  • Eliminate long verbal presentations.
  • Make sure the pre-read papers are clear on what is being asked of the board.
  • Check the legal formalities for your meeting (quorum requirements, location, etc.)

 

Check the technical logistics

  • Include a video link and encourage all participants to be in ‘video on’ mode.
  • Ask all participants to join five to ten minutes before the start of the meeting.
  • Test the document sharing facility, if needed.

 

Set the ground rules

  • Instruct participants to wear headphones and prepare their meeting environment (lighting, camera angle, wi-fi connection, security/confidentiality, etc.)
  • Instruct participants to use mute, turn off video if leaving the room, and take calls elsewhere.
  • Take a roll-call and ensure that everyone knows who is present and who has joined.
  • Secure the meeting – check all joiners and flag confidentiality continually.
  • Set out the rules on how to intervene.
  • Define the use of the chat function or oral questions to facilitate questioning.
  • Work out a mechanism for voting and indicating agreement or dissent.

 

For the chair

  • Call on individual directors more for their inputs.
  • Stop periodically to take the temperature of the meeting.
  • Include comfort breaks and encourage participants to interact socially during this time.
  • Encourage participants to be respectful, present, and engaged if bad behaviour becomes apparent.
  • Check with participants after the meeting to gauge their experience.
Richard Sheath is a Director at Independent Audit Limited, the board evaluators.

Susan Stenson is a Director at Independent Audit Limited, the board evaluators.