Boardroom Brief: How to run a great virtual board meeting
JOHANNESBURG - Along with just about everything else in business and society, the Covid-19 emergency is forcing boards to use digital channels to fulfil their fiduciary duties. Here are our top tips for running a successful virtual board meeting.
Now, more than ever, the governance and strategic role of boards is vital ̶ holding board meetings digitally is the obvious solution. But while the aim of the board meeting remains the same, as does the basic format of the meeting, there’s also no doubt that a successful virtual meeting requires careful thought and preparation.
The process of convening a virtual board meeting can be divided into three main phases. Below, we look at each of these phases in some detail.
Preparing for a virtual board meeting
• Choose the right digital platform. Should it be an audio-only meeting, or should video be used? Audio is likely to be more trouble-free from a technology point of view and is less likely to be affected by bandwidth constraints. On the other hand, video allows participants to interact with each other using the clues offered by body language and eye contact.
Once the platform has been chosen, it is essential to check that each board member has the required software and, if necessary, is supplied with extra data. It may be necessary for board members to acquire a second screen so that they can view documents while also seeing other participants on a video call.
• Another key factor is the security of the meeting itself and of any documents posted (the board pack). Close liaison with the IT department is necessary. It is recommended that a technical resource stand by to resolve any technology issues that may crop up during the meeting.
The security of the individual directors’ connections must also be ascertained.
A secure protocol through which board members can exchange documents must also be established. All of these security issues should be incorporated in a policy document.
• Most of the digital platforms enable recording, and this can easily be used. The participants should be informed that recording is taking place, and the copy should be stored safely by the company secretary.
• Establish a contingency plan in case the preferred digital channel experiences problems during the meeting ̶ either a back-up channel or a protocol for reaching key decisions via email.
• Send out the board pack and other material at least a week in advance so board members can prepare for the meeting. This is critical as participants’ focus lasts for a shorter time in virtual meetings compared with face-to-face ones. For this reason, the agenda for a virtual meeting must be carefully structured, and report-backs should be circulated in writing beforehand rather than read out during the meeting. Comfort breaks should be scheduled.
Make sure the links and other information for the virtual meeting are included in the invitation, along with full instructions. It is a good idea to resend this information an hour before the meeting is due to start so board members have it to hand.
• Distribute the ground rules for how the meeting will be conducted. Issues to be resolved will include how group discussions will be managed, and how questions to the chair will be put. Many of the digital platforms have chat functions, which could be used to ask questions. A decision will have to be made on whether to have everybody but the presenter mute their microphones to reduce feedback noise.
• It may be helpful to spell out some of the do’s and don’ts of virtual meetings for board members, such as speaking clearly, reducing body movements, not indulging in side conversations via chat lines, and not interrupting the person already speaking. Interruptions in particular cause long hiatuses to develop, so it is probably best to use the chat capability to indicate a desire to speak so the chair can control the meeting. Presenters should clearly state when they have finished their presentation so hiatuses are minimised.
Running the meeting
• As always, the success of the meeting depends on how well the chair guides the participants. The need for strong meeting leadership is more acute in the virtual world, where much time can be wasted by letting silences develop. The chair needs to keep the momentum of the meeting going by providing clear, verbal instructions ̶ cueing behaviour by body language is not possible even if video is being used. Everything in the meeting must be verbally cued, and chairs should have this requirement very much in the forefront of their minds.
By the same token, the chair must invite comment and ensure a proper exchange of views takes place by asking individual members for their input. The aim should be to promote collaboration and exchange views.
• There is a tendency to multitask during virtual meetings (replying to emails, for example) and chairs should find ways of counteracting this. The ground rules should forbid it, but chairs should also ensure non-participating board members are asked for input regularly.
• Boaard members should be prompted to identify themselves before speaking.
• The chair must allow for the fact that there is a two• or three-second delay as each system registers a communication. While maintaining momentum is important, chairs should allow extra time for a response when a question is posed or feedback sought.
• Chairs should consider spending a short time at the beginning and end of the meeting to encourage informal participation ̶ the kind of conversation that happens in an in-person meeting and plays a role in building trust and liking between board members and may promote freer discussion during the meeting itself.
• The chair should spell out the decision reached in each instance, and a vote should be taken if appropriate.
After the meeting
Like with face-to-face meetings, virtual meetings need to be minuted carefully, so decisions reached are clearly stated, as are follow-up actions. Outstanding issues also need to be clearly signposted.
• Properly managed and conducted, virtual meetings can be a boon, and boards could consider this time as a preparation for using technology more proactively once the current crisis is over.
Parmi Natesan and Dr Prieur du Plessis are respectively chief executive and facilitator of the Institute of Directors (IoDSA); email: [email protected]