Best Practices For Virtual Boards

With remote meeting now the norm, it’s time to get serious about getting them right.

Like every other facet of business, board practices have been impacted by the ongoing global health crisis. Meetings traditionally held in person are now occurring through virtual mediums, whether it be Zoom, Microsoft Teams or BlueJeans. Many of us are coming to a realization: that attending meetings remotely actually requires more energy and effort than participating in an in-person meeting.

Early on, there was the sense that a virtual meeting would be easier or require less effort than meeting face to face. However, now that we’ve all become Zoom experts, we see that does not hold true. Meeting over video should be recognized as more of a performance medium that requires more energy and effort on everyone’s part to convey the right message and tone.

In my personal experience, the biggest frustration has been difficulty knowing when it is appropriate to speak and how to avoid inadvertently speaking over or at the same time as someone else. We also lose some of the nuances and subtle messages that come through during an in-person interaction.

It can be easy to fall into “death by PowerPoint” mode when conducting a meeting virtually instead of engaging in meaningful dialogue. Ensuring robust discussions and full participation in the meeting dialogue requires focused effort.

Over time, some best practices for productive meetings have emerged. For example, I recommend that board/committee chairs take the time to step back, think about the rules of engagement and perhaps even craft a concise document on how to have a positive discussion that lays out expectations of members.

Be Screen Savvy

Board members should be aware of the added pressure conversations conducted through screens bring to the table. It is more visible over video if you haven’t taken the time to read all the board materials. With the camera on you at all times, you’ll also have fewer opportunities to page through materials to refresh your memory.

You must overcompensate by being more prepared than ever. Be sure to adjust your schedule to reflect the fact that you are no longer traveling to meetings and won’t have time in a plane, train or car to review materials and do the pre-read. Schedule changes can also make it more difficult to carve out time for meaningful prep and review. Now that so many of us are working from home, back-to-back phone calls and video calls have become the norm.

During meetings, it’s important to insulate yourself from distractions. If your attention wavers, it will be readily apparent when your eyes wander away from the camera. It will become obvious to your colleagues that you have tuned out.

One practice I’ve adopted is creating an outline before each board meeting. List the two or three things you want to learn or get more information on and the two or three areas that you would like to comment on. Doing this pre-work will help you be more disciplined about preparation and be able to make the meeting a more meaningful experience for yourself and your fellow board colleagues. Over time, you will raise the bar for everyone in the boardroom.

Make Them Meaningful

Many of us are experiencing a higher number of meetings but less meaningful discussions because people are not allowing themselves the time to pause, process, reflect and have meaningful feedback.

When creating your schedule, it helps to leave a solid half hour between each meeting to reflect, take notes, write a follow up email and/or create a task list for yourself coming out of that meeting. Developing this habit will ensure that you maximize the value of each meeting.

If you’re a chair scheduling board and committee meetings, consider arranging more frequent but shorter virtual gatherings or the occasional conference call. The intensity of video meetings can be fatiguing, and members may appreciate a conventional phone call.

In my own experience, and from what I have heard anecdotally from colleagues, directors have been called on to put in significantly more time required by companies operating in “crisis mode.” The natural result of increased meetings is a deepened set of relationships and a much deeper knowledge of the company’s operations and strategies. However, as things normalize, it may be prudent for boards to think about resetting the line a bit.

In this more virtual world, we have all had to overcome the challenges that come from working at home, such as distractions from pets, spouses and children. But by acknowledging these potential impediments and working to overcome them with more disciplined preparation and follow-up calls, it’s possible to be just as productive—or even more so.

It’s time to develop new patterns and new habits, given that remote work has truly become the new normal and there are no signs of returning back to a traditional office routine anytime soon.