Board members and chairs have generally been impressed with the commitment of Board members to adapt to the constraints and realities of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, they report that in a virtual environment, Board meetings take more active management and more extensive preparation. Experience suggests that short meetings with frequent breaks work best. The meeting process can be helped by using ‘Raise Hands’, voting buttons and the online breakout facilities. The chair has to pay even more attention than normal to ensure that no one is left out of discussions.
However, the challenges of working in an environment where informal communication is complex or controversial agenda items. Chairs can no longer just catch Board members over a coffee before a meeting, so one-to-one calls are more important to prepare everyone for the Board discussions. And Board members need to be more individually prepared to make their more focused contribution in a less discursive Board meeting.
Managing Board discussions requires more attention to the ‘etiquette’ of Board member interactions, for example, some Boards require all Board members to keep their video on throughout the meeting, and some Boards have agreed and documented this etiquette. Experience has shown that managing the chat function on virtual discussions can require careful handling. Some Boards have noticed that over use of chat can end in more flippant comments and other Boards have discussed whether chat comments should be included as part of the minutes of the meeting. Board members report that sharing screens should be kept to a minimum as it severely disrupts that flow of discussion.
And what about the tech that Boards now depend on?
The Cosec has a role to ensure that the tech is available to all Board members and, in particular, to any guests invited to the meeting. But generally, the unpredictability of the performance of the technology is a major concern. Board members are clear that one person’s poor bandwidth has an impact on all. So, ensuring that all Board members have reliable and robust technology is a good investment. NEDs do need some level of technical support to ensure that they can concentrate on the substance of the meeting without becoming stressed by the performance of their tech.
Choosing the right tech is also important. Microsoft Teams is not popular, as it is judged to be complex and somewhat restrictive. Choosing the most appropriate technology to suit the business and the type of Board meeting matters. Zoom is judged to be much easier to use and has better breakout facilities, but this choice may not be attractive for organisations with a higher security demand. Board members highlighted the value of a two-screen set up with papers on one screen and participants on the other. But this arrangement like all aspects of making the technology work effectively takes investment.
And if these virtual meetings continue in the longer term?
Although Board members were clear that their Boards have adapted and performed well in these new circumstances, there was more concern about the impact of this new way of working on Board performance in the longer term. Some forms of scrutiny are judged to be significantly harder when Board member have to be socially distanced. At a practical level, there is a recognition that the broad discussions at Board strategy days are much harder to deliver on-line. In addition, the deep dive discussions into Board-level principal risks will require particular preparation, especially when reviewing the changes to the risks that face the Board’s business.
But Board members were particularly concerned about the longer-term impact of the loss of informal conversations. For example, managing how individual Board members might be feeling after a particularly tough Board meeting. Everyone missed the pre and post meeting chats and were keen to find ways to allow this communication. Some Boards are scheduling the start of the on-line meeting 30 minutes before the formal meeting to allow for free-flowing conversation.
Established Boards with trusting relationships were judged to have fared better, but over time new Board members will be required to join most Boards. Will this lead to a less cohesive Board over time? It may be more difficult for new Board members to get the full induction into the business and the Board that has been available to others in the past. The physical experience of being in the organisation’s office environment is judged to be informative and valuable to understand the culture of the business.
Further changes ahead
Board members were clear that they are going to have to prepare for the long term, possibly 12 months or more of remote, physically distanced working. And many expect that they will experience ‘hybrid’ Board meetings with some Board members in the office and others still working from home. Board members recognize that they can’t mandate physical attendance if people are self-isolating or shielding vulnerable family members. Boards will need to continue to offer an on-line seat at the table.
These blended Board meetings will require considerable adaptation of Board rooms, with bigger screens and better sound systems. Board members are aware of the risk of operating as a two-tier board in these ‘hybrid’ meetings.
But overall, Board members were clear that successful Boards are those that continually take an inventive approach. New ways to informally communicate will be found as long as the chair and established Board members continue to respond to the limitations and challenges of the current situation.