Virtual or remote board meetings were originally conceived as a quick way to assemble during times of crisis to communicate and solve problems. Software has greatly facilitated this capability among remote teams, and COVID-19 brought the need for flexibility and online centralization into sharp relief. Shifting to an online meeting format for board, committee and executive meetings – or any other meeting of a sensitive nature – has enabled leaders to continue important conversations while maintaining social distancing protocols. Remote work isn’t new. Research from 2019 shows it was already on the upswing, and the pandemic has heightened awareness of this work model. Even companies like Facebook and Google have extended their work-from-home option through 2021. Others, such as Twitter and Microsoft, are moving to an indefinite work-from-home model.
What Is a Virtual or Remote Board Meeting?Remote board meetings offer a way to convene your board without requiring in-person attendance. These virtual, digital meetings make use of the internet and videoconferencing software to allow real-time discussion and foster a sense of personal face-to-face communication even when your board can’t sit around the same physical table.
Benefits: Why Go Remote?While one of the main reasons for holding remote board meetings is to adapt to the necessity for meeting remotely during times of crisis, going virtual brings other practical and measurable benefits as well.
Reduce ExpensesHosting an in-person meeting requires space, which costs money. By holding remote meetings, you can save money on meeting space, flights and hotel rooms for out-of-town attendees, and any other expenses involved with hosting an in-person meeting. On average, companies report saving $30 billion a day by permitting their employees to work from home due to savings on infrastructure, utilities, and more. Dell saves $12 million a year by letting 25% of employees work from home. These numbers add up because each remote employee saves a company $11,000 per year. As far as meetings go, you can get an estimate by using Harvard’s tool to calculate how much you’ll save by going virtual.
Save TimeYou’ll save more than just money. Board members are likely juggling other responsibilities that prevent them from attending in person as often as they'd like. Virtual board meetings enable easier scheduling because they reduce travel time and overall time commitment of a board meeting. It also resolves the need for syncing up calendars to make sure the space is available. According to Harvard Business Review, videoconferencing can save half the time of in-person, phone, or email meetings and leads to higher levels of collaborations on decisions. A reduction in the time it takes to meet, alongside increased schedule flexibility, will also likely be appealing to those considering joining the board, and your future board recruitment efforts may benefit.
Increase AttendanceEliminating travel and its associated time commitment removes a major barrier to attendance participation. Those who want to attend will have a greater opportunity to do so, which will, in turn, increase turnout. Board members who were missing meetings due to time constraints may be able to attend again.
Improve DiversityDepending on your needs, in-person board meetings may have limited your ability to have full representation on your board. With geographic restrictions lifted, your board members can be based anywhere, even across the globe. You can also better accommodate individuals with hearing difficulty through assistive technology. It also opens up new ways to support people who would otherwise find it difficult to serve due to a disability or illness. Diversity helps encourage various perspectives, strengthening your board.
Enhance GovernanceBoard management software and tools will simplify planning virtual board meetings. You'll have an increased opportunity to focus on important governance issues that often get overlooked. If you use a platform to manage meetings, you'll also benefit from a secure online environment that allows you to both host meetings and communicate in between them, too.
Maintain Social DistancingWhile the above benefits of remote meetings will always be relevant, one of the most significant benefits virtual meetings offer during 2020 and 2021 is the ability to maintain social distancing. With the COVID-19 pandemic still in play, an in-person meeting isn't an option for some people. Being able to meet remotely solves the problem of how you'll continue to meet during a lockdown or any other situation that requires social distancing measures.
Challenges: Things to Watch ForMeetings held remotely face a common set of struggles, such as technical difficulties, trouble engaging participants and a lack of efficiency. Remote meetings can be equally as effective if you know and address the challenges you'll face. These challenges aren’t insignificant. Yet, they are easily overcome with a little effort and should not factor heavily into your decision to take advantage of meeting virtually.
1) LegalityEvery type of business has different protocols, whether those rules are dictated by the jurisdiction of the company or the organization's own bylaws. Some of those regulations require meeting participants to be present in person to vote on issues or to execute other meeting business. Remote meetings can often help facilitate these actions. For instance, when an in-person vote is required, it may be possible to hold the discussion portion of a meeting remotely and hold only the vote in person, in as socially distanced a manner as possible. That way, in-person actions don’t need to be postponed until it’s fully safe to meet in person again. Similarly, many organizations have the ability to amend their own bylaws to allow for voting and other actions via virtual meetings.
2) SecurityYour information needs to be protected, and when using technology, it’s crucial to keep security in mind. Choosing the right platform to hold your board meeting can make a big difference in facing this challenge. Hackers are a concern, especially when using personal WiFi networks. Zoom experienced this firsthand during the rush in membership during the height of the pandemic. Phishing emails are another issue as are malicious attachments. This is part of why you should use a secure teleconferencing platform to send information regarding meetings or any documents related to them. Privacy could also be a limited due to bystanders in a public space or within the home. Another consideration includes thin walls of a hotel room or house, which could result in private information being leaked.
3) EngagementWhen you aren't meeting in person, it can be hard to read body language or detect other nonverbal cues, such as facial expressions. Without the ability to see people or look them in the eye directly, it can be harder to engage participants. Both of these issues can create misunderstandings and will need to be a factor in deciding who and how many will be on camera at a time. Additionally, it can be tempting for participants to do other things while on a remote meeting call, which can cause distractions among participants, further reducing engagement.
4) TechnologyWhile many people understand the nuances of technology these days, not everyone does. Board members who do not feel as comfortable with technology may need a little more support. Also, if someone's internet goes down, they will not be able to attend the meeting, or the meeting will need to be paused.
Tips: How to Run Your Remote MeetingsThere are many things you can do to help your virtual meetings run more smoothly. If you are new to meeting remotely, there are ways to smooth the adjustment period. Experienced or not, the suggestions below may be good to keep in mind.
What to Do Before the MeetingWhen prepping for your meetings, you’ll need to take steps to ensure the meeting will run smoothly. It’s best to prepare in advance by completing the following steps before your meeting begins:
- Choose the right platform
- Test and anticipate
- Have a backup plan
- Choose the best time
- Assign tasks
- Deliver the agenda
- Ensure access and security
Choose the Right PlatformPicking the platform to host your meetings is the first step to ensuring a successful remote board meeting. The best platforms are secure, accessible, easy-to-use and packed with tools to help your business.
Test and AnticipateNothing is worse than hosting a meeting only to have the technology fail. It's important to test your WiFi connection, your video and audio equipment, and your setup before beginning. Encourage all participants to do the same. Also, if you are the host, do a trial run of the software to ensure you are familiar with using it.
Have a Backup PlanIf your technology fails or something comes up, be sure to have a backup plan, and make sure all your board members know what it is. This might include arranging a different time to meet, shortening the meeting and carrying out the rest of it via email, or having someone step in to fill the person's shoes that can't attend.
Choose the Best TimeBe aware of time zones and schedules to ensure the majority of your members can attend. You can also consider breaking up longer meetings into smaller chunks, such as one hour a day for three days. Taking breaks during the meeting can also be helpful.
Assign TasksMeetings go more smoothly when everyone understands the distribution of responsibilities. One way to keep the meeting on track is to assign tasks or roles. Choose a meeting secretary to keep the minutes, or appoint a time tracker to keep the meeting on schedule. Be clear about the task expectations as well, so that everyone knows what their specific job requires of them.
Deliver the AgendaA clear, specific agenda will keep your meeting focused and on topic at all times. Involve board members in the agenda-setting process, asking what topics need to be covered. Then, send copies of the agenda and any relevant documents to attendees as far in advance as possible, so they have time to review information, add any points and prepare for the meeting. This should be done via a secure board portal rather than through emails.
Ensure Access and SecurityBefore the meeting, make sure that each participant has access to whichever platform you are using and that they understand your security expectations. It might help to have a guest login available for last-minute attendees to use, if your platform requires attendees to be members. Along with the agenda, send attendees any files or documents they need to review before the meeting so that everyone is on the same page, but be sure to send it using the secure platform to avoid cybersecurity issues. One way to encourage this is to have your members use hard-to-decipher passwords for their logins, for example, or use a secured WiFi network with a VPN.
What to Do During the MeetingIf you’re the host, you’ll want to make sure the meeting runs successfully. Take these steps at the beginning of the meeting, and revisit them throughout to ensure participants' adherence:
- Get there first
- Introduce everyone
- Review etiquette
- Go over best practices
- Encourage interaction
- Establish next steps
- Ask for feedback
Get There FirstAs the host of the meeting, you'll want to arrive at least five minutes early so you can greet participants as they join. You'll also be able to tackle any last-minute issues that come up before starting.
Introduce EveryoneIn the beginning, it's important to take time to introduce everyone, including yourself. You can make introductions or boost participation by inviting others to speak. If anyone joins late, pause to introduce them, but don't go through the other introductions again, which will extend the meeting unnecessarily.
Review EtiquetteBe sure to remind everyone of meeting etiquette. They should disable computer notifications, pop-ups and sounds so they don't cause an issue. Cell phone ringers should be turned off as well. Remind participants to be aware of their surroundings and where they've chosen to log in from to maintain everyone's privacy.
Go Over Best PracticesTo set the stage for an effective virtual meeting, it helps to take a few minutes at the beginning after introductions to cover best practices. Discuss whether you will mute participants, how they can unmute themselves, what the behavior expectations are for actively participating and avoiding distractions, and how participants should interject comments or raise questions in the conversation.
Encourage InteractionInteraction during a remote meeting can be difficult, so encouraging it among your participants is important. Make sure everyone speaks at the beginning of the meeting, whether to introduce themselves or share an achievement. This is also a great way to take attendance. Continue to encourage interaction throughout the meeting by letting your participants ask questions or make comments. This way, they don't forget anything important or feel left out.
Check In RegularlyBecause some may find it difficult to share their thoughts on a remote call, checking in with attendees after every agenda point can help ensure their voices are heard. Check-ins also allow you to interject if the conversation is getting off track or running over the time allotted.
Establish Next StepsAt the end of the meeting, before you ask for feedback, be sure to cover the next steps you plan to carry out after the meeting so that everyone has shared expectations. At the end of the meeting, everyone should know what they are supposed to do, so assign responsibilities right away. Clearly defined tasks and deadlines are best. If you don’t do this before the end of the call, remember to assign them in a post-meeting follow-up communication.
Ask for FeedbackAt the end of the meeting, ask for feedback. This enhances board engagement and lets people know their opinions hold value. Let them know they don’t have to give all their feedback on the spot because you'll send a follow-up later, but you're open to hearing real-time feedback as well.
What to Do After the MeetingAlthough the meeting is over, your job is not done. Take these steps to make sure your meeting was a success, improve the efficiency of future meetings and increase engagement:
- Send minutes
- Ask for feedback
- Review minutes and feedback and note changes
- Begin the next steps