Are Virtual Board Meetings Better?

Mary Fetherolf
Despite the hardships resulting from COVID-19, businesses are discovering new ways of working. Many, if not most, boards have transitioned to virtual meetings. Many of these firms are contemplating a post-COVID world where virtual meetings are the norm, or a hybrid model that complements routine virtual board meetings with a select few face-to-face ones. All of which raises the question: Are virtual board meetings better?

The Benefits of Virtual Board Meetings

Virtual meetings offer immediate benefits like improved attendance and less need for travel. Many boards have taken advantage of simplified logistics to bring conversations with key executives and international experts into their meetings.

Participants find some of the limitations of sharing a table are eliminated with virtual board meetings. On a video conference, everyone is presented as equal; the disadvantage of having the worst seat in the room is eradicated.

Boards that once had multiday sessions now hold briefer weekly sessions spread over time to achieve enhanced participant engagement and productivity. Directors might pose questions one week, then research and reflect before completing the discussion the following week, resulting in deeper conversation.

New Methods Also Bring New Challenges

Such benefits are offset by new burdens on directors, who are attending more meetings overall. Governance professionals struggle with tighter meeting preparation timelines. Nothing replaces face-to-face conversation. Historically, networking before and after meetings is how directors forged strong social bonds. Virtual meetings don't feature opportunities like these, unless someone carefully plans them into the agenda. Even then, they rarely recreate the camaraderie that in-person events do.

The Right Technology Can Help

Virtual board meetings are only as good as the technology used to plan and run them. Rightfully, security and ease of collaboration are two of the main concerns directors have. Ultimately, the technology used to plan, prepare, run and act on findings from virtual board meetings needs to protect board materials and communications. The best tools are integrated to enable seamless and secure collaboration before, during, and after meetings. Thus, modern governance software has become an important asset in the shift to virtual board meetings.
“The board is a group of well-meaning adults – all of whom want to do their very best for your organization in a time of crisis. Having 100% virtual board meetings is new for practically everyone, and so to expect that everyone will have the same ideas about what is appropriate (and what is not) is not very logical.”

– Dottie Schindlinger, Executive Director, Diligent Institute

New Skills, New Behaviors and Finding the Right Support

So, are virtual board meetings better? Board members are human beings, now asked to be on camera for an hour or longer, remaining focused and engaged the whole time. By implementing new norms and acquiring the right support, organizations can establish practices to unlock virtual board meetings' potential value, while mitigating their shortcomings.

Videoconferencing hazards include lack of engagement, insufficient security and weakened camaraderie. Making the most of virtual board meetings involves mastering these new skills:
  • Keep board materials out of email. Instead, find board meeting technology that's optimized for secure collaboration across email, messaging, and file sharing. Look for an integrated platform that provides encryption and user permission management.
  • Share videoconference links within board meeting technology ' not email ' to ensure only the intended recipients can join.
  • Consider participants' time zones and choose meeting times that are reasonable for everyone.
  • Provide a timed agenda.
  • Distribute meeting materials in advance, and encourage participants to review and share feedback before the meeting. Secure file sharing services and secure chat platforms are best for this.
  • Support the informal relationship-building that won't be happening over coffee or dinner for now. Use icebreakers to kick off meetings as a way to promote interpersonal connection.
  • Bring in executives or international experts to present. These guests will be easier to schedule now that travel is eliminated.
  • Encourage offline conversations for off-topic discussions.
  • Gather input about how participants are experiencing virtual board meetings. Respond to feedback.
  • Make sure participants are equipped for virtual board meeting success. Consider their broadband, hardware, camera, headset, browser, and videoconferencing software, as well as board meeting technology. Ask first-timers to log in early to make sure all components are functioning properly. Consider a dedicated trouble-shooter who can resolve issues in real time.
  • Encourage and support directors to use multiple screens. 'I found that it made my life so much easier to iPad with all of my annotations and notes in preparation for the meeting, and dial into the videoconference from a laptop or phone,' said Schindlinger. 'My laptop is connected to a second monitor, so I can see more of the directors all at one time using the 'tile' view in the web conference software and see the presentation that the chair is showing during the meeting on two different screens...I can swipe to the right page [on my iPad], see my own notes, and follow along with the slides being broadcast on the web conference. Having all three screens active...allows me to have access to everything I need during the meeting and fully participate.'
The chair – or appointed facilitator – plays a crucial role in virtual board meeting success. Facilitators can make the transition to virtual board meetings easier by encouraging new behaviors:
  • Make sure only one participant speaks at a time.
  • Use secure messaging tools for questions; don't default to the videoconferencing software's chat feature. While convenient, videoconferencing chats are impermanent and unsecure.
  • Consult with general counsel before recording virtual board meetings.
  • Keep lengthy verbal reports to a minimum. Set the expectation for brevity by prompting for input with, “In one or two sentences…” or “Give us your top three…”
  • Make sure quieter participants contribute.
  • Allow for short breaks and time between meetings. Consider meeting for 50 minutes, then breaking for 10.
  • Establish norms to keep videoconferencing from distracting participants from the substance of the meeting. Ask participants to:
    • Mute themselves when they're not speaking.
    • Use headsets to prevent anyone within audible range from overhearing.
    • Turn their video on ' it's hard to gauge engagement if cameras are off.
    • Announce when they're stepping away from and returning to the call for accurate reporting in the minutes.
Are virtual board meetings better? Success with virtual board meetings depends on mitigating videoconferencing's shortcomings while taking fullest advantage of the opportunities it represents. When participants master a few new skills, success with virtual meetings is within reach. Read more in Diligent's ebook, “Best Practices for Virtual Board Meetings Now and in the Future.”
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Mary Fetherolf
Mary Fetherolf writes about the impact of new technologies and regulations on business strategy and operations. Mary spent several years consulting with business and technology leaders on program management and governance in regulated industries, and she possesses deep expertise in corporate governance, cybersecurity, data privacy, regulation, compliance and digital transformation.