This is an empty boardroom, acting as a metaphor for a virtual board meeting.

Face-to-face meetings have always been an important part of board service. Even national boards that meet remotely most of the year, schedule at least one in-person meeting. These meetings almost always involves a celebratory meal and in-person interaction between board members and staff. For many, the most rewarding part of these meetings is the opportunity to be with other people committed to the same issues. So, how can virtual board meetings continue to engage board members

The “New” Virtual  Board Meeting

Right now, regular, engaging, face-to-face meetings are simply not possible. But the current COVID-19 crisis and shut-down, offers both challenges and opportunities.  One of those challenges, and the opportunity, is to find new ways to engage the your board during meetings.

“Zoom” Fatigue

While virtual meetings are still new to some organizations, other boards have already been meeting virtually for some time. What is new to both however is that we are now living in a virtual world.  Happy hours, doctor visits and even family dinners – almost every kind of personal interaction is now happening on video.

This means that your board meeting might be the third, fourth, even sixth on-line meeting in each board member’s day – and they are tired.  Generally, we don’t look at someone’s face the whole time they are talking to us – we may look elsewhere, make eye contact with others, move from standing to sitting, even walk away while listening to get a cup of coffee.  In a regular meeting, we can have a quick, whispered “side conversation” to catch up or clarify a point. We are accustomed to a certain give and take in conversations, where we might complete someone else’s sentence, or even interrupt to make a point.  Virtual conversations can feel frustrating and constrained because when people speak on the same time, it is impossible to hear anyone.  We can easily become both physically and emotionally exhausted by having to adjust to this “new normal.”

One way to avoid “zoom fatigue” is to carefully consider whether every meeting needs to be on video. Committee or planning meetings, including executive meetings, may be just as effective by conference call.  You can check consensus by email, or survey applications (such as Doodle). You can use chat applications (like Slack, Microsoft Team or Whatsapp) to provide an inclusive place to ask questions or share ideas.

Manage the Meeting

In a traditional board meeting, many people may have different responsibilities in manage the meeting. Typically, the Chair leads the meeting with support from the Executive Director while a third person takes minutes. A team is also needed to manage a virtual board meeting.

For example, a virtual meeting needs a host who may need to monitor a waiting room, or identify participants in order to avoid intrusive “zoom-bombing”. The host may also be a time-keeper, and/or be responsible for visual presentations themselves or bu using the “share screen” function. The host can also record the meeting and minutes drafted later by someone clearly assigned to that job.

The meeting leader, generally the Board Chair, needs to guide participants through a clear agenda, while also watching for participants who are being shut-down or crowded out.  The Chair, with the Executive Director’s help, can give everyone a chance to participate. The question “do you want to say anything?” can, and usually will be, answered with a “no.” However, an open-ended, “What would be your choice for our next steps?” generates input and engagement.  The leader may also want to assign different “speaking roles” to others on the call to increase participation.

Finally, using the chat function during a meeting can provide a place for less forceful participants to express themselves, or for related points to be raised without derailing an on-going discussion. A monitor should be watching the chat, and calling the meeting leader’s attention to relevant issues, questions and needs for clarification.

Watch the Time

While there is no one size fits all recommendation for the length of a virtual meeting – the consensus is to keep it short.  One way to control the time is to control the agenda. A clearly written agenda with time estimates should guide every meeting.

If your organization has not adopted a “consent agenda” yet, now might be a good time to start.  Essentially, a “consent agenda” contains those items that can be approved and accepted without discussion, such as minutes and reports, including financial reports.  The consent agenda should be provided to the Board members with sufficient time to review and question all of the items and reports. There are many articles that explain how to implement a “consent agenda,” but it can drastically cut down the time spent on routine matters. This allows the Board to focus on appropriate, and more interesting, policy and governance issues.

Avoid Distractions

More than 60% of communication is non-verbal. While we may only see each others’ faces during a virtual meeting, facial expressions are an important part of how we understand each other. Boards should avoid the urge to go audio-only. At the same time, watching twelve or more people on camera, can be distracting.  Switching the video from gallery to speaker view, or “pinning” a particular participant’s screen can make it easier to focus.  You can also cover or remove your own view of yourself, while staying on camera for others.

Anther reason to avoid audio-only is to discourage “tab browsing” or multi-tasking.  When video is off, people may not feel as accountable to stay focused on the speaker or meeting presentation.

 Embrace the Culture

The Covid-19 crisis, like others, presents opportunities as well as challenges.  Our current reality is providing a great opportunity to be explicit and mindful about the Board culture we want to have.

Some steps boards can take to create great virtual meetings include:

  • Being explicit about the importance of preparing for Board meetings in advance. Providing (and reading) both agendas and information.
  • Recognizing the difference between what can be discussed, and what must be discussed.
  • Engaging in discussion during Board meetings, without being sidetracked by side or related issues. These issues can be identified and preserved in a chat.
  • Growing participation by assigning roles in Board meetings that are designed to facilitate communication rather than record conclusions.

Taking virtual board meetings seriously, and working with the available technology will help keep the meetings on track.