Lockdown lessons for more effective board meetings

When mainstream comedians write comedy sketches about Zoom that are trending on YouTube you know that COVID-19 changed online meetings forever! Board meetings have changed too with Board members joining Zoom, Teams and Hangouts from their phones, iPads and desktops wherever they are in the world.

As we emerge from this pandemic boards need to preserve what was great from the past and also benefit from keeping things the crisis showed us could be done better and more effectively than in the past. Future board meetings will be a clever combination of traditional and online meeting approaches.

Given that board members do not always need to be at the same location is it now time to rethink the structure, duration and frequency of Board meetings? Should all board meetings be styled and structured the same as they always have been? The pandemic lockdown has seen an explosion in the range of tools we use to research, investigate, communicate and capture our knowledge. As directors, we now have a unique opportunity to reflect on how we can take the best of online and traditional meetings to design our future environment.

Things we’ve learnt that work better online

Many boards have realised that short meetings set up to address a specific objective have had strong support. High performing boards report using this approach to reduce the cognitive drain from lengthy board meetings. Breaking up meetings not just with short breaks but over several days allows for extra investigation and preparation. Well structured, purposeful online questions and answers between board members and management can provide for much better investigation and oversight so long as it is transparent and done with integrity.

Many boards have realised that short meetings set up to address a specific objective have had strong support. High performing boards report using this approach to reduce the cognitive drain from lengthy board meetings

Many people felt trust could not be created online but during the lockdown unconnected parties have successfully negotiated complex and substantial contracts. For years teams spread around the country found it hard to build warm trusted connections but during the lockdown many teams reported how they had for the first time become really close.

Our assumptions were challenged further by conducting EGMs and an AGMs online. Small and medium sized companies often previously reported poor attendance at such meetings but moving those meetings online saw significant increases in attendance because it was so much easier and cheaper to attend. Shareholders spread across the world were able to enjoy the same quality of experience and level of access to the board and management of the company during these meeting. Voting and Q&A was much more orderly and administratively easier.

When Boards had to always travel to one location for a meeting we would be constrained by that physical location, where now, an online board meeting can have people out in the field, in a factory, distribution centre, or customer location, sharing digitally valuable input to the meeting from their location. Site visits can be included when needed rather than when they can be scheduled and when a physical site visit is organised, Board members will be better prepared because they could visit the site online first.

Technology doesn’t just automate what we do, it gives us choice of what we might choose to do. The Agenda for the meeting is no longer just the order of a meeting it can also provide links to pre-meeting activities or suggested preparation with links to digital artefacts so that everyone can be better prepared.

Complex ideas can be developed prior to the meeting by individuals or subgroups of the board with digital artefacts generated during those discussions, shared easily in multiple forms such as Chat threads, email threads, videos recorded, Trello Boards, Miro boards, mind maps all stored in folders shared in the cloud. Board members can quickly skate through this material or pause and dig a little deeper. SharePoint, Dropbox and Google Drive provide easy to use collaboration tools to share impressions and thoughts with other board members who can benefit from their question or insight.

Recording and collecting all the digital artefacts (transcriptions, video recordings, audio recordings, presentation slides, animations, graphics, documents) of all meeting is now a by-product of conducting online meetings. Tools like Reclipped help you annotate and index video files making it possible for attendees at meetings to review the video and in real time, take notes, make comments, provide links and then create a Table of Contents for the video to radically improve other’s access to that video. Likewise, AI generated transcriptions of meetings provide links from a word in the transcription to that point in the audio recording when that word was spoken. Tools like Notiv use AI to record highlights, actions and decisions automatically.

Many company lawyers question whether we understand the exposure and liability that might flow from such artefacts. This question and its answer must be asked and answered again. So much of what we do and say is left in our digital breadcrumb trail so surely it is safer to properly curate what actually happened in meetings and focus on being effective, instead of trying to ensure that if you are negligent you won’t be found out. There are substantial opportunities for leading boards to innovate, with the prize of substantially increased productivity over time.

Things we’ve learnt that are hard to replicate online

As we emerge from this pandemic most people express sheer delight at being part of in person meetings and conferences. We are social animals after all. Humans seek social interaction and benefit from the energy given them by others. It is clear that people cry more easily in a darkened cinema where suspension of disbelief connects the audience member more personally with the emotions of a character on the big screen whilst being part of an audience in a theatre or rock concert lifts the audience member to feelings of exhilaration not often seen in a cinema. Understanding these differences helps us understand what works best in person and what can be done at a distance online.

Building back better for board governance requires acknowledging what is done best in each medium. Everyone required may not be able to access the chosen medium so knowing how to incorporate multiple mediums into an activity is important. It is generally accepted that having some board members in the board room and a few on Zoom makes it a worse experience than either all in the board room or all on Zoom. Zoom and other solutions are beginning to meet this challenge to enable some participants to be physically together and others online but ensuring that those online have the best possible experience without diminishing the experience of those in the room.

It is generally accepted that having some board members in the board room and a few on Zoom makes it a worse experience than either all in the board room or all on Zoom.

Similarly Zoom dinners may be OK during a pandemic when the alternative is to eat alone. But no online experience compares to a well organised board dinner to mull over intractable challenges before meeting the next day to finalise critical decisions for the organisation.

Serendipitous connections emerge in social settings and are very difficult to encourage in online collaboration and communications. Whilst online dating services have developed superior matching services than bars and nightclubs, online business interactions have a long way to go before some level of physical interaction is rendered obsolete. Board members usually gain enormous amounts from walking around the organisation, by the casual interaction and absorbing the atmosphere and culture of the organisation. Creating opportunities for board members to casually walk around an online space is not easy.

In a face-to-face environment, people also tend to be more empathetic. Social media is infamous for brutal online interactions, so it is not surprising that during the lockdown meetings with larger groups of organisation members or shareholders with substantial differences resulted in fractured and damaging online meetings. As is often seen in social media interactions at such meetings people are far more brutal online than they would be in the physical presence of their antagonists. In the absence of substantial technological innovation, resolving conflict or disagreement will continue to be best served with physical interaction.

Whilst progress is being made on all fronts most people would accept that creating personal connections, building warm relationships and generating amazing creativity will be predominantly the domain physically connected activities.

In conclusion

Necessity is the mother of all inventions and COVID-19 has forced boards to do things differently. This has surprised many with how powerful new online tools and systems have improved governance and driven new ways of doing things. But some of the restrictions placed upon us during the lockdown were not helpful and should not be retained just because they are convenient and cheaper if they are ultimately far less effective. Building back better will require a careful integration of the old and the new to create a more productive form of governance.

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