Don’t Go Back: Boards Returning to In-Person Meetings
After Covid forced boards into virtual meetings, directors learned to adapt. But just because we can, doesn’t mean we should require everyone to meet in person again. There’s value in keeping flexible with virtual and hybrid meetings. Make sure you’re doing what it takes to make them work effectively.
By Tim Harrington and Kevin Smith
We recently received several questions on the topic of hybrid, in-person and remote board meetings. Running a two-day governance workshop recently, this topic popped up and became a lively discussion in the room with 36 directors. Coincidentally enough, we received the same question from a director via our website almost at the same time. It’s certainly bubbling about in the air these days and our approach to this may surprise you.
What We’re Seeing
Here’s a synopsis of what we’re seeing:
- A few boards are moving back to in-person only. But they are the minority.
- Most boards are using hybrid meetings where members can choose how they attend: in-person or virtual. This requires the board meeting room to have cameras, screens, microphones and speakers that allow all to hear and be heard.
- Some are moving most meetings to in-person with several, scheduled virtual meetings per year.
- A few are moving to mostly virtual meetings with a few in-person per year
- We don’t know of anyone who is remaining totally virtual.
The most common we see is the hybrid option. Along with this method, boards are adding a policy requiring directors to be physically present for several meetings during the year and at the planning session. This is to allow for the human interaction that can only occur in near proximity.
A few boards who are going hybrid have actually scheduled several required, in-person meetings. This means that at two or three meetings per year, all of the directors are present in-person.
This is the Modern World
We strongly recommend that the boards go hybrid. This is the way of the modern working world where employees meet regularly via virtual meetings. If you want to attract and retain younger directors, we believe this is a requirement. Otherwise, they will see the board as not meeting their needs.
Digital and virtual are the new norm in the world. It is important for boards to recognize this and embrace it.
How to Make This Work
Don’t misunderstand us. We know that as the world has worked, in general, face to face meetings generally yield better results. We agree with that. But as a practical matter going forward, hybrid meetings offer a lot in the way of flexibility for board members. This is good for diversity, for recruitment and for boards in general when you can make it work.
And here’s the deal – you have to make some effort to make this work. It’s not going to happen by accident. And you know very well by now that simply plopping things into Zoom or whatever hybrid approach you’re taking, and running things like you did in the “good old days” of the beforetimes is a recipe for failure. Hybrid meetings require adaptations so that everyone can get the most out of them.
Considerations for improving hybrid meetings
- Spring for decent equipment: cameras, microphones, displays, etc. (Don’t simply “make due” with what you have or get the cheapest options held together with duct tape.)
- A great big monitor in the boardroom (or at your desk) can let you continue to see body language and facial expressions from participants on camera.
- Set expectations for learning and using technology. No, it’s not perfect. But we’ve all been in the meeting with the one guy who still can’t find the mute button and know how frustrating it can be. Everyone must take the time to know how to do this smoothly.
- Part of these expectations are about giving your full attention to the meeting as if you were there. We’ve heard too many stories of people making dinner during the hybrid meeting, or having people in and out of the room. These are unacceptable.
- Adjust your approaches for having discussions –
- Hold up a post-it note if you want to talk (and avoid talking over each other)
- Get a sense of the room with 0-5 hand votes. (“How comfortable are you with this proposal? 0-5. Everyone votes on the count of three.”)
- Make sure to bring in the voices of those not there in person. Being hybrid is not a license to be silent.
- Participants – be broad with your head nods for yes and no, you’re thumbs-up or down, and your palm to the camera for “wait.” Don’t be subtle here.
- Get presentations done before the board meeting in writing or on video and set the expectation that everyone will be prepared and submit questions ahead of time. Be efficient with your meeting time.
- Be flexible in the time of day for meetings.
The Chair’s Job
Much of this is under the heading of meeting facilitation which we generally put on the shoulders of the board chair. This is appropriate. Chairs – this is the job you signed on for and it takes a bit more work in this setting. However (comma) we don’t believe that ALL of this HAS to be on the chair’s shoulders even if technically that’s where it lies. ALL directors should take on some responsibility for holding each other accountable and for making an effort to make this work.
We believe that with a little effort that hybrid meetings can be just as effective as your old-school in-person events. We caution you about rushing back to strictly enforced all in-person events simply because it’s what you know and are comfortable with. Your adaptability will have an impact on who you can recruit for the board and flexibility for how you get things done.