Boards of directors have learned over the last year that virtual meetings really aren’t that bad. In fact, they come with several benefits such as higher attendance, improved diversity opportunities, laser-focused agendas, and lower cost. It appears as though virtual board meetings will be part of your board’s permanent meeting cycle. Adopting these ten best practices can help make them a positive experience.
- Plan Meetings Strategically. Annually review your board’s meeting schedule and strategically select the meetings that will be virtual versus in-person. Take full advantage of in-person meetings by creating opportunities for socializing and building relationships. For meetings that are virtual, invite guests such as subject matter experts, sector leaders, key stakeholders, and beneficiaries who might normally not travel or take the time to attend an in-person board meeting but can contribute to board development and understanding of the organization’s mission.
- Avoid Hybrid Meetings. The meeting should be either virtual or in-person. Hybrid formats create two tiers of participation and a diminished experience for both those in the room and those that are remote.
- Timely Meeting Materials. Ensure meeting materials are sent out at least one week in advance so board members can submit questions prior to the meeting. This allows the meeting itself to move faster, be more focused, and generate better insights.
- Use the Right Technology. Without the ability to see people, it can be difficult to monitor body language, emotions, and expressions. Participants should be prepared to use equipment in which they can see the other participants and any screens that are shared (i.e. a desktop, laptop, or tablet versus a cell phone). Bonus: Joining the call 5 minutes in advance allows for links, cameras, and microphones to be tested.
- Expect the Unexpected. Even if everything is ready and tested, the platform you use for meetings may go down. Have technical support available and be prepared to move to a conference call or alternative platform at the last minute if needed.
- Set the Ground Rules. The chair needs to remind participants at the beginning of each meeting to keep their video on, microphone off, to use ‘raise hand’ and/or ‘chat’ for questions, and to resist the temptation to multi-task. Keeping the meeting on schedule so regular break times can be honoured is also an important task for the chair to minimize participants’ online fatigue.
- Build in Virtual Socializing. Without the social elements of in-person meetings such as coffee breaks, meals, retreats, site visits, and carpooling it is difficult for board members to develop personal bonds. Ideas to increase social connections may include starting the call 15 minutes prior to the meeting time to allow those who are joining early to socialize, inviting board members to share personal stories or mission moments either before or at the end of the meeting, etc. This is especially important for new board members who are reporting positive virtual onboarding experiences but are feeling the impact of not getting to know their board colleagues.
- Use Engagement Tools. Breakout rooms, polls, and whiteboards can all be used effectively to generate discussion, draw out opinions, and get all participants involved.
- Learn from Experience. Don’t neglect meeting and board effectiveness assessments. Both are key tools for continuous improvement, especially when it comes to capturing feedback about online meeting and engagement experiences.
- Security. Last, but definitely not least, ensure file-sharing platforms are secure and meeting formats do not allow unidentified callers to participate. Cybercrime is now an industry so don’t give criminals an opportunity to infiltrate confidential information.
These best practices are still being tested but a year’s worth of experience has generated creativity and a willingness to try new things. With the board modeling its new skills at being agile, your organization is sure to be innovative as well!
Guest contributions represent the personal opinions and insights of the authors and may not reflect the views or opinions of Imagine Canada.
Suanne Miedema is President of Miedema’s Board Consulting Inc. where she helps nonprofit boards improve their governance through best-in-class Board Policy Manuals and Board Assessments. With experience spanning both the for-profit and nonprofit sector she offers a practical, results-oriented service to her clients. Suanne is an Imagine Canada Certified Standards Program Coach and currently serves as a Director on four nonprofit boards.