For years, the vast majority of board meetings took place in person. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and that all changed – quickly.
For the sake of health and safety, many knowledge workers made the move to remote work. At the same time, remote board meetings became a whole lot more common.
On paper, the thought of making the switch from in-person to remote board meetings sounds simple enough. However, it’s proven to be a lot more challenging than one might think – and has left many boards wondering just exactly how to run a great virtual meeting.
The good news is, it is very much possible to run successful, remote board meetings. In fact, when done right, remote board meetings can actually be more effective and productive than in-person sessions. A recent OnBoard survey found that many boards have been more effective, more collaborative, and spent more time on important strategic issues as a result of the switch to remote board meetings. Organizations that use specialized board management software have been particularly successful.
If you’re not sure how to run a great virtual meeting, you’re certainly not alone. Read on to learn more about the benefits and drawbacks of virtual meetings – as well 6 best practices that’ll help you make a successful shift to virtual board meetings.
Who Should Hold a Virtual Meeting?
Regularly scheduled meetings ensure boards are effective and accomplish as much as they can for the organizations they serve. They can’t (and shouldn’t) be put on hold indefinitely in instances when in-person meetings aren’t practical or advisable.
Fortunately, virtual board meetings are a viable option for boards of all kinds that need to meet – while following social distancing guidelines. Furthermore, because of the many benefits (which we’ll explore in more detail later), some boards may choose to continue holding virtual board meetings – even after the pandemic is behind us.
Before hosting a virtual board meeting, it’s essential to ensure you’re abiding by all rules and regulations related to virtual meetings – a topic we’ll explore in more detail in the next section.
Is It Legal to Hold Virtual Meetings?
If you’re considering hosting a virtual board meeting, you may be wondering if it’s even legal to do so. It usually is – but not always.
State law governs if and how companies and nonprofits can conduct virtual board meetings. Of note, the state that controls your business is where you’re incorporated – not where you have an office.
Nearly every state explicitly authorizes virtual board meetings, and those that don’t are silent on the subject. In fact, we put together the first comprehensive report of all state laws that govern virtual board meetings for both corporations and nonprofits and found that nearly every state permits virtual attendance.
When it comes to matters of law, most companies and nonprofits are clear to hold virtual board meetings. But don’t assume. Be sure to check your state’s laws to make sure you’re in full compliance.
In some instances, a board’s articles of incorporation or bylaws may prohibit remote board meetings – or restrict certain activities (such as voting) during such meetings. If that’s the case, you’ll need to amend your articles of incorporation and bylaws. This post goes into more detail about how to review and amend your board’s articles of incorporation and bylaws to allow for remote board meetings.
Advantages & Disadvantages of Virtual Meetings
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in spring 2020 forced an abrupt shift to virtual meetings for many organizations previously accustomed to meeting primarily in-person. While virtual board meetings provide many benefits—such as connecting individuals across various locations without the costs of time and money for travel—they also present some challenges.
Virtual Meeting Benefits
Pandemic or not, there are many benefits of virtual meetings, some of which include:
- Better attendance: Virtual board meetings require less of a time commitment than in-person meetings. Rather than taking a flight or driving to an out-of-the-way meeting location, board directors can attend from anywhere with a computer and an internet connection. Online board meetings are convenient, and that means board members are more likely to attend them regularly.
- Increased diversity: Oftentimes, geography factors into who serves on a board of directors. For example, a prospective director may decide not to serve on a board because all meetings are held across the country. However, remote meetings enable participation regardless of geographical location. That allows boards to recruit board members with different backgrounds and perspectives – regardless of geographical location. Another benefit of virtual meetings is that they provide better access to board members who rely on assistive technology.
- Better governance: With the right tools, online board meetings can actually be easier to plan and execute than in-person gatherings. What’s more, online board meeting software like OnBoard allows directors to have easy access to everything they need before, during, and after a board meeting. That means they’re spending less time looking for materials during the meeting – and more time making decisions and taking action for the organizations they serve.
Virtual Meeting Drawbacks
While there are many virtual meetings benefits, there are (of course) some downsides.
- Security risks: Oftentimes, confidential information is discussed during board meetings. In a virtual board meeting, this information is being transmitted over the internet – which opens the organization up to a data breach. The right security measures (and secure online board meeting software housing all information and documents used during the meeting) can reduce the risk.
- Less participation: Some board members may not be as familiar or comfortable with virtual meetings as others. What’s more, it’s more difficult to read physical and social cues when you’re not in the same room as other participants. For these (among other) reasons, some board members may be reluctant to speak up. This might lead to a few directors dominating the conversation.
- Technology issues: Anytime technology is involved, there’s a chance things can go wrong. Internet connections can be lost. Devices can reboot at inopportune times. Or board members may struggle to adopt new virtual meeting technology.
Our recent survey found there are some additional challenges of virtual board meetings include:
- Difficulties recreating casual/face-to-face interactions
- A lack of opportunities for ad hoc and post-meeting conversations
- A less conducive format for engaging in complex discussions
To help overcome these challenges and ensure productive virtual meetings, board members and administrators need to be more organized, more prepared, and engage more collaboratively than they would for in-person meetings.
6 Best Practices for Running a Virtual Meeting
Typically, the benefits of virtual meetings outweigh the downsides. What’s more, the downsides can often be overcome with the right approach.
By adopting proven best practices, it’s very much possible to prepare for and run an online board meeting that’s as effective (if not more so) than an in-person meeting.
Here are six top tips for running a virtual meeting.
1. Keep Your Attendees Engaged
During in-person meetings, attendee engagement is driven by the energy and activity within the room. In virtual meetings, this is not available and difficult to recreate. Use these techniques to drive engagement and participation in your virtual meeting:
- Use video conferencing apps and make it mandatory that cameras be turned on. Remember, “out of sight” is “out of mind” for many attendees.
- Before the meeting, ask each attendee to be responsible for presenting a speciﬁc agenda item.
- As the meeting begins, leaders should take roll and call on attendees to share an anecdote or answer an icebreaker question.
- During the meeting, call on attendees who have not spoken up to ensure they are actively participating and have an opportunity to make their thoughts known.
- After the meeting, use a survey tool to request opinions or more elaboration on any issues that were raised but couldn’t be addressed.
2. Keep Your Virtual Meetings Short
“Zoom fatigue” is real. Focusing on small screens not only requires greater concentration, but drains attendee energy faster than when meeting in-person. What’s more, the inherent lack of face-to-face interactions can make virtual board meetings less stimulating.
So, avoid lengthy meetings. To help attendees stay focused and engaged in a virtual meeting, schedule shorter meetings. If you need to schedule a longer meeting, break it up into smaller chunks.
Here are a few additional tips to help keep Zoom fatigue at bay:
- Break longer meetings up into 50-minute sessions with 10-minute breaks between them.
- For presentations, request that the presenter narrate the slides on video and distribute them to attendees before the virtual meeting. Narration and recording tools are available in Microsoft PowerPoint or on a multitude of free screen recording applications.
- Reduce meeting discussion time using voting and survey tools to resolve simple tasks and decisions before the meeting.
3. Develop Strong Agendas
Creating a solid board meeting agenda sets you up for success. Structure the agenda around the six stages for a board meeting (we’ll get to those later), clearly designate speakers, and establish a defined schedule for each item to help keep speakers on track and minimize prolonged discussions. Tools like OnBoard’s Agenda Builder can help make the process efficient by:
- Creating agenda templates for meetings with similar structures month-to-month or quarter-to-quarter
- Providing drag-and-drop functionality for uploading board documents in a variety of file formats
- Offering scheduling tools to designate set times for each agenda item
- Making it easy to collaborate, request board materials from responsible individuals, and share final agendas and updates with directors and other stakeholders
4. Make It Easier for Board Members and the Public to Collaborate
- Use collaboration apps that help make pre-meeting preparation easier, such as a board book builder that will reduce prep time and ensure agendas and materials are distributed in advance.
- Use note-taking apps that allow directors and oﬃcers to keep a record of discussions and agreements. Choose an app that enables members to make notes and annotations to the board materials. Meeting leaders should highlight portions of documents that attendees should focus on in advance.
- Before the meeting, make important information available to the public as appropriate, including announcements and relevant board materials.
5. Ensure Each Attendee Has Correct & Current Materials
Nothing kills virtual meeting productivity faster than not having the most current information on hand. For virtual meetings to be effective, a centralized archive is needed that enables boards to record every decision for future consultation and reference.
- Use shared storage services that keep all board materials — current and historical — in one place, instantly accessible and searchable.
- Many organizations turn to free consumer brand solutions to create an archive. But use caution when selecting a vendor. Many of these platforms fail to oﬀer the robust security and encryption required to meet modern compliance and risk standards.
6. Provide Board Materials in Advance
Distribute board books at least a week before the meeting date to allow adequate time for directors’ review. With robust board management software, administrators can easily publish materials, make updates, and notify board members of changes.
OnBoard also provides secure messaging, archiving, and annotations functionality so directors can share notes, review past materials, reference documents, and chat with their colleagues in advance of a meeting.
Robert’s Rules: 6 Board Meeting Stages Adapted to the Virtual Format
Many board meetings follow the tried-and-tried structure of Robert’s Rules of Order, originally published by U.S. Army Brigadier Gen. Henry M. Robert in 1876. The good news is, this tried-and-true structure can work for virtual board meetings, too. It just requires some modifications.
The following are recommendations for how best to adapt the 6-stage framework to work for virtual board meetings.
Stage 1: Call to Order
The board chair or president should set clear expectations at the start of the meeting. When using video conferencing for virtual meetings, the chair should require that all attendees keep their cameras on throughout the duration of the meeting. To help foster engagement from the start and offer a more personal approach, leaders might consider calling on individual attendees as they take roll to share an anecdote or answer an icebreaker question.
Stage 2: Reading and Approval of Minutes
With modern board management software, prior board meeting minutes can be shared and reviewed in advance of the meeting to negate the need to review them verbally during the meeting. This saves directors’ valuable time together and enables them to move expeditiously to more pressing matters.
Stage 3: Reports Are Made by Officers
This stage of the meeting provides an opportunity for updates from the treasurer, committee leaders, and other officers. Once again, sharing the reports before the meeting through a board management solution allows directors to review the information on their own in advance and facilitates more constructive discussion during the meeting.
Stage 4: Unfinished Business
As the board discusses any business carried over from the previous meeting, the chair should designate time limits for ongoing debate. OnBoard allows speakers to easily access and reference historic documents, conduct electronic voting and approvals, and record decisions. Directors and officers also can take notes and keep a reliable record of discussions.
Stage 5: New Business
Any member can bring up new business for debate and action. Since only one person can speak at a time in a virtual format, the board chair shouldn’t hesitate to call on attendees who haven’t spoken. This facilitates a more well-rounded discussion, rather than one dominated by just a few vocal members. For presentations, it helps if speakers provide a video prior to the meeting in which they narrate the slides for attendees. This saves time and allows the board to transition more quickly to the meat of the discussion.
Stage 6: Adjournment
The chair makes the motion to conclude the meeting. In closing remarks, the chair or other officers have an opportunity to remind attendees of any necessary post-meeting follow-ups—for example, completing a board survey, collecting e-signatures, or contributing additional details, data, or materials requested during the meeting. These tasks can be completed seamlessly within a board management portal such as OnBoard, which includes a survey tool to request opinions or other information.
How Our Online Board Meeting Software Can Help
Many boards are still working to find their new normal. While some have transitioned to virtual formats long-term, others have reverted to in-person meetings or are trying a hybrid option. Yet the situation continues to evolve as expectations change and people become accustomed to new technologies and new ways of doing things.
OnBoard and other board management solutions allow boards to navigate the six stages of board meetings in these dynamic times, and quickly adjust to sudden changes or emerging trends. They save time with voting and survey tools to resolve simple tasks and decisions prior to meetings, facilitate real-time communication with secure messaging, and enable directors to maximize their time together to focus on vital strategic discussions.
While Robert’s Rules provide a solid, 145-year-old framework for orderly governance, board leaders also should embrace Okakura’s view on the “art of life” and continuously adjust how they implement those rules to suit modern-day needs. Doing so not only enables boards to govern more effectively, it also allows them to set an example for a healthy culture of innovation within their organizations.
About The Author
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