From remote employees feeling left out to missed communication cues, hybrid meetings are a less-than-ideal solution.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forever altered the structure of traditional board meetings. While virtual board meetings quickly became the norm for organizations worldwide early in the pandemic, for many, it’s been a roller-coaster ride since. Meetings have fluctuated from virtual to in-person and back again with the ebb and flow of COVID-19 surges, public health and social distancing policies, and other mitigation efforts.
Many boards have transitioned to a hybrid approach. What is a hybrid meeting? It is one in which some members attend in person while others connect remotely.
Such meetings do have some benefits. They allow people to attend regardless of geographical distance. During the pandemic, they also allow individuals who are in quarantine due to potential COVID-19 exposure to attend without risking further spread of the virus to fellow directors or staff members.
The cons of hybrid meetings, however, far outweigh the positives. As the title of this blog may suggest, let it be duly noted that OnBoard doesn’t recommend hybrid meetings. They suck. At the same time, we understand that hybrid meetings are unavoidable in certain circumstances, especially in an evolving environment as boards settle in for a COVID-19 endemic future.
For this blog, we discuss common issues board leaders can anticipate while using a hybrid format, and tips to alleviate many of those challenges.
Why Hybrid Meetings Are Less than Ideal
In the Preparing Your Board for 2022 webinar, OnBoard CEO Paroon Chadha characterized hybrid meetings as “the most challenging meetings.” Having served on more than half a dozen boards across numerous sectors, he speaks from experience.
Matt Fullbrook, former manager of the David & Sharon Johnston Centre for Corporate Governance Innovation at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, also recommends against hybrid meetings.
In OnBoard’s recent Board Effectiveness Survey, Fullbrook contends communication and collaboration work best when everyone is on a level playing field. “When you get everybody on the same platform, effectiveness increases,” he says. “[Boards] should think twice before going back to this blended model that wasn’t working in the first place. Don’t let the fact that virtual meetings are good distract you from the fact that blended meetings are bad.”
By their nature, hybrid meetings create a natural inequity or disconnect between members who are able to participate face-to-face and those who are logging in. While remote attendees can hear and participate in the meeting discussion, they are at a fundamental disadvantage because they cannot connect with the in-person attendees in the same way.
People communicate in many ways beyond verbal discourse. Remote attendees cannot pick up on important non-verbal social cues such as nods of approval, or expressions of confusion or discontent. They cannot participate in important side conversations or engage in the type of small-talk that helps to build board relationships and ultimately, trust.
Other issues can hinder clear communication even more. There may be technical issues with the virtual meeting platform, unstable internet connections, or faulty microphones or speakers. User errors such as forgetting to turn on a camera or failing to properly connect audio, mute, or unmute can be disruptive to everyone in the meeting.
Perhaps the biggest risk with hybrid meetings is that directors attending remotely too easily can become disengaged, shrinking unnoticed and unheard into the carousel of faces on a computer screen while in-person attendees dominate the discussion.
Tips to Improve the Hybrid Meeting Experience
Despite their many disadvantages, hybrid meetings are a growing part of the board meeting landscape and likely are here to stay. More than half (54%) of those attending the “Preparing Your Board for 2022” webinar said their organizations are hosting hybrid meetings.
In some cases, hybrid meetings are unavoidable due to board bylaws, logistical issues, limited travel budgets, or for boards with members spread across different cities, states, countries, or even continents.
Careful planning and preparation can help boards minimize many of the issues inherent with hybrid meetings. It’s important to be intentional in designing hybrid meetings. Board leaders should plan the agenda, venue, and timing of the meeting to accommodate both in-person and remote attendees as much as possible.
You can’t please everyone, but you can take steps to ensure a smoother meeting experience for all involved. This includes making sure the meeting venue has reliable and strong internet, testing sound systems and videoconferencing solutions in advance to make sure everything works, and structuring the meeting to facilitate discussion from in-person and virtual attendees.
The goals should be to assure virtual attendees stay engaged and that in-person attendees stay alert and aware of those attending remotely.
“It’s important to plan and plant questions and reminders so you’re not forgetting the board member who’s dialing in all the way from the U.K. with a six-hour time difference,” Chadha said. “Those are the kinds of things that leave your board disengaged like nothing else.”
Some tips for running better hybrid meetings include:
- Have an effective meeting facilitator who sets the ground rules and routinely engages online participants by asking for their questions or comments
- Designate someone to monitor the virtual meeting platform and chat function to ensure everything is running as it should.
- Either require all attendees to log into the online meeting platform so everyone can be seen and heard, or use a webcam or cameraman to capture speakers, presentations, and other action inside the boardroom for those viewing via videoconference.
- Have a large screen in the boardroom for in-person attendees to view remote participants.
- Require all attendees to keep their cameras on throughout the meeting.
- Schedule breakout sessions that include remote and in-person members to facilitate smaller group discussions.
- Limit the length of meetings or use breaks and discussion groups to break up longer meetings and help attendees stay engaged.
Lastly, organizations should invest in high-quality microphones and sound systems so remote and in-person attendees can hear everyone clearly, as well as reliable virtual board software or videoconferencing solutions so remote attendees can view boardroom speakers, presentations, and videos in real-time.
Having sound board management software can help organizations get ahead of core problems associated with hybrid meetings. OnBoard’s solution, for example, provides a centralized, easy-to-use portal for directors to access board meeting documents, presentations, videoconferencing tools, and other tools like Voting and Approvals features for virtual meeting voting, eSignatures, and a variety of other functions.
You should avoid hosting hybrid meetings if possible. Instead, OnBoard strongly recommends meeting formats in which all attendees either are in-person or remote, or a split approach where some meetings are strictly in-person and others are virtual.
When they are necessary, however, proper preparation—including following the tips noted above—can help boards overcome many of the challenges and run more effective hybrid meetings.
About The Author
- At OnBoard, we believe board meetings should be informed, effective, and uncomplicated. That’s why we give boards and leadership teams an elegant solution that simplifies governance. With customers in higher education, nonprofit, health care systems, government, and corporate enterprise business, OnBoard is the leading board management provider.
- Board Management Software2022.04.2713 Ways to Drive Board Meeting Engagement
- Board Management Software2022.03.15How to Amend Board Bylaws for a Nonprofit Organization
- Board Management Software2022.03.04The Board Skills Matrix: An Essential Tool for Better Board Composition
- Board Management Software2022.02.28Board Assessments — Everything You Need to Know