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Board diary – You’re on mute

Tamsin Stirling reflects on a year’s experience of virtual board meetings.

Before March 2020, how many of us had heard of the phrase ‘zoomed out’? Or felt its reality in our eyes and brains? Over the past year, many people have spent many many hours in virtual meetings of various sorts. One to ones, small meetings, large meetings, webinars, conferences and board meetings. Thank goodness for the technology that enables us to meet in this way. What would we have done without it? Socially distanced meetings that wouldn’t have included anyone who was shielding? Telephone conferences? Who knows…

I’m currently on the board of two charities and stood down from the board of Cardiff Community Housing Association at the end of 2020. So, over the last year, I’ve attended quite a few virtual board meetings and away days. I’ve read articles by people who are enthusiastic advocates of the virtual and by those who really dislike this mode of meeting and doing business. And I’ve been reflecting on my own experiences.

To start with the positive. No travel time (although for me, travelling to meetings can provide space for thinking). Nearly 100 per cent attendance from all board members/trustees – possibly linked to no travel time. Greater ‘efficiency’ supported by tighter agendas and people being more succinct with their contributions. Shorter meetings (sometimes), or the ability to cover a greater number of issues within a single meeting. It’s easier to organise and hold short meetings on a single issue at relatively short notice. There is also the potential for learning from external speakers based far afield, as well as for recruiting board members/trustees from a wide geographical area.

But there have also been some downsides.

Firstly, there is the issue of equity in digital provision – unless people have access to decent devices and a stable broadband connection, along with the confidence to use the technology, there are significant barriers to participating in virtual meetings. A massive amount of progress has been made on access to decent kit and data during the pandemic, but there is still a way to go to ensure equity. I’ve been in meetings where people have not been able to follow the discussion because of poor internet connections and others where people have being using a phone to participate, making seeing their fellow/sister board members properly very difficult.

Secondly, what impact does going online have on scrutiny by the public? Arguably, the virtual format makes it easier to observe meetings, but can people ‘drop in’ to meetings spontaneously and what effect does this have on inclusivity? The digital equity issue comes into play here.

Moving on to think about the mechanics of meetings, the virtual context makes it more difficult to ‘read the room’. If the majority of communication is non-verbal, how easy is it to pick up on non-verbal cues and nuances when people are reduced to a square on a screen? The virtual context may also make it more difficult for people who are less self-confident, or who are just quieter by nature, to make contributions, something that chairs need to be cognisant of. Chairing virtual meetings can be challenging; some organisations have formalised support for the chair, identifying someone who will scan the meeting for people who are raising their hand or contributing via the chat function and prompt the chair to bring them in.

The above are all important issues but, for me, the most significant challenge presented by virtual meetings is that of building and sustaining relationships. Building connections between long-standing and new board members is not easy online, nor is getting to know each other in an holistic way – getting to know the different aspects of each other’s personalities. Much relationship building often happens informally before and after board meetings. It is difficult to replicate this online although using apps such as icebreaker can help. See hbr.org/2021/03/remote-workers-need-small-talk-too.

Relationships can get damaged quite quickly online, for example small misunderstandings that are not picked up and rectified straight away. When we’re not likely to bump into each other, there are fewer spontaneous opportunities to clarify things or put things right.

My main reflection from a year of virtual board meetings is the need to be more intentional, whether it be about planning agendas, making contributions to discussions during meetings, or contacting other board or executive team members between meetings.

As for the future, a mix of online and face to face meetings is likely to be used by many organisations. I hope that we can make the best of both worlds by adopting an approach where we hold online meetings for the things that they work well for, for example scrutiny of finance, performance and policy and compliance issues, and face-to-face meetings for strategic and generative discussions and for building and nurturing relationships and group dynamics. Here’s to an interesting future!

Thankyou to Mike Owen, Janet Beauchamp and Hayley Selway for sharing their thoughts on virtual meetings with me.

Tamsin Stirling is on twitter @TamsinStirling1


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