On Screen Meetings: Take Two

On Screen Meetings: Take Two

Virtual meetings are here to stay. All boards are looking forward to the day they can meet again in person, but that looks like being some months away yet. And even then, most are beginning to think in terms of a mix of in-person and online meetings as the future way of working. From what we see during our board evaluations, most are pleasantly surprised at how well it’s gone – but there are still opportunities to make things work better. So, some nine months since we last looked at the topic (covering the basic things to get right in the March 2020 EBB), it’s worth taking a further look at how to optimise virtual meetings, to think about how to tackle some of the downsides, and to highlight unhelpful habits.

Good practices to consider…

Chairing a virtual meeting well is a different skill from chairing a face-to-face meeting where body language signals board members’ desire to speak. Virtual meetings need the chair to act as the conductor of the orchestra, though ideally with less waving of the arms. A good discussion will do justice to one point before others move on to different points. That means a bit more active chairing to bring people in to respond and contribute on the theme under consideration. Then the Chair should sum up where that discussion got to, before giving the virtual floor to those impatient to move the discussion on to another point.

Things to avoid…

Being so disciplined that the board debate becomes a series of separate statements, in the manner of a parliamentary debate. But don’t go to the other extreme and leave it to speakers to decide when to stop. The technology that prevents audio feedback can make it difficult to interrupt, which is why some speakers can drone on and on despite desperate attempts to stop them… And even interesting contributions sometimes need quick responses in order to pick up and develop ideas that might be lost. If it’s left to participants to push their way into the conversation – which often involves grabbing the opportunity when the speaker pauses for breath and then speaking very loudly – it’s likely that the discussion will lose all coherent flow.

Good practices to consider…

Create space for less structured discussions. People really do miss the wide-ranging discussion that often takes place at board dinners, for example. It’s hard to reconcile this with the need for the Chair to control the discussion more actively, but nonetheless some do manage it. What seems to work best is for boards to set aside a specific slot or two, bringing all the board together for some informal time. The discussion can be freerange so long as it remains around a predefined theme. That doesn’t mean an agenda – it’s more like having an informal deep dive.

Things to avoid…

Assuming that the food and wine is the important part of a board dinner, rather than the opportunity to talk together in a different forum that stimulates a different sort of discussion. Create opportunities to explore matters in a fairly freeform way. See what works best to surface ideas and issues in a lively discussion, even when everybody’s sitting there on their own. It might flow naturally, or a springboard might be needed. Maybe start with tabling a provocative statement? Or two conflicting positions and ask people to join one side of the debate? Or each time, taking it in turns, one director starts with “what matters most to me is…” You might be surprised at how well it works, if you’ve set it up properly beforehand. And making it regular is working well for some – maybe a 40-minute call every two weeks?

Good practices to consider…

Organise the one-to-ones. Those catch-ups with executives or fellow board members that normally happen around and between meetings, or just by popping into the office, are an essential and very useful ingredient of the board governance recipe. In “normal” times they could be left to serendipity. Now they need to be arranged to make sure they still happen, albeit online. They’re much too important to be put off indefinitely, until serendipity returns.

Things to avoid…

Underestimating the risks of more personal discussions not happening. Everyone knows how those chats bring out information, release ideas, help share stresses, give extra insight… so it’s well worth making an effort to create opportunities. Non-executives should be ready to take the initiative: it’s often harder for executives to do so. Many people are finding that the phone or video “chat over coffee” works well.

Good practices to consider…

Think about “break out” groups – informal discussions with just three or four directors (including an executive or two) around a particular item or issue that then will be covered by the full Board. Unstructured, possibly “off mute” so people do have the chance to butt in, getting a good discussion going. And then “reporting back” to the Board.

Things to avoid…

Dismissing the idea as sounding like a training course session. It does, but that’s OK: it works. Yes, it can be difficult to integrate into a traditional board meeting agenda – but it doesn’t have to happen within that constraint. There can be useful warm-up time in off-stage breakout groups, maybe even on a different day. Then the formal discussion at the whole board, minuted meeting can be given a good start with the “reporting back”.

Good practices to consider…

Use decent technology. For a start, spend some money on sound. Directional microphones bring clarity as they pick up the sound you do want and eliminate much of the unwanted. Boards don’t think anything of spending money on flight costs to help people attend meetings to ensure optimal communication, so there shouldn’t be a reluctance to spend a couple of hundred pounds per person to help make meetings more effective.

Things to avoid…

Making do with the limitations of built-in microphones. It may not be obvious, but it can mean everybody in the meeting having to put up with unwanted noise. Research shows that the loss of detail in a person’s voice can make it more fatiguing for those striving to listen. For speaker and listener alike, a good microphone can make a big difference. And they’re easy to plug in – even NEDs can usually manage it without the help of their grandchildren.

Good practices to consider…

Likewise – spend a bit of money on the visual. A high-quality webcam doesn’t cost much but makes a big difference to the clarity of the image. Position the webcam (on a tripod if necessary) so that when you are looking into it you’re speaking at the right level – and speaking directly to the audience, not looking down. And some good lighting helps too – a desktop “daylight lamp” can work wonders.

Things to avoid…

Accepting a bit of blurring as the norm. As with sound, it’s a lot less tiring for others to watch a sharp image. And we all understand that physical communication is just as important as the words that come out. So why not make it a much more effective experience all round?

Good practices to consider…

Think through how you as an individual appear on the screen. We’re not talking about how long it’ s been since you were last able to get a haircut. If you’ve got the lighting right, it’s about camera angles: is the meeting largely seeing the top of your head or up your nose? And when you’re speaking, do you remember to look into the camera – that is, at the people you are speaking to? Or do you never lift your eyes from your own screen? Speaking to camera can feel a bit tricky at first, as we naturally want to look at the others’ faces – but watch the TV news for a little while and you’ll see how it’s being done…

Things to avoid…

Taking your on-screen presence for granted and not thinking about how to get your message across in that medium. In a room, we’re all used to stepping up to occupy the stage, using volume, clarity of voice, emphasis and intonation, body language, hand gestures and so on. In its own way, it’s a performance for live theatre. But now you’re on television, a different medium that requires a different style of performance – and with the added complication that you’re your own cameraman, sound engineer and lighting technician. Even the best performance can be ruined by a bad production. And the consequences of a poor show can be serious: people don’t get the respect they deserve and poor business decisions are taken.

Good practices to consider…

Provide some “on-screen presentation” training. Perhaps not surprisingly, it’s easy to get this online… What’s more surprising is how many of us are ready to compromise quality when it’s about how we come over on the screen. In our defence, it’s not easy to judge: we often only see ourselves as a small image in the corner of a smallish screen. So get a professional to help out. At the very least ask a friend or colleague for some honest feedback.

Things to avoid…

Assuming you must be doing it well because no-one’s told you that you aren’t. Many of us have had presentation training for physical meetings, augmented by years of experience to carry us through. It doesn’t automatically translate to the online world so it makes sense to do the job properly by topping up our training.

Good practices to consider…

Behave at least as courteously as you would in a physical meeting. That means making good judgements, for example, about when you have your breakfast. A croissant nibbled at a meeting table in a large room has much less impact on the innocent bystander than a bowl of Rice Krispies being munched by a head that fills a screen. And then there’s the question of whether you can pull off the trick of still looking attentive while you check your phone. (Hint: it’s not as convincing as you might like to think.)

Things to avoid…

Thinking that people won’t notice or won’t care if you take a few liberties. It has to be said, at the meetings we have observed, most people have stepped up to the mark on this and are very conscious of perceptions, disruptions or unwelcome noises. (And they are nicely tolerant of others’ children making unscheduled interruptions.) But there are still a few for whom “working from home” seems to mean being entirely oblivious to the impression created on others. If you absolutely have to do things that others aren’t going to enjoy sharing online, then use the camera-off and mute buttons. And if you have to use them more than once every halfhour in a small meeting, explain what you’re doing and excuse yourself – as you would if you were stepping out of a face-to-face meeting.

Good practices to consider…

Put in place the basics. (See our Effective Board Bulletin from March 2020 linked below). Shorter meetings, regular breaks, papers adapted to bring focus, avoidance of management presentations, rehearsing screen sharing (if it can’t be avoided altogether), all participants on video, avoidance of back-to-back meetings by rejigging the committee schedule…

Things to avoid…

Ploughing on with meeting structures and practices as though everybody’s in the same room. Many boards have done well to leap to good practice. But in others we still see them not getting some of these basic things right. Or some slipping back into habits that are distinctly unhelpful when there’s a lower effectiveness (or pain) threshold when sitting at a screen for hours without the light relief of some more social interaction.

Alongside our previous Effective Board Bulletin on virtual meetings from March 2020, we published a checklist to help Boards tick off the basics – preparing the agenda well, technical logistics, ground rules and tips for the Chair.

On 20 January 2021 The Chartered Governance Institute published the final report arising from its Review of the effectiveness of independent board evaluation in the UK listed sector. We welcome this as a significant step forward which will help to bring about consistently high standards in a still-evolving but already important discipline, and would encourage BEIS to accept its recommendations and set out a clear timetable for implementation. We will fully comply with the new Code of Practice for Board Reviewers, which very largely accords with our current practice, but does point us to some valuable refinements. Consequently, we will be making some changes to our client contracts and enlarging our website to give more information on our credentials, approach and independence.



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