+44 020 3930 8303

Can governance still be effective from a distance?

by Rachel Killian | Apr 3, 2020 | Governance & Policy

In these challenging times, the need for good governance practice is more essential than ever. Yet, under current Covid-19 restrictions, University Councils can’t meet in person for their Board meetings.

We have found that our clients are instead holding their Board meetings virtually, many for the first time. Though currently a necessity for public health reasons, there are other advantages too:

  • It reduces travel costs and saves on travel time.
  • Many platforms enable the meeting to be recorded, giving absent members an easy way to catch-up on the discussions they missed.
  • Having a more flexible option of attending Board meetings could increase the diversity of members over time, making the role more accessible to people who have to manage childcare or other commitments.

However, there is also a significant danger that governance effectiveness itself is put at risk. Without careful management, a remote meeting will have lower levels of engagement, an inadequate level of debate or challenge and ultimately, ineffectual decision making.

So, how do you ensure that your Board meeting maintains its high levels of effectiveness? Our Consulting Fellow Will Spinks believes that for any large virtual meeting, it is all about ‘preparation, discipline of execution and good chairing’. Here are our top ten tips for an effective meeting:

  1. Distribute the papers well in advance and ensure they are appropriately labelled and accessible. These should include copies of any visual aids that will be used in the meeting.
  2. The agenda should be clear, with priority and confidential items identified, preferably with timings attached to each.
  3. Ask members to let the Chair know in advance if they are particularly keen to contribute to the discussion of an agenda item; this isn’t to preclude any spontaneous contribution, but it should help the Chair to plan and manage the discussion.
  4. If the video platform allows, make use of the ‘chat’ function. Members can flag any technical problems, request clarifications and make the Chair aware that they want to contribute (see below).
  5. Video conferencing simply doesn’t work when more than one person is speaking at a time. So share the protocols for the meeting with members in advance; for example, rather than trying to ‘jump in’, if someone wants to speak, they should give a physical wave, or use the Chat function to alert the Chair.
  6. If there is a presentation, then the Chair should introduce the item and the speaker, before the speaker presents without interruption.
  7. At the end of the presentation, the Chair should make a list of those members who would like to ask a question, before inviting them to contribute in turn. The Chair then needs to ensure there is sufficient opportunity for responses or additional contributions.
  8. If a decision is being made, then the Chair should ask for a physical sign of agreement; a raising of hands is likely to be the fastest and clearest signal.
  9. At the end of each item, the Chair needs to take care to sum up the discussion and any decisions.
  10. Take some time at the end of the meeting – either on the same platform or by following up with a call or email – to ask for feedback on the meeting itself. What went well? What needs improvement for next time?

There are also some practical things you can do to ensure that the meeting goes well:

  • Do a technology test in advance, especially for new users.
  • Have someone on hand to help identify and deal with any technology or functionality issues during the meeting.
  • Ask participants to keep their microphone on ‘mute’ when they aren’t contributing. This helps to ensure the meeting isn’t distracted by dogs, phones, doorbells, children or sneezing!
  • Plan in regular ‘comfort’ breaks. We’d recommend at least 15-minute break every 1.5 hours. And encourage socialising in the breaks for those people still online – we are all still human, after all.