May 6, 2020

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Eric Phinney

Board Business in a Virtual World

I just completed a weeklong meeting with an international organization that I chair. Normally, to minimize travel costs, we meet only twice a year for 5 days. Facing the restrictions for COVID-19 was daunting.  Could we get through the business that we had planned? Would people be able to engage? Would we be distracted by the technology?  Would the technology work? Could we pick up on nonverbal cues? What about all of the unofficial communications and planning sessions by the coffee pot? Could this work? 

I am very pleased to report that I think we have discovered an unintended benefit of a global pandemic!  At the end of 5 days the 20 some people who met together (including the board and administrative team) were almost giddy with enthusiasm over a newfound way to conduct business. I can honestly say that we were more engaged with background material, each other and the agenda. Processes were more transparent and fulsome.  Order and carefulness were a hallmark, embraced and practiced by all. All of that, and we saved about $20,000 in travel and accommodation costs. Why have we not done this before?  I will leave the answer to that for another time. Today I would like to describe our process, as it was not quite as simple as doing five 8 hour Zoom meetings. No, that would have been exasperating and largely unproductive. I will begin with a simple list of the technologies that we used and a bit about what they do. Then I will explain how we integrated these and conducted our meeting. 

1) Google Docs.  I have written about how to use Google Docs before. You can see that post by clicking here.  Google documents allow many people to see, edit, or comment on a document in real time or at your convenience.  You can see what others are saying, chat with them, propose and accept edits and generally collaborate on a piece of written work. You can also add hyperlinks to other documents. Policy Governance practitioners, you will appreciate how important documents are. It is good if there is one central depository of all board documents that is shared with everyone. Google Forms are also useful to create places to vote or ask other questions. They are part of the Google Suite. 

2) Slack.  Programs like Slack or Microsoft Teams can replace email when working consistently with the same group of people. How many times have you lost track of an item in a chain or nest of emails?   With Slack you can communicate with one person or a group. You can do so with no particular subject or put your ideas in a “channel” that is designated for a particular topic. You can attach documents, “pin” your conversations, (Pinning is a feature of Slack that helps you keep track of documents you wish to return to) integrate any number of other apps like Doodle Polls, Google Docs, calendars, etc. This becomes the backbone of communications for the long term. 

3) Zoom.  Yes, I know there are lots of other platforms, but by now everyone knows what Zoom means. Video conferencing has come of age and most of us are in at least one Zoom meeting, if not multiple meetings, a day.  Experience has taught me not to go over 90 minutes on these sessions or else take a 5-minute break at the top of the first hour and then go for a total of two hours.  Both methods seem to produce good results and focus. 

4) Additional real estate.  I’m not talking about your office building or your home: Computer monitor space. I have two monitors at the moment and am looking to add a third. This might not be for everyone but certainly it is helpful for those who are taking very active roles in the meeting like the CEO, Secretary and Board Chair.  Yes, my desk does look a bit like the command console of a spaceship at times but we are getting some good work done. Adding a monitor or two will greatly ease your frustration at keeping all the various documents, windows and other interfaces sorted out.  I like to put the people I’m talking to on my biggest monitor and when someone is presenting or talking for more than a moment I can make their head “full life size.”  Believe it or not this helps. 

5) Your “Virtual Meeting Room.”   This is the space in your house where someone walking by in their tighty whities cannot ever be seen.  It has a good background, good lighting and is relatively soundproof. Every home office will soon have one! 

 So how do we put it all together? 

Determining the Agenda Plan.  In our case we decided that we would frame our work around a daily Zoom call that would be planned for two hours. This would be the place for formal minutes, notices of conflicts of interest, ratification of votes etc. It was also for small talk and catching up. The afternoons would have some assigned homework. This would include interacting on policy review documents as well as reading and commenting on monitoring reports and incidental reports. Questions and comments could be replied to, for all to see, and if there were edits to be done they could be accepted once all were ok. We had also done some of this type of work prior to our scheduled meeting days and some after. 

We developed a grid that we would place at the beginning of each document. The grid had each member’s name across the top and two rows. The top row was for a person to put an X if they had an unresolved comment on the subject matter below, along with which page it was on. The second row was to put an X when you were satisfied that no further edits were necessary. After the X’s were all in the second row our Board assistant would put a link in the document to a Google Form for a vote. We also linked all of these documents back to the main agenda document and gave them a color code that would indicate if they were open for discussionopen for voting or carried awaiting ratification.  After ratification they would turn a fourth color

We utilized Slack mostly in the times that we were not meeting in Zoom and before and after the actual meeting days. This was the place to send notices that certain documents were ready to interact with or to have some committee meetings. Slack channels were created around all the regular board committees as well as one for agenda and some other general purpose ones. 

We have arrived at a place now that is better than what we had. Yes, certainly we will meet face to face again someday, but it probably won’t be as often or for as long. Our budget team will be much happier and I believe that the product we are responsible for as board members will be better. 

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