July 22, 2020

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Jannice Moore

Does Your Board Multi-Task in Virtual Meetings?

In pre-COVID days, I have expressed concern about the effect on the board’s ability to govern well of board members who were distracted during board meetings by having their smart phones always at hand. The phones may have been blatantly obvious, they may have been on vibrate, they may have been surreptitiously checked under the table, or board members may even have answered phone calls in the middle of a meeting.

Usually, these board members were convinced they were the exception to the rule that multi-tasking is a myth. In reality, our reflecting brains can rapidly switch between tasks but cannot do two things requiring cognitive attention at the same time

In the current pandemic situation, where virtual board meetings have become the norm for most boards, at least for some time into the future, the temptation to multi-task during a board meeting is even greater – and easier to engage in without being detected – than during a face to face board meeting. It is to be distracted by phone calls or messages, to check email, social media, web surf, or engage in any number of other digital distractions. (I’ve noticed this is also true in face to face meetings where boards have moved to on-line portals for their meeting materials and have their computers in front of them.)

Based on a review of hundreds of research studies, Theo Compernolle, author of Brain Chains, notes that when people in meetings stay connected with their devices, they are “faking” being present.  In actuality, as far as the meeting is concerned, they become zombies for a few seconds.  They may be convinced they didn’t miss a beat of the current conversation.  However, they typically demonstrate they did by asking questions that have already been asked, giving answers already given, or missing important parts, which may not become evident until the next meeting. As a consequence, the quality of board decision-making is negatively affected.

Governance work is important. It deserves a board member’s full attention during a board meeting. Board members who are engaged in the immediate –which is what occurs when attempting to multi-task – are  more likely to have a grasshopper view than a helicopter view because their brains are engaged in the here-and-now reflex mode, rather than the reflective mode needed to make wise governance decisions. Disengagement from the immediate is important for the level of decision-making needed by boards. Think about your board’s code of conduct in relation to multi-tasking at virtual board meetings.  Take preventive action to avoid board meetings becoming a gathering of micro-zombies.

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