Virtual board meetings – are they here to stay?

  • Claire Blackburn, Senior Manager |

5 min read

Along with many other aspects of how we conduct business, COVID-19 has impacted how boards and their committees are meeting and making decisions.  For most businesses, meetings are being held virtually using video conferencing technology and there are several benefits being seen.  But will virtual meetings become the new normal?  Or is human interaction in a physical meeting still too important to lose? 

Claire Blackburn, KPMG Law explores whether virtual board meetings are here to stay, gathering perspectives from company secretaries and directors to gain their views with some clear themes emerging.

Virtual meetings save time and cost

With directors no longer needing to travel, there has been significant time and cost savings, particularly for those organisations with directors based overseas.  Scheduling meetings and co-ordinating diaries has also been easier, however different time zones have presented challenges! Many company secretaries are also reporting that the meetings themselves are running much more efficiently.

Are virtual meetings more effective?

For many businesses, the virtual environment has positively changed board room dynamics. Technology is enabling the chair to control the discussion more effectively and where previously, individuals may have been spoken over and their view not heard, they are getting an opportunity to speak up. In addition, with less travel requirements, NEDs (Non-Executive Directors) have more time available to prepare for and be more vocal in meetings, creating more challenge than previously. In comparison, others are seeing certain directors being quieter and not contributing as much as they would in person. Fatigue may also have an impact, with individuals finding it difficult to focus for longer meetings and with more potential distractions, for example picking up other work.

Acceleration of electronic board packs

Whilst there has been an increasing trend in recent years towards electronic board packs, COVID-19 has provided further acceleration towards complete replacement of paper board packs.  Some businesses have taken the opportunity to review their meeting processes and have introduced improvements. One firm I spoke with have introduced a pre-meeting Q&A process for materials, whereby NEDs have the opportunity to submit questions and receive a written response prior to the meeting. The results of the Q&A are published as part of the meeting and recorded in the minutes. This new approach has been a great success for the firm and has been welcomed by their NEDs. Addressing the NED's questions in advance has allowed for more focused debate during the meetings and as a result, the firm are proposing to continue with this process for both virtual and in-person meetings.

The positives and negatives of connectivity and technology

Company secretaries have and are continuing to spend a significant amount of time supporting their boards, by responding to technology queries to ensure they are fully equipped to participate in a virtual meeting. Connectivity issues have caused some disruption, particularly for those based in more rural settings. I discussed the merits of different technology platforms available for meeting management with several company secretaries. There was agreement that the ability to have attendees waiting in a lobby until the right point in the meeting was a key benefit brought by certain platforms. It was also recognised that improvements could still be made to further enhance the platforms to both assist the chair and company secretary in co-ordinating the meeting and in addition, streamlining the director’s experience.  

Enhancing human interaction within virtual meetings

The main drawback of virtual meetings identified by directors and company secretaries is the lack of interaction with colleagues. The issues around this have been two-fold. Firstly, the lack of social interaction due to limited or no pre or post meeting catch up; and secondly the potential negative impact on discussions and decision making, particularly for contentious subjects. One NED I spoke with felt firms have missed the opportunity to have more creative interactions.  However, many firms are implementing solutions, such as pre-meeting virtual coffee sessions or informal checkpoints separate to the formal meetings, which had created some great discussions and ensured all directors felt in touch.  

What does the future look like for meetings?

With a number of benefits of virtual meetings, it is clear that they are here to stay. However, a hybrid model with a mix of in-person and virtual meetings was the ambition of everyone I spoke with. Virtual meetings are most likely to be used for shorter ad hoc meetings, where the time/cost savings clearly outweigh any negatives. However at least a couple of larger meetings are likely to held in person each year. It is hoped that when the in-person meetings can resume, they will be much more productive and focused on strategy and key topics. Therefore, the 1-2 days will be less jam packed, as other sessions usually includeded such as training or other formalities, will have been completed separately. 

Top Tips: How can I host an effective virtual meeting?

Given that I believe virtual meetings are here to stay, I wanted to share some top tips to make the meeting as successful as possible:

 

  1. Set ground rules, so all participants are clear how the technology will be used, and how the meeting will be conducted.  For example, how will voting be carried out, should all participants be on camera etc?
  2. If presentation slides are being used, look to assign the task of controlling the slides to someone other than the company secretary, if possible.  Company secretaries may be good at multi-tasking but controlling the slides on top of managing attendees and taking the notes may be a step too far! 
  3. Make sure there is someone lined up to stand in as chair or to take the minutes, should the chair or company secretary have connection issues.
  4. Look to put in place a direct line of communication – even if just a WhatsApp chat – between the chair and company secretary.  This would effectively replace the notes that would have been passed in a physical meeting and means the company secretary can support the chair with timekeeping.
  5. Directors should ideally have different devices or screens to manage any different platforms being used, so they can easily view the papers and still see the other participants in the meeting.

For more insights on best practice or if you would like to discuss how KPMG Law can provide corporate secretarial support for your board and/or committee meetings, please contact Claire Blackburn.

KPMG Law is part of KPMG LLP, a multi-disciplinary practice authorised and regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority. SRA ID: 615423.