As board meetings around the country go online, Jenny Brown at Altair talks through 10 key ways housing providers and other organisations can ensure good governance while working remotely.
The UK government has made additional announcements on remote working, but we still need to ensure that our housing associations are run effectively. More challenges will arise on top of those already in our risk registers, and our business continuity plans are truly being tested. How many of us planned for a prolonged period of challenge and the effect that might have on keeping governance effective? It’s not something we can just put on hold ‘until it is all over’.
Many organisations already have board software and online conference facilities, but now is the time to fully make use of them and to consider necessary changes to ensure effectiveness. Here are 10 factors to consider:
1. Get the technology right
It’s important to invest in making sure all board and executive members have the appropriate access, and that the technology works. Spending time at the beginning of a meeting trying to get everyone’s technology problems resolved will get things off on the wrong foot. Have someone with the right skills check in with all board members in advance and be on hand for any technical issues, so that the meeting doesn’t stall and key team members can focus. Where possible record meetings for those less able to attend.
2. Agree red lines in advance
Following on from the above, agree a course of action for those who struggle to join the meeting. Too many online meetings (or meetings where only a few people are ‘dialling in’) are thrown off course by people falling in and out of the call, resulting in debate being repeated or stilted. Agree what quoracy is and, if possible, a maximum number of times someone dials in before giving up. In addition, if you have a member of the team available on a messaging facility, they can relay comments from those struggling to participate.
3. Think about the content of the papers
Depending on how long restrictions last, it is worth reconsidering the planned items. Some items could be deferred for a short time, while others might need to be introduced. Consider what items could be commented on and responded to remotely in advance so a decision can be made as to what further conversation is required. Now is the time to really think about what the purpose of each paper is.
4. Consider the length of the meeting
There’s always a debate about how long board and committee meetings should be. Now is not the time for that conversation, but you probably need to make online meetings shorter. People find it much harder to stay engaged online when they can’t see body language, and good governance needs engaged members.
5. Take breaks
Build breaks into meetings longer than 45 minutes. In a regular meeting people will often get up for a coffee refresh while still staying in the room, so do the same online. Be clear about a reconvening time, and remind anyone with a wireless headset to take it off first!
6. Think about who needs to attend
Sometimes meetings have lots of attendees to come and listen or people who stay after their session.
Consider the best use of people’s time. A benefit of online meetings is that it is easier to bring people in for small sessions remotely without upsetting the flow of the meeting too much (see tips 1 and 2 about technology support).
7. Anticipate debate and difficult items
Online meetings are great if the business of the meeting runs smoothly, but what about if there are difficult conversations to be had or points of disagreement? All members need to be aware of the extent to which a reduced exposure to body language can exacerbate points of contention. Chairs, this is your moment to really step up – thinking in advance, perhaps with the executive’s and/or a coach’s input, about where these difficulties will be and pacing the debate around these areas, and keeping everyone on the same page, will be critical.
8. Recognise different attendees
We all have our own unique communication styles and some of these can play out much more prominently on screen. Try to make sure everyone gets airtime – those who are quieter might find it harder to find space than usual, while those who talk more might not see from body language that they’ve lost other members. As a chair you’re probably used to looking out for small signals that people want to speak. Monitoring this online in a group will be too difficult, so look first at what technology solutions there are (many online conference facilities allow you to chat or raise your hand) and then agree a way in which people will bring themselves to your attention.
“Try to make sure everyone gets airtime – those who are quieter might find it harder to find space than usual, while those who talk more might not see from body language that they’ve lost other members”
9. Think about communication styles
In online meetings there’s much less ability to convey the intention of message through body language. For example, many of us smile and nod at people to show agreement or to accompany a difficult point to show we have the best intentions. Think about trying to convert this into words instead. Encourage people to act with an open mind and to be considerate in all their communications. Be clear and remember that emotional emails are rarely appropriate.
10. Support the executive
And last but not least, this is a very stressful time for the executive team. Make yourself properly available as board and committee members, as a sounding board and checking in on their health and mental well-being, just as they’ll be looking out for the wider team.