Leadership

How Boards Can Thrive Virtually

By / Aug 8, 2021 (fizkes/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Studies show that boards have adapted well to virtual meetings. With new COVID-19 variants disrupting in-person meeting plans, there are opportunities to improve.

Bad news first: All the talk about a hybrid “new normal” looks a lot more normal than many of us thought even just a few weeks ago. Earlier this summer, COVID-19 infection numbers were rapidly diminishing, and people were back to planning in-person meetings. With new variants causing the number to rise again, a lot of those plans are now on pause.

The good news is that boards’ ability to adapt to this situation may be better than it appeared to be earlier in the pandemic. A report last month in Nonprofit Business Advisor points to a study by OnBoard, a maker of nonprofit management software, which found that impressive proportions of board members have adapted well. A solid majority of respondents (79 percent) said their boards have improved effectiveness in the past 12 months, and 66 percent say they’ve seen improvements in collaboration.

When everyone occupies the same amount of digital space, there’s a democratizing effect.

More modestly, only 47 percent say they’re spending more time talking about strategic issues. But given the urgent issues of the past year—not to mention the challenge of getting boards to focus on strategy in the first place—let’s call that something not unlike a win. (Respondents were drawn from staff members as well as boards, so the survey isn’t just the board being self-congratulatory.)

OnBoard Chief Marketing Officer Rob Kunzler told Nonprofit Business Advisor that board meetings are improving because virtual meetings have leveled the playing field—and more board members are showing up to play. “When you move everyone into a single shared platform, effectiveness increases,” he says. “When everyone occupies the same amount of digital space, there’s also a democratizing effect. Meeting participants who may have been less vocal in an in-person setting feel more obliged to participate or say their piece, increasing collaboration. Many boards also noted increased attendance, as traveling to or from the meeting were no longer necessary.”

There’s also evidence that virtual meetings are more efficient: A report last month in Harvard Business Review on boards’ digital transformation found that not only is attendance at board meetings 20 percent higher, but meetings are also 30 percent shorter.

Virtual board meetings still present challenges. For one thing, there’s evidence that while boards are getting better at getting work done over Zoom, they’re still punting on issues relating to strategy, diversity, and volunteer recruitment. According to the new OnBoard survey [PDF], 58 percent of respondents say they have not evaluated themselves on environmental, social, and governance issues. As I wrote back in February, “Virtual boards may not be causing new problems, but they’re not eradicating old ones.”

If boards are going to continue to improve, Kunzler said, a couple of tactics are important. First, streamline online meeting tools so that boards aren’t using a “hodge-podge” of applications that generate confusion and amplify frustration. Second and perhaps more important, make “hybrid” the watchword for board meetings in general, but not for within a particular board meeting; if you do have an in-person board meeting, avoid having some participants Zoom in. “Designate some full, in-person meetings and a number of all-remote meetings per year,” Kunzler says. “Before the pandemic, we all experienced the ‘hybrid’ meeting where some are in the room, and others join by video or phone. Don’t repeat this mistake.”

We’re a long way from perfecting this system. But for better or for worse, associations now have more reasons to dedicate time to working on it.

Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. More »

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