Home / Opinion / Columns /  To make virtual board meetings work, follow this principle

In the past year, much has been said about the future of work-from-home (WFH) for corporate employees. Many companies like Amazon and Google have delayed worker return to offices to at least October this year, while others like Shopify and Twitter are contemplating a more permanent cadre of WFH employees. As the pandemic has dragged on, virtual meeting fatigue has set in, with Citibank declaring ‘Zoom free Fridays’. LinkedIn has announced one-week paid leave for its employees to cope with WFH burnout.

One topic that has not been discussed much is the functioning of WFH boards. I use this term to refer to board meetings that are held virtually no matter where its members may be based. As uncertainty and risk rose last year, the boards of companies have been meeting at much greater frequency than they would in any normal year. It is imperative, particularly for boards of those companies that operate with a leveraged balance sheet, to meet once every few weeks in order to combat uncertainty and deal with liquidity requirements and regulatory changes. In addition to undefined work hours, anxiety caused by wandering family members, and frustration with under-performing internet connections and poor eye contact, WFH board members have had to deal with how to read signals, collaborate, and make important decisions in the absence of physical meetings.

What has worked: The most important positive about WFH board meetings is that they can be convened quickly and often. Physical meetings typically need to be set in advance (with many firms adopting annual calendars) to allow planning for inter-city and international travel. Once set, WFH board meetings typically start and end on time, since the mechanics of teams and vendors joining parts of the meeting are dictated by when it starts. This has meant that most board meetings get conducted productively with minimal wastage of time. Virtual meetings have also meant that presentations are generally curated for timeliness and projected at the same time as the conversation. Unlike in physical meetings, you are unlikely to see PowerPoint presentations with hundreds of slides on a video call.

What has not worked: The important ways in which WFH board meetings do not really work is that the structure of these meetings misses very important clues related to body language, pauses, fidgeting, eye-contact, interruption, influence, power projection, courage and timidity. Importantly, the very basis of trust in collective decision- making is difficult to accomplish in a virtual context. In other words, WFH board meetings offer an efficient alternative, but miss significant human aspects of social interaction. These elements are necessary for visceral relationships to be drawn between risks the business may be facing and bold forward-looking decisions—arguably the principal roles of a board. In physical meetings where high-stake decisions need to be made, ad-hoc conversations along the side or in corridors, or over lunch, are necessary to move thoughts along. Many boards also get together for off-site huddles outside the context of meetings. While some may argue that this decreases objectivity, if managed properly, it can dramatically improve the effectiveness of boards. Their decisions are inherently collective. Efficiency, logic and data have a major role to play, but are often trumped by the behavioural context of the decision-making.

Take interruption, for instance. Interruption at its lowest level can be annoying and distracting, but is a weapon of great nuance and influence if wielded properly in a tense board meeting. It can break the momentum, deflect, reset or outright arrest the path of a good (or bad) idea. Interruption can be a hugely positive collaborative force or a disruptive negative one. The complex social clues from just this one set of behaviours are generally not available online and are weakly substituted by virtual hand signalling when a board member wants to interrupt.

The Path Forward: The future for WFH board meetings is clearer than it is for WFH employees. Board meetings will evolve into a mix of online and offline variants. Interaction is the very basis of collective decision-making, and the nature and dynamics of virtual interaction are very different from those of the physical kind. While virtual interaction may match or improve the effectiveness of decision-making, if you consider normative models like that proposed by decision scientist Herbert Simon, recent research comparing virtual and face-to-face approaches have clearly concluded that face-to-face teams are more effective on all decision behaviours.

An emerging area of research is called ‘media choice’, which refers to using the appropriate media depending on the objectives and decisions to be made. As the virtual meeting format goes from being on a two-dimensional plane to a three-dimensional one, thanks to digital technologies like virtual reality, some of the deficiencies may become less obvious.

In the meantime, boards will likely evolve to a state where video meetings are interspersed with physical meetings. This would allow for a good combination of efficiency and effectiveness.

P.S. “Electric communication will never be a substitute for the face of someone who with their soul encourages another person to be brave and true," said Charles Dickens.

Narayan Ramachandran is chairman, InKlude Labs. Read Narayan’s Mint columns at www.livemint.com/avisiblehand

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