Chairing in the Time of Physical Separation* – Six Tips for Chairing Remote Board Meetings

Chairing a board meeting is hard work and you feel tired at the end of it, right? 

I’m the same. It probably means you’re doing your job properly – actually your three jobs as chair:

  • First, you’re managing the process of the meeting. To most people, this is your main role.
  • Second, you’re still a director – not just a facilitator. 
  • Third, as chair, you can’t afford to miss a beat: you need your antennae up the whole time, to know who should speak, who shouldn’t, and when to move on. 

Once you’re chairing your meetings over Zoom, Skype or Teams, in the era of ‘social distancing,’ the intensity of concentration moves to yet another level. Instead of sitting in a room with people around you, you’re looking directly at your screen and everyone else is staring back, or more likely just past you, since their camera and screen aren’t in quite the same position. 

Probably most differently, you can’t make eye contact with any one individual: a raised eyebrow towards one becomes a raised eyebrow at everyone.

Here’s what I’ve learned in the last few weeks – six ideas (and one observation) that I hope will help you get the most from your video board meetings.

  1. You need to run your meeting slightly more formally than when you’re together. When you’re around the table, people can sense who’s about to speak and as chair you can decide whether to allow it or catch their eye to indicate that you want someone else next. In the virtual meeting room, it’s helpful to say at the start that you want all microphones off (cutting out barking dogs, beeping phones and electronic echoes) until someone is about to speak. Then you have a better chance of saying who you want to hear from next, rather than several people speaking over each other.
  2. Not everyone’s concentration will be as sustained as yours, so it’s all the more important that as chair you summarise each resolution exactly, immediately before the decision. This is a good discipline for chairing generally, as well as helpful for your minutes secretary, who may have been trying to follow a wide-ranging debate. 
  3. Video meetings are intense and tiring, and people can’t shift in their seats as easily as when they’re all together in a room. I think it’s important to be aware of physical comfort and wellbeing, so try to keep your meeting shorter than you might otherwise. (I’ve found that most people are willing to meet more frequently in this way, if you need to.) And most people welcome a 5-10 minute break at reasonable intervals, so they can stand up, refresh themselves and pour some more coffee.
  4. I like morning board meetings, before people are involved with other matters during the day. With virtual meetings, especially under lockdown, when almost every business in the country is using video instead of flying or driving, the nation’s bandwidth can come under pressure at peak times. This can result in fuzzy sound or a frozen picture, which is distracting at least, and at worst you miss a crucial comment or question. Most people have no more than a 20 metre commute right now, so why not use that and meet at the start or end of the day, during ‘drive time’?
  5. At the end of any board meeting, as chair I like to check in with our CEO: did they get the decisions they needed; are they feeling motivated by the discussion; did they fully understand directors’ intentions? This is particularly important after a difficult board meeting. It’s also helpful to check with your other directors at such times: have egos been bruised, or relationships strained, in the desire to get to the right decision? This takes a bit more effort after a virtual meeting, when you have to phone each person separately, but it pays dividends every time. 
  6. When you’re looking into your screen, remember that your colleagues are staring at you continuously much more than when you’re sitting next to them. They’ll notice what type of shirt you’re wearing, and it’ll be obvious whether you’ve attended to your personal grooming or shaved (as applicable). You may be sitting in your kitchen or your children’s den, but you’re still presenting yourself to business colleagues: your choice! As with TV newsreaders, what you wear below your waist is entirely up to you … until you stand up.
  7. Finally, I’ve discovered one unanticipated benefit of remote meetings: you need feel no guilt about that garlic you had in last night’s dinner!

I don’t think video conferencing will replace all physical meetings, even after isolation ends, but they’re all we have today and I’m sure we’ll be using them more. Recognise how they differ, make the most of them – and good chairing!

*  With apologies, on behalf of every blogger on the planet, to Gabriel Garcia Márquez for reducing his novel’s evocative title to cliché of the month – beginning with an email from our erudite board secretary, ‘Meetings in the Time of Covid.’

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Published by westlakenz

Experienced board leader and chair; Teacher, mentor and adviser to boards, chairs and CEOs; Governance presenter, commentator and conference speaker.

One thought on “Chairing in the Time of Physical Separation* – Six Tips for Chairing Remote Board Meetings

  1. Further to your third point, I read an article recently (can’t remember where – been a bit over-saturated with Covid articles!) about the mental dissonance of video conferencing that’s particularly straining – your mind working double-time to engage but also recognise the others are ‘not really there.’ So in addition to what you’ve outlined in your post, we’ve got that to contend with, too!


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