Establishing trust on a board is difficult enough on its own. It’s not unheard of for boards that have been working together for a long time to struggle with trust issues. Building trust is even more difficult in a virtual space, especially when many of the attendees have never met in person.
Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, virtual meeting tools have become the norm out of necessity. Regardless of the need for social distancing, boards still have an obligation to fulfill their fiduciary duties and to continue providing strong leadership.
It’s possible to work on building trust and cohesion virtually. It manifests a bit differently when using virtual meeting platform, so for it to work well, you need to take a meaningful approach to it.
Begin with a Sense of Joint Purpose
In general, when a new group of people gets together, a bit of trust exists at the start. There tends to be a spirit that everyone is in this together. Either they succeed together, or they fail together. It’s important to set very clear goals that everyone understands together from the very beginning, which provides an opportunity to build on the initial momentum of the enthusiasm of the joint purpose.
It’s also important to consider that interpersonal trust doesn’t generally build on its own. The board leaders need to do their best to encourage interpersonal trust. When people have personal connections with one another, they’re more apt to go the extra mile for each other.
Communication is of the utmost importance when using a virtual meeting platform. Generally, when groups switch to a virtual meeting platform, one or two people take care of the communications. It’s crucial to maintain predictable communication patterns. Team members are likely to contribute more equally when the communication patterns are consistent. Consistency will inspire participants to let others know when they’ll be unavailable. This alleviates the problems of frustration by the other members when someone isn’t responsive.
One other important difference between in-person meetings and virtual meetings is the flow of power. For in-person meetings, it works best to have the board chair or other meeting facilitator take charge and manage the agenda and flow of the meeting. With virtual meetings, it often works better to allow the power to flow organically. The balance of power will change throughout different phases of the project.
Engaging Small Boards Through Use of Virtual Meetings
The COVID-19 crisis has been especially difficult for board directors of smaller-sized boards. Decisions often need to be made rapidly, which can be challenging without the assistance of a virtual meeting platform.
Across the globe, there is much anxiety surrounding the COVID-19 crisis. For many people, it’s creating greater and unusual demands on their time and finances. First, there’s the concern about protecting themselves and their loved ones from catching the virus or caring safely for a loved one that’s fallen ill. Your staff may be worried about having food and other provisions for their households. Family members have increasingly needed to take on other roles such as teacher, coach, chef, or caregiver. In many instances, people have had to look for new work.
This is an important time for the board chair and CEO to present a unified front. At this time, they need to reassess the organization’s needs, which may be greater at this time, and rework their game plan accordingly. The board chair and CEO should always have a strategic partnership, but it’s more important than ever to have a check and balance in their relationship.
How to Be Inclusive in a Virtual Meeting
Just as there are rules, best practices, and protocols for face-to-face meetings, virtual meetings have the same expectations, with some slight changes to the practices and procedures. Of utmost importance is how to keep all participants active and engaged in the meeting.
Careful planning begins with thoughtfully developing the agenda. During times of crisis it’s important for boards to shift their focus to areas that are the most critical to the mission. That will free up the board’s time to focus on issues that require the most engagement and allow for adequate discussion times on those issues.
One of the benefits of virtual meetings is the built-in engagement tools such as chat, polls, and raise hands. Board members that have been hesitant to offer input in the past, may be more inclined to participate using these types of tools and features, which will improve the level of engagement.
Board leaders should also be aware of the pros and cons for people with disabilities. People that have vision impairments won’t find it beneficial to have video during the meeting. Those that are hearing impaired may have the option of having closed captioning. Be sure everyone has instructions for those that will be calling into the meeting for how to mute and unmute the line.
Another idea that supports inclusivity is to encourage participants to include pronouns along with their names to support inclusivity for transgender, non-binary participants, or people with unisex names.
Tell people that they’ll be muted when they enter the meeting. During the pre-meeting instructions, encourage participants to use nonverbal tools until Q&A time. If participants put questions in the chatbox, it provides presenters with an opportunity to work the answers to questions into the presentation (just be conscious that whatever is written in the chatbox may be considered part of the meeting minutes). Participants can also raise a virtual hand if they want to add something timely to the presentation.
It’s important to caution against adding uninvited guests to the meeting. Some virtual meeting platforms have a waiting room feature where individuals can wait until meeting leaders have been able to confirm their identity. Be sure that attendees know they have to properly identify themselves during the meeting and who they need to contact if they have trouble entering the virtual meeting.
The importance of establishing and building trust is no less important when board directors make the switch to a virtual meeting platform. For many boards, there’s a bit of a learning curve involved. If you prepare well, you’ll have few or no technical issues. The key to building trust and cohesion is to ensure that it is prioritized and continue encouraging it at all levels.