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Beyond the Virtual Board Meeting – 10 Considerations for Hosting an Engaging Online Event

April 6, 2020

Posted in: Uncategorized

You’ve probably had your first online board meeting to discuss the immediate impact and implications of COVID-19 on your organization (if you haven’t, check out our article on Board Meeting Practices Beyond the Boardroom. You may have experienced some technical issues but were able to adapt and learn how to work together effectively in the virtual boardroom. But what happens when the time comes to have an online meeting or event that engages a larger group, or needs to create a different experience? Virtual meetings become more challenging as more participants are engaged (including those external to your organization) – the technical requirements become more complex and the need for a coordinated support team becomes critical. Added complexity calls for even more intentional design – here are 10 things to keep in mind as you design your next online meeting or event.

1. Know the baseline requirements and conditions

  • Depending on the nature of the meeting (e.g., board meeting, AGM, election, etc.), your options for moving it online may be limited
  • Review the following documents to understand what applies to you:
    • Your governing legislation (e.g., CBCA, CNCA, provincial Corporations or Societies Act, etc.), and any associated regulations or guidelines (including anything being communicated by the relevant authority, in light of current circumstances)
    • Your articles of incorporation, bylaws, or other constating documents, and formal policies
  • Look for what is explicitly allowed (or disallowed) but also for related considerations such as location of meetings, physical presence, etc.; also consider whether other activities are tied to the event or meeting (e.g., member or shareholder updates, director elections, financial audit, etc.)
  • Consider any policies, practices, or historical norms that may also inform your decisions and plans, or require you to be thoughtful about laying the groundwork for a change in approach

2. Consider the context and the nature of the business to be conducted

  • Map out a rough agenda of items, including discussions, formal motions, etc. that you might expect to address in the meeting
  • Consider what level of interaction is required to ensure that these have been delivered to the standard you need and important perspectives are heard; some items may need rich dialogue and engagement, others may need a reliable and confidential voting mechanism, etc.
  • Use this to define what kinds of platform, roles, resources, and communication you will need in order to be successful; in other words, what conditions must be in place for you to achieve the objectives of the meeting, with the broad acceptance of participants (e.g., members, stakeholders, investors – whoever the key audience is, depending on your organization and the nature of the event)

3. Communicate early and often, even before a decision

  • Think of this as a change process and consider what will be needed to ensure the buy-in of participants and other stakeholders, so that they accept the meeting and its outcomes as legitimate
  • It is helpful to lay groundwork early when possible, letting participants know through regular communication channels they access (e.g., newsletter, email updates, etc.) that this change is being considered and why
  • This will not always be possible, and in some cases if a decision needs to be made quickly, it will simply make the most sense to tell participants as soon as you are able, and give them a way to ask questions or understand how and why the decision was made

4. Choose a platform that allows sufficient engagement

  • Based on the conditions for success you have identified, determine which tools will best get you to the right outcome, taking into consideration the size of the participant group and the nature of accessibility required
    • Web conferencing tools improve and become more affordable all the time; for many situations, a carefully designed plan using the features of a web conferencing platform may meet the need
    • For more complex situations, such as large and high-stakes meetings, a full-service provider may be required for success
    • In addition to the event platform, you may want to consider how you will collect questions, views, preferences, proxies, mail-in votes, etc. ahead of the meeting

5. Help participants prepare well

  • For your participants to engage well and support outcomes, they may need your help to prepare
  • Consider whether they may need guidance or resources for:
    • Accessing and effectively using the platforms/technologies you have selected
    • Meeting any pre-registration or advanced communication requirements
    • Accessing and understand pre-reading materials
    • Preparing their contributions and questions
    • Understanding the etiquette, expectations, or communications norms for this new context
  • Create a set of guidelines for how to participate in the meeting so that expectations are clear, and provide these well ahead of time; make it clear that these need to be reviewed in advance so that participants are not surprised at the last minute by the need to prepare and participate differently

6. Establish essential roles

  • Virtual events and meetings often require a variety of supporting roles to make them effective; this may include:
    • Facilitators managing the meeting process, ensuring the agenda flows well and objectives are achieved
    • Presenters speaking to particular topics (and/or experts available on call for specific questions that may arise)
    • Producers managing the technology, sound, presentation materials, etc. so that all are effective
    • Technical support people helping address issues ahead and on the spot
    • Moderators for questions in chat functions, virtual breakout rooms, etc.
    • Minute-takers, whether working in the moment in whiteboards or recording in detail for the future
    • People counting attendance for quorum, recording votes or tallies, etc.
  • To coordinate all of the above, you may also need someone to act as project manager, and you may potentially need to draw on others to support communications, platform choices, and other key advice and support
  • Not every meeting will need all of these roles, and some people can wear multiple hats; but it is important to think through what is needed, who will play each role, how and when they will be needed, and how they will be coordinated amongst themselves especially if they are also virtual

7. Road test roles and platform – start small and then scale

  • The more important the meeting or event, the more essential it will be to do a dry run with all of the identified roles engaged
  • Often it makes sense to do two dry runs, including:
    • A smaller test with people in the supporting roles, to get aligned and comfortable with the platform
    • A live test with a group of real or mock participants, to understand what the experience is like for participants and how things are affected by having a larger group of people on the platform
  • It can be helpful to have group or individual participant pre-meetings a week or so ahead of the main meeting or event, so that participants can test their access and get support to work through any wrinkles on their end

8. Ask for understanding

  • Be up front with participants about the rationale for the change and the fact that it may not run as planned when you first make this change
  • Ask for their understanding and engage them as partners in making the event successful; tell them what you will need from them to help make this work for everyone

9. Stay nimble

  • Expect the unexpected; have back up plans for when things do not go as well (e.g., a presenter loses their network connection; participants have technology issues)
  • Ask participants to connect several minutes in advance, and have technology support available to greet them and to assist with any challenges
  • Set the tone from the outset of the meeting or event that this will be a learning experience, and let them know what the process will be for re-connecting, changing the approach, or other things that may arise (e.g., letting them know that email is the place to check for quick messages in the event of an issue; suggesting they send any urgent problems via chat to a particular person)

10. Listen, learn, and follow up

  • After the meeting or event, ask for participant feedback on the objectives, the experience, and the platform and resources
  • Gather the team together for a debrief; celebrate successes and feed forward learning for next time
  • Communicate out learnings to participants along with thanks for being part of the change

As with in person meetings, the key to a successful virtual meeting is intentional design. But in these uncertain times, adaptability is also critical. Plan ahead as much as you can, assemble a strong team with key roles, flex your problem-solving skills when challenges arise, and learn and move forward.

As always, we’re here for you if you have questions about how to best support your board in these changing times.