With COVID-19 forcing director meetings online, the value of the face-to-face board meeting is being understood and appreciated in a new way.

One of the more intriguing aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the way in which it has forced us to confront the reality that some seemingly mundane things in life should not be taken for granted. For a few weeks in the early summer, we were all reminiscing about the seeming luxury of getting our hair cut professionally: not to mention the simple pleasures in life such as the hug of a loved one or a chat and a simple cup of coffee with a friend. We discovered that these are more important than we had imagined and we can be sure that once life returns to some sort of normality we will appreciate their value afresh, for a while at least.

In the world of the boardroom, there has been a similar appreciation of the value of the face-to-face meeting which has not been particularly evident in the past. Having been involved in board meetings for more than 30 years, it has sometimes seemed to me that many directors regard board meetings as something to tolerate rather than enjoy. Indeed, in the early days of the pandemic, amid all the flurry of boardroom activity occasioned by the crisis, the novelty of video-conference meetings seemed to be welcomed with a sense that this could be the way forward for boardroom efficiency. An article by Matthew Syed in The Times in early May 20201 went further and asked whether the new environment could make up for what he called “the dysfunctions of physical meetings”. He argued that the virtual world has a democratising effect by diminishing the impact of presence and appearance which can have an intimidating and dulling effect on diverse debate in physical meetings. However, he did also acknowledge the so-called zoom effect of people speaking at the same time, difficulties in hearing and responding, and the lack of protocol which often inhibits fluid discussion.

As time has passed, these limitations of video-conferencing have become apparent and as a consequence the benefits of meeting face-to-face have been increasingly extolled. As directors have reflected on the lessons to be learnt from the pandemic, consensus seems to be emerging that virtual meetings have a valuable role to play in certain circumstances of the board’s programme; however, this cannot replace the importance of boards meeting together. Thus, in recent board discussions, there is an acknowledgement that virtual meetings are valuable for dealing with transactional processes e.g. progressing an acquisition, where the level of in-depth discussion needed is relatively minimal and the key output is the decision rather than the debate. However, when the matter under discussion is wide-ranging and complex or is contentious and requires time and space to allow proper discussion, then the value of face-to-face meetings comes increasingly to the fore.

Another interesting observation over recent months has been the degree to which the strength of the personal relationships among board members has helped or hindered board discussion in the virtual format. Newly appointed directors, in particular, have found virtual meetings more difficult to tune into because they do not know how to interpret the mood of a discussion because non-verbal communication is so limited and have suggested that face-to-face interaction is needed. Not everyone would agree with this assessment. A recently published report by Deloitte suggests that such personal interactions can be achieved by virtual onboarding of new directors and using zoom drinks to replace board dinners to “encourage personal connection rather than a business agenda.”2

One suspects that the pros and cons of physical versus virtual meetings will be debated for many months to come. However, there is clearly a new appreciation of the value of meetings, now, and this in turn is shaking up directors’ complacency about the conventions of their meetings. As boards reflect on these lessons, new conventions and approaches will emerge – the hope is that these result in better decision-making and more effective boards.

  1. We can go on meeting like this – Matthew Syed, The Times, 1 May 2020
  2. From surviving to thriving: How the Boardroom is changing for the better – Deloitte, December 2020