With the first steps out of lockdown, boards are reflecting on the positives and minuses of virtual working over the last year. Here we summarise their challenge as they look ahead.
Virtual working has helped board efficiency
First the positives. Board members have valued Teams and Zoom as tools to sustain the board governance processes in the most challenging of circumstances. As the crisis hit companies across the country in March 2020, virtual working technologies facilitated board meetings in ways that could not have been achieved by phone and email. Boards were able to react fast, putting small groups together to address areas of concern. It was particularly useful (and straight forward) for the board to access new and specialist skills, regardless of geography, to help assess the unprecedented challenges that many businesses were facing. Gone were the requirements to travel, so board meetings could happen more frequently, and board members report that participation was high. And at the board meeting, individuals adapted to the turn-taking style of discussion, preparing their input to make their point clearly within the limits of the technology. All in all, boards made efficient progress against the odds.
As time progressed, frustrations have emerged
In the recent long winter lockdown board members have become increasingly aware of the limitations of virtual meetings, while fully accepting the benefits outlined above. Although the technologies facilitate efficient transactions, there is a paucity of the necessary open discussion to address complex strategic issues. The opportunity to share opinions and to debate conflicting views and opinions has been reduced. And it is only through open dialogue, sharing the diverse experience around the board table that enables quality, creative decision making. But there has been no board table around which to focus these sorts of more discursive interactions.
The 12 months of virtual working mean that new patterns of behaviours have emerged. Some boards have reported that there has been a loosening of the relationships that underpin the working of an effective board – and some examples of bad behaviour. Board members crave more informal interactions and the collegiate feel of a board in action.
For new board members who may have joined in the last year, there has been a very limited induction missing the physical experience of the board and the culture of the business. But for all board members there is a danger that with little physical interaction with the business and its people, there is a developing disconnect from the business context that should inform their deliberations.
And looking to the future
The challenges ahead for all boards are considerable but not unsurmountable. Virtual working has entrenched new ways of working and some new behaviours. Some of these changes will be welcome and should be protected, and others may need to be challenged.
It is time for boards to give attention to the need to specify their ‘new normal’. This will be different for each board, but most will want to protect some of the efficiency gains of virtual working and balance this with greater attention to relationship building across the board and visible engagement with the business. And most important will be to find the time together to address the complex challenges that face all businesses in the post pandemic world. The successful board will be able to balance efficiency gains with truly effective collective debate and decision making in the months to come.