Chairing online meetings – hints and tips
We are all having to find new ways of working at the moment and inevitably our meetings are going to be a bit different too, although, it’s still important that they're still structured, and any decisions are well made.
There are many online meeting platforms available, including Zoom (every County/Area/Region, District and Group can claim a free account, find out more here), Teams and Skype. Each will have its own particular functions (some you may need to pay for as an upgrade). You'll need to spend some time to understand the particular functions on the platform you are using.
The following notes have been adapted with thanks from a document produced by Danny Curtin, Chair of Association of Chairs.
Normally we arrive at a face-to-face meeting greeted with chat and laughter, people catching up and sharing the news of the highs and lows of life. New faces are introduced and made to feel welcome. The meeting starts well with a purposeful agenda and good papers. Everyone can participate with creativity, challenge, and appropriate humour, arriving at the important decisions that need to be made.
At the end, the overwhelming feedback is gratitude for the meeting, which was hopefully well run and excelling in a sense of achievement. All this is also possible online with the right ingredients of preparation, creativity, attentiveness, and a fair bit of courage. Below are a few hints and tricks to make sure, you're meetings are met with the same effectiveness online, as if you were meeting face-to-face.
The reality is that some things take longer in a virtual meeting and others much quicker. Talk through the agenda with someone else and help one another imagine how long that agenda item needs. If you have a long meeting, you may want to consider doing it in two or more sittings with longer breaks, or even two shorter sessions on separate days.
Board only time
If you don’t already do it, consider including some trustee only time for a catch up without your executive team. Explain to the staff team that you will value the opportunity, as Chair, to share with the Board how you are and how well you think the team is doing. It can also be a personal catch up time and it gives you the chance to replicate some of those conversations that might take place over coffee before a normal meeting starts. You might want to do this at the beginning and the end of a meeting. If you haven’t had trustee only time before do agree on ground rules first and be clear about whether it is a formal part of the meeting or not and whether it needs to be minuted.
You may want to add in more breaks to the agenda than usual. Some people find online sessions more demanding than face-to-face meetings, and you cannot just stand up and walk around. You can put people back into the virtual waiting room or ask people to mute and switch off cameras and come back in ten minutes. It also gives you a chance to refresh yourself and refocus and, if needs be, check in with someone else by phone about upcoming agenda items or technical issues.
A note on arrivals
Where possible use the waiting room function. It means people can be admitted one at a time and everyone will notice when they are arriving, telling others they are joining and be ready to greet them by name. You can also set some meeting platforms ‘to chime’ as each new person joins the meeting. This will help ensure you don’t miss anyone’s arrival.
As with any Trustee meeting the right papers are key. People engage differently online, so having the right amount of information in advance will help people feel confident with online discussions. You know your board and how much information they normally need. If a lot of information is normally given verbally consider putting more information in the papers. If you have detailed papers, and some trustees like to pick at the detail during a Board session, invite questions by email in advance so you can be ahead of them. It will help things go more smoothly.
Prepare the participants in advance
Ensure everyone knows how to use the platform in advance. Offer some time to practice before the meeting. This gives you the chance to explain the different view options, so people know how to see everyone.
It is important to be able to see everyone (or to regularly check the different views) so that you can see how people are engaging with the meeting. If you are going to record the meeting (a good option to make writing up minutes easier) make sure everyone knows this in advance.
Set some ground rules
To ease the practicalities of the meeting you may want to circulate ground rules in advance. For example:
- Keep our microphones muted when not speaking
- Where available use the virtual “raise hand” option to indicate when we want to speak
However, try to also go beyond the technology issues, for example:
- Speak one at a time
- Monitor our own ‘airtime’
- Stay off our other devices/emails to avoid distractions.
Have a co-host
Appointing a co-host can be very useful if your platform allows (on Zoom you can designate another participant as a co-host if they also have an account). This means they have the means to mute people if background noise becomes too high or to help with assigning breakout rooms etc. It means you can concentrate on chairing the meeting and trust the technical aspects to someone else. We'd recommend you rehearse this in advance.
Use familiar technology
If you think there are people that might not engage with the built-in tech (like the built-in chat) use an alternative such as a meeting WhatsApp group in advance. It can provide a quick way to send things and people have a way of letting you know that they cannot hear, or that they cannot unmute. Remember, you can only make decisions if everyone is engaged fully, so pausing for people to sort out issues is important. You might want to try a tech test, ahead of your first board meeting to make sure everyone is comfortable.
Connecting with each other
Include an agenda item, e.g. “connecting” to help ease people into the meeting. This is particularly important if you have new people joining as it will help everyone get to know each other.
Giving people advance warning of this is useful and expands what you can do. For example, invite people to share an object that has significance for them and helps to share something with their board colleagues about why they are drawn to giving time as a trustee. Or send around a one-to-one question in advance and use the breakout facility’ function for people to have one-to-one time as the meeting starts. (If your platform doesn’t allow this, just mute microphones and use a WhatsApp call or FaceTime in pairs).
During an online meeting, you may need to work a little to ensure engagement. Getting creative can help. Here are some ideas:
Using visuals is not as easy online. The online ‘whiteboard’ will never replace a flip chart. Sharing your screen will not feel as engaging as a large screen in the board room. However, you can still do a lot through screen sharing. Learn how to switch on the cursor pointer so you can show your cursor when sharing a PowerPoint presentation and make it easier to speak to specific points. Have a run through if other people are helping with the tech.
Pen and paper
If you want to draw something or make notes as you would on a flipchart – just go for it. Take a quick picture and drop it into the chat.
When online, etiquette is to keep your microphone muted to reduce background noise, you may want to get creative with visual signs. For example, some Boards are familiar with hand signals to indicate to the Chair that they don’t fully understand something or that things are going too quickly for them. This could easily be transferred to an online meeting.
Consider the gathering time
Starting the meeting well is a challenge. Arriving in an online meeting can sometimes be awkward for the first few minutes. There is no coffee to make and no easy way to greet people informally. Whereas normally things happen naturally, in an online setting you may need to be more intentional about it. Consider posing a question to get the conversation going as people arrive in the meeting. Write it up large with a marker pen and put it on the wall beside you (or use the virtual background option and post a picture). It could be a fun question, something topical, or a standard ‘starter question’ e.g. What is your learning question for today? When those awkward silences come in the gathering time, you can throw the question out for a response.
Chairing an online meeting doesn’t need to be daunting if you’ve taken the time to prepare and you get yourself into the right frame of mind as you begin. This means being attentive to different things. As well as being a ‘Chair’ you also need to act a bit like a radio host, keeping things to time and ensuring everyone gets their air time, particularly those that might hang back with the technology barriers, or those who always wait to be called upon. You can use the private chat function to ask someone ‘do you want to come in on this point?’, or make sure you end each agenda item by checking if anyone else has anything to say. If you are running over time and can’t give as much time as you wish, let people know and ask people to be generous to one another so everyone has the chance to contribute.
Keeping on top of things is key. We'd recommend you ‘pop out’ my participant list window and chat window and position them in your eye line. This way you can see if people post text comments or raise their virtual hand. Set things to ‘gallery view’ so you can see everyone’s facial expressions, not just the person who is speaking. Also, try and encourage all participants to have their video switched on, where possible.
Some of the ideas above might seem like a big change from the normal face to face meeting, don’t worry – some people will appreciate it a lot, and most people will see the benefit of doing things differently to maintain a sense of community and to keep things engaging. Therefore, it is worth doing.
A key message to take from these thoughts is ‘don’t be scared to try different things. For example, some people will find it difficult to engage in a big online group. If you need a deeper dive into an important issue, you might want to be bold and give people the opportunity to discuss in smaller groups, even if it is not something you would normally do in a board meeting.
There is no reason not to do this – it can help people engage, share thoughts, and consider what they want to say to the whole meeting. Split into groups (use the breakout room facility or take things into quick WhatsApp video calls of two to four people), give people ten minutes to chat, and then come back for feedback. The feedback, discussions and decisions can still be minuted just like a normal board meeting, so you have a full record of your deliberations and decisions.
When online there are various options for voting, here are a few things you can try:
- Get everyone to raise their hand (ensure people are set to ‘gallery view’ so they can see everyone) and physically count the votes
- Take silence (or no objections) as consent
- Use a formal voting software, there are many around. British Scouting Overseas have been carrying out elections this way for many years and currently use Easypolls for elections and Survey monkey for approval of minutes, accounts etc.
Whatever system you use, you must ensure everyone has heard and understands the question and what they are voting for, and you need to make sure you have the constituted quorum in attendance.
Ask for feedback
Be brave about feedback. Consider taking feedback during the meeting. There are also plenty of free online tools you can post to the chat group or the WhatsApp group. Ask how people’s energy levels are or seek feedback on pace. And, especially if this is new for you, take time for feedback at the end. Do a ‘structured round’, hearing from everyone in turn about how the meeting has been. What have they appreciated? What is one thing that we could do differently next time? You need to hear it. And then invite people to send any further thoughts – which might occur to people later, by email.