Calling in? Tips for better board meetings

I’ll bet your board has encountered this situation:

One or two of your directors can’t attend the board meeting in person but could attend by phone. As much as you dislike this set up, you’ve got some critical decisions that need the quorum they bring. So you connect them by speaker phone.

But this participation feels unsatisfying on both sides. The directors in the room are never sure whether the telephone attendee is really listening, checking email or even still in the room. And what’s that dinging sound in the background?

Meanwhile, the phone caller doesn’t know how to jump into a conversation, doesn’t know or can’t hear who is speaking, can’t see the materials everyone is referencing and isn’t sure whether he or she has been forgotten.

There has to be a better way.

I was delighted to recently participate in a very useful webinar on making the most of virtual meetings with facilitator Nancy Settle-Murphy, President of Guided Insights. Nancy’s firm provides meeting facilitation, workshop design, facilitation skills and cross-cultural training and virtual team training and support..

Nancy generously let me share some of her tips with you.

Managing the hybrid meeting.

First, this type of meeting has a name. Nancy calls this mixed attendance situation a “hybrid” meeting, where some of the folks attending are together in the same room and others are remote.

First question: Should you hold a hybrid meeting at all?

Overall, Nancy isn’t a fan of the hybrid meeting as the remote folks can feel disadvantaged or alienated from the discussion. It is especially difficult for long meetings where the logistics of managing the remote caller can limit conversations and drain the energy from the room.

Nancy suggests equaling the playing field by either by saying no to remote participation or by asking everyone to participate remotely.

The wholly virtual meeting may be a frequent occurrence at many national or international organizations, driven by the challenges of geography and the cost of gathering everyone together. Though even the BBB Wise Giving Alliance Charity Standards skew toward face-to-face meetings.

In my own work with boards, most local, state or regional organizations tend to only use the totally virtual board format when they have a very pressing timeline and need to make only one or two decisions. Gathering everyone together on a conference call for 30-60 minutes is more successful than trying to physically get together, usually on short notice.*

And while it might be desirable to ban remote participation at regular board meetings, trying to reach that unfortunately often elusive quorum simply doesn’t make it practical.

Tips for improving the hybrid meeting

So what are some of Nancy’s tips for making the best of a not always desirable situation?

Enforce a few ground rules for communications. For example, make it a rule that everyone in attendance says their name before they speak.

Bring the presence of the virtual attendee into the room so they aren’t forgotten. Nancy suggests putting a large tent card with the virtual member’s name and photo near the phone, or tying a balloon on the phone to remind everyone that someone is on the other end.

Check in regularly with the remote board members. You might want to start your discussion by specifically asking your remote board members for their opinion.

Make sure every has the same meeting materials. You can send these out in advance or post them online so that your remote person can see the documents that are being discussed. (With today’s use of tablets and laptops substituting for paper, more and more organizations are posting all board meeting materials in central project files for their members to have ready access to without the need to print out all of that paper.)

• And here’s one you may not have thought about: Describe any nonverbal communications that covey important information. “People are nodding” or “people are rolling their eyes.”

Thank you, so much Nancy. I’m ready to put your ideas into practice myself.

You’ll find lots of other advice on the hybrid and the virtual meeting in the Articles and Guides section of Nancy’s website. And stay tuned for her new book, Leading Effective Virtual Teams, due out in December 2012.

How have you handled virtual attendance?

I’d love to gather helpful tips that you’ve put into practice for your board. I hope you’ll share.

*Gayle’s Note: Be sure to check your state’s laws governing nonprofit board meetings. Most states allow participation by electronic means as long as everyone attending can hear each other simultaneously. But if your board is subject to open meeting laws, other rules might apply.

3 responses to Calling in? Tips for better board meetings

  1. Avi Kaye

    One of the suggestions in our post about hybrid meetings ( is to make sure beforehand that all the technical aspects of the meeting work.

    I’ve been to enough meetings where the first 20 minutes are wasted setting up the GoToMeeting, or installing Skype on somebody’s computer, and so on. Make sure everything works BEFORE you start the meeting to ensure smooth running.

  2. Jerry Hingle

    Good tips overall. The more experience you have with these meetings, the better. Definitely prepare and sort out technical issues beforehand, and always introduce yourself before speaking. Or remind them who you are.

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