Governance from a distance – bringing us closer

James Tickell
James Tickell

James Tickell, Partner, Campbell Tickell, 30 April 2020

The difference between an online meeting and a (suddenly old-fashioned) ‘real’ one is like that between reading a Kindle and a book. Most people prefer the feel of a book in their hands, but actually a Kindle is fine – lighter to carry, and discharges its core function of readability adequately. When the world changed overnight last month, governance changed too, with board and committee meetings carried out on Zoom, Teams and BlueJeans, technologies that most of us of hadn’t really heard of, and certainly hadn’t used.

After a short initial phase of fumbling with commands and finding the right buttons, things settled down surprisingly quickly for most. Online meetings not only saved on biscuits and travel, but proved a reasonable way of getting the business done. As opposed to telephone conferences, the ability to see colleagues on a screen made all the difference. The trick now is to take online from passable to excellent. So what have we learned from the experience to date?

Perhaps most fundamentally, online can’t work if all participants don’t have good broadband and modern laptops. Someone dropping in and out, blurring, freezing and blaring like a Dalek spoils the fun for everyone. So too do the more determined Luddites – online Zoom training is a must for those less familiar with modern technology and its annoying little ways. This may call for financial investment – but it’ll be worth every penny. And if the luxury of two screens each can be affordable, that makes things a lot easier too, particularly when it comes to multi-tasking and screen sharing.

There are new disciplines to be learned. Those not speaking need to mute their microphones, so the odd sneeze, barking dog, or clicking keyboard don’t disrupt the meeting. Equally importantly, they need to switch back on when it is their turn to speak, to avoid giving that famous soundless goldfish impression. The chat function, alongside the main screen, is vital for signalling when someone does want to speak – it’s no good talking over colleagues, even if that may have been an occasional previous bad habit.

For the chair of the meeting there is more to learn. For a start, it needs active use of the chat function to monitor who is waiting to speak, and to signal that the request has been clocked. Overall, a more facilitative style will help things run smoothly and inclusively – making sure everyone has a fair chance to speak. It’s easy to overlook those who are less assertive, or less confident with the new way of doing business. Many chairs find it helpful to use a designated (and preferably tech-savvy) colleague as assistant to the chair – perhaps the company secretary – who can handle the backup stuff, such as screen-sharing of presentations, or splitting the meeting into small breakout groups.

Most importantly for the longer term, the new disciplines of online governance create an important one-off opportunity to make boards more effective, to concentrate on the things that really matter, and to break once and for all the bad habit of operational meddling, as opposed to providing the necessary oversight. Some boards have already delegated more authority to their executives, so as to enable quick and effective crisis responses. There’s no need to go back on that once things settle down, whenever that may be. Meetings can be shorter and more frequent if so needed – concentrating on fewer things, but more deeply.

Governing from a distance really can bring board members closer to each other and their executives. 

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