UK government ministers in session on video link, March 2020
Everyone, including UK government ministers, had to adapt quickly to meeting online only during lockdown last year © Pippa Fowles/AFP/Getty

As thousands start to gather in Glasgow for the COP26 climate summit, braving crowds, protests, strike threats, and price-gouging landlords, the question has been posed: why don’t they just meet on Zoom? It is friendlier to the environment, they have had months of enforced practice in using it, and — perhaps, just perhaps — it is a more efficient use of their time.

That is not how everyone sees it. When “serious questions of trust have to be overcome”, human contact is indispensable, according to one senior diplomat I spoke to over the summer. At the time, he was worried negotiators from smaller nations might have to join the climate talks by video. “Virtually, it’s very tough to do these things and come to the necessary understanding.”

Many board directors, whose natural habitat, like that of diplomats, is a meeting room, seem to agree.

“Anybody who says virtual is more efficient for a meeting is believing their own baloney,” says David Cote, former chair and chief executive of Honeywell, and now chair of Vertiv, the infrastructure group. In person, people “speak up and interact — all those things humans have been doing for 10,000 years to arrive at better decisions”.

He might have added that there is one thing worse than meeting online, and that is meeting half-online and half-off. Such hybrid encounters are a reality as employees struggle to align locations and schedules. They turn out to be exactly the nightmarish blend of technological, organisational, and human shortcomings many predicted.

The first days of lockdown were bad enough. In Japan, reports suggested hapless IT technicians tried to preserve online the intricate norms of corporate rank, to give chairs and chiefs more prominent boxes on screen.

Hybrid also plays tricks with hierarchy. If cameras are poorly located, the person sitting at the head of the table in what is traditionally the chair’s throne can appear to those online as a tiny inscrutable dot. Meanwhile, on giant screens, virtual participants present as terrifying two-metre-tall talking heads.

One fix is to ensure everyone around the table has their own laptop open, which grants each participant their own tile on the videocall. But that can be impractical, particularly for impromptu meetings. Feedback, backchat and background noise are problematic and some of the benefits of in-room contact are neutered.

Executive recruiter Kit Bingham, who heads Heidrick & Struggles’ UK practice, has come across one very international board that splits itself between three in-person meetings, each in a different region, linked virtually. But he agrees: “All in-person is optimal, all on Zoom is do-able, and the mismatch of some in the room and some down the line comes third.”

Meetings form the backbone of good governance. Forced online for more frequent confabs in the crisis, board members should have become expert Zoomers. An April straw poll by Board Intelligence, a consultancy that aims to improve board practice, suggested two-thirds of boards would continue to meet online more than half the time. A majority of directors valued the time discipline and positive behaviour the online format seemed to encourage.

Even so, Jennifer Sundberg, Board Intelligence co-chief executive, is not surprised they also want to reconvene in person. Many directors are former executives, who “choose to continue to participate [in corporate life] because they typically like people”, she says.

“We all said how much we valued it and how nice it was to be back together,” one central bank director confirmed, after attending her first in-person board meeting since lockdown.

Best-of-both is the way forward, says Sundberg, but smart boards will operate a “hybrid calendar”, rather than hybrid meetings. Directors will meet virtually for supervisory duties (tracking plans and targets, for instance) and in person for “steering” conversations about culture or strategy. Steering meetings could be longer and less frequent than they were before the pandemic, with more virtual discussions in between. The prospect of fewer, longer trips abroad could even help companies recruit a more diverse group of international directors.

If this requires chairs to adapt, so be it. The long lockdown diet of online meetings has already conditioned the behaviour of participants. Online, it is easier for chairs to spot when individuals have not spoken. Tools such as chatboxes, screen-sharing, and virtual hand-raising help make discussion smoother and more inclusive. Even in Japan, online practicality seems ultimately to have trumped attempts to replicate offline hierarchy.

If most chairs and directors emerge from the crisis with new skills, having recognised they were never quite as adept at handling board meetings as they thought they were, that will be good for governance all round.

Twitter: @andrewtghill

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