Holding hybrid or solely virtual board meetings has changed the boardroom dynamic. How can coaches support board members to continue to perform at their best? Andy Davies reports


The response to the COVID pandemic has driven many corporations to adopt a hybrid physical/virtual arrangement for board meetings. And, while board members tell me they’re no substitute for having everybody in-person in the boardroom, virtual board meetings are likely to persist to some extent post-crisis.

The FTSE chairs I’ve discussed this with, suggest that an average of eight board meetings a year, split 50/50 virtual and in-person, is a likely model moving forward. While a 2021 American Board Practices and Oversight Report by the National Association of Corporate Directors notes that, even when the pandemic is over, virtual board and committee meetings are expected to make up a significant proportion of total meetings.

Although most directors on the boards of large corporations have some experience of virtual board meetings, they continue to evaluate how best to meet the demands of the virtual environment. And, having spoken extensively and regularly with many chairs, non-executive directors (NEDs) and senior executives from major publicly listed organisations, there are a number of insights that can inform coaches supporting clients to ensure virtual board meetings remain as productive as possible.


Make it work

Support clients around how they can restructure board meetings

As boards shifted to virtual board meetings the need to reconsider the structure of the meeting quickly became apparent. Board members have been clear that the in-person format of a day-long meeting, divided into two sessions around the board table, four hours in the morning, four hours in the afternoon, just doesn’t work online.

It’s not healthy to stare at a screen for four hours. Board members were suffering from headaches and screen fatigue. If they are not already, chairs should be delivering online board meetings in smaller, snappier segments, with more breakouts and breaks.


Fatal flaw

Being rigid about having everybody in the room or nobody in the room

Chairs also tell me that their preference is, if at all possible, to have everybody in the room or nobody in the room, and they try to avoid having some members physically present, while others are dialling in via a video-conferencing platform.

Having said that, a number of chairs have experienced a situation where everybody was due to attend in person but a NED was unable to fly over at the last minute, due to travel restrictions, or illness. Here it’s about supporting chairs to get the choreography of the meeting sorted out, encouraging creativity. For example, rather than have that person join via a laptop in the corner of the room, arrange the board meeting in a horseshoe format with large screens at the places where members attending remotely would usually sit. This makes a hugely positive difference to the dynamic.


Make it work

Time is precious, and too much screen-time is depleting: encourage more considered contributions

Restructuring the usual board meeting format has a number of knock-on effects that board members should be prepared for. A good example is the increased time pressure. To minimise the time spent staring at a screen, how can coaching support board members to have more focused and time-efficient virtual board meetings, with tighter agendas and quicker decision making? How can board members be supported to ensure that their contributions are constructive, considered, relevant to the discussion, and succinctly delivered? There’s absolutely no room for demonstrating expertise and experience for the sake of it.


Make it work

Build relationships proactively

Effective functioning of the board is heavily reliant on the trust borne out of the relationships board members forge with each other and the senior executive team, notably the CEO, CFO and divisional leaders. However, the pandemic has complicated relationship building. An increase in virtual board meetings means fewer opportunities for the usual pre-meeting dinners, coffee breaks and informal chats, for example. This is particularly a challenge for new NEDs as there is less scope to participate in a structured induction. Chairs need to be aware of this issue and supported through coaching to more actively aid relationship management and bonding.


Make it work

Understanding the business

Another related issue identified by board members is balancing the virtual board meeting’s heightened need for thorough preparation with the challenge of keeping up to speed with the business in an ongoing pandemic. In a possibly more perfunctory and transactional virtual board meeting environment senior executives will quickly lose respect for and patience with poorly prepared NEDs. Coaching needs to support executives to prepare thoroughly but speedily.

Currently, non-executives may be restricted in their ability to visit major international operations, plants and facilities, spend time with divisional leaders and local management and gain an insight into the culture of the business outside of head office. As a result it is even more incumbent on chairs and NEDs to promote a proactive approach in keeping up with the details of the business – operations, strategy, and the opportunities and threats the organisation faces, for example – as best they can, whether through online interaction and information gathering (and in-person where possible) or adapting pre-work methods.


Fatal flaw

Stifling debate

In the more tightly scheduled, time pressured, virtual board meeting environment, board members have noticed a distinct change in the nature of discussions taking place. As contributions are more closely confined to specific points, and because it’s more difficult to pick up on non-verbal communication or assess the energy of the virtual room, there tends to be less open and creative conversation.

These types of conversation, the more strategic, brainstorming conversations, are an important part of the value that the board provides to the organisation.

There’s no single easy solution but coaching can help chairs and others to be more creative and to encourage spontaneous open collective debate and dialogue at in-person meetings, possibly through designating specific breakout sessions are one possibility.


Make it work

Wider inclusion: broadening board participation

One positive that board members can be supported to more fully exploit from the shift to virtual is the ability to include individuals who don’t sit on the main board. Companies with significant overseas operations might not be able to fly in regional heads for practical reasons, for example, but now CEOs can consider including them remotely when appropriate.

It also gives the board better access to current performance updates and trends, and provides a useful opportunity for direct reports and possible future NEDs to experience the rhythm and temperature of a plc board meeting.



While the verdict on their benefits may be mixed – many enjoy the flexibility in terms of time and travel, but miss the opportunities for relationship building and informal debate that in-person affords – it seems virtual board meetings are here to stay.

Given the different demands these remote meetings create, board members will undoubtedly benefit from considering the issues highlighted and being coached around these.


About the author
Andy Davies is a senior partner with Kingsley Gate Partners. He has more than 25 years’ leadership and executive search experience working across a range of publicly quoted private equity-backed, and privately owned businesses. Working primarily at board level within the sectors of engineering & manufacturing, financial services, and technology, he has expertise in all leadership functions, including chair and NED, financial, legal and company secretariat, as well as CEO and CIO. He’s also a trusted board advisor.