As higher education institutions have been transitioning to online governance and meetings during the Covid-19 crisis, here are some common lessons and useful tips that you may find helpful to support effective online meetings and governance.
- Establish ground rules at the beginning of the meeting.
- Remind members to use the mute button to prevent background noise when they are not speaking.
- Encourage using the chat facility if members are trying to speak, but have been unsuccessful in being heard or gaining the attention of the Chair. Some online systems have a “raise your hand” functionality which is another way of indicating that you would like to speak to draw the attention of the chair.
- Discourage use of the chat facility for members wishing to replicate what they should be contributing in person as text comments. Although it is appropriate to share links to other documents and supporting material which may be helpful.
- The role of the Chair is crucial in any meeting, but particularly in online meetings. Formally introduce each agenda item, and where appropriate, invite a presenter to speak to the item. Facilitate questions and summarise any actions and decisions just as you would in a face to face meeting.
- Not everyone is always visible in an online meeting as some software limits visible faces to 4, so Chairs could call upon groups of members (ie staff and student governors, executive members and lay governors) in smaller groups to make comments on a specific item, rather than issue a general invitation to all participants.
- As with a face to face meeting, ensuring a communication channel between the Chair and the Secretary to the Board is important. You may choose to set up a separate online chat, text or WhatsApp so messages can be quickly passed to one another where appropriate.
- A number of institutions have made a member of the IT team available throughout a meeting (particularly for high level meetings with lots of external participants such as Council/Court) who can support with tech problems if they arise.
- Invite members to turn off their camera if there are issues with technology that relate to speed/bandwidth as it may help to resolve the problem.
- Explore the pros and cons of different software and how they might work in your institution.
- Consider what is visible on the shared screen. For some items it might be useful to have the paper that is being considered on the screen, for other items (particularly discussion) it may be better for the faces of the participants to be visible. Ideally this should be considered in advance (and may switch during the meeting depending on the item).
- Where feasible, invite participants to raise questions and queries in advance of the meeting, so that questions of clarification of operational detail can be dealt with ahead of time.
- Given the nature of the present challenge relating to Covid-19, shorter agendas with a focus on the biggest items has become more normal. This is helpful for smooth running meetings, but it is worth being explicit that it may have a related impact to shift the traditional boundary between governance and management which should be considered.
- Most online meeting software gives you the capacity to record the meeting, but you should be mindful this means that the contents will then be subject to Freedom of Information. You should notify participants in advance if there is an intention to record, as this is likely to be considered ‘personal information’ which members could request.
- Any discussion in the chat area is likely to be subject to freedom of information requests, whether the meeting is recorded or not.
- Breaks are important, just like a physical meeting but perhaps even more so for online meetings. It is recommended not to go more than 90 minutes without a short break, 60 minutes is preferable.
- In theory, more people are at home during the current crisis, so scheduling online meetings is easier than previously scheduling a face to face meeting. With that in mind, still being considered about the boundary between governance and management is important.
- Be considerate about the timelines to schedule a meeting (giving sufficient notice to participants both for the scheduling, but also to allow them to read papers in advance).
- Consider having a ‘dry run’ test in advance if most members are unfamiliar with the technology.
In terms of the practical set up, the following ideas may also be helpful:
- The Secretary to the Board, or another member of the governance team (rather than the Chair) should act as the meeting host so as not to distract the Chair from focusing on chairing the meeting.
- Ensure that the meeting dial-in is circulated clearly in advance (both as an email and also a calendar invite). It is usually advisable to re-send these details shortly before the meeting is due to begin.
- It may be useful to invite members to join the meeting 10 minutes in advance, so that any technological difficulties can be resolved and to quickly test that audio and video functionality is working for everyone.
Aaron Porter is the Associate Director (Governance) for Advance HE leading on engagement with governing bodies and governance across the UK, including leading reviews of board effectiveness as part of our Governance Development Programme.