Digital is the new normal for committee and board meetings, so people must get used to it, says Rahul Bhardwaj, president and chief executive officer, of the Institute of Corporate Directors.

Pension plan sponsors are under lots of strain in the current environment. “You want to make sure that you have efficient, effective meetings that are really providing the best oversight and the best path forward.”

In a digital environment, the chair is of utmost importance, Bhardwaj says, noting in face-to-face meetings it’s already key for the chair to create a setting that builds trust, fosters engaging conversation and elicits multiple perspectives. “And if that was really important in the in-person, it’s even more important on an online or digital version.”

Before the coronavirus crisis, Guy Burry, chair of the pension investment committee at York University, was opposed to letting people dial in to meetings, except for emergencies. “We’ve had several [say] that they don’t want to leave their office and I’m like no, either you come and you’re part of the meeting or I would prefer that you don’t participate.”

The requirement to attend in person is partly because of the importance of body language. But given the current circumstances, Burry is now joining meetings via video conference and says it works well as it allows people to see who is speaking.

Another key to success in the digital world is a well-structured agenda, Bhardwaj says. “It’s often the role of the chair to make sure that they structure the agenda well in advance and it’s properly worked through. So, there’s a lot of work to be done in the back, and once again, this is really amplified when you have to take this into a virtual environment.”

Burry also notes the importance of structuring an agenda so the most important items are covered at the start. Even before the coronavirus crisis, many of the committee meetings Burry attends had already moved to consent agendas with the strategy and decision-making at the beginning of the meeting.

He acknowledges keeping people’s attention is difficult on video, so the most important information should come first. “I think it’s really quite difficult to keep people’s attention for as long in a video call as it is in a room.”

In a crisis, the frequency of meetings will increase, but balance is important, Bhardwaj notes. “Clearly the board wants to be apprised of matters, they want to be close to any material matters that are arising, but you don’t want to increase the cadence at the detriment of management actually working the business through the issues.”

And when hosting remote meetings, patience is key because everyone around the table is learning and each group must figure out how it will work together, Burry notes.