As the coronavirus pandemic ground the world to a halt in March 2020, stopping was not an option for Gale Rubenstein or her colleagues on the board of trustees at the University Pension Plan Ontario.
The jointly sponsored pension plan had only come into existence two months earlier, and the clock had already begun ticking on the July 1, 2021, deadline for its full implementation as plan administrator, serving members and retirees from the UPP’s constituent institutions: Queen’s University, University of Guelph and University of Toronto.
“That date can’t be changed . . . pandemic or not, that’s when the assets and liabilities of the old single-employer plans are transferred to us,” says Rubenstein, the UPP board’s inaugural chair.
Having eighteen months to transition is shorter than it seems when you’re starting from scratch, she adds, explaining that her early priority was getting the rest of the UPP trustees appointed and up to speed, so that they could engage a recruiter to help them identify a chief executive officer.
“On Friday, March 13, 2020, we had a board meeting with the search firm by phone, and then the world changed,” says Rubenstein.
In Vancouver, Rosalind Gilbert, associate partner in Aon’s retirement solutions division, remembers a wave of calls around the same time from sponsors looking for advice on whether they should proceed with scheduled pension committee meetings.
“Our message was: ‘Don’t delay. Don’t put governance on hold for this. You need to find a way to pivot to virtual,’” she says.
Adjusting to Plan B
Continuity in plan oversight and administration is critical in a time of crisis, agrees François Parent, Gilbert’s Montreal-based Aon colleague. “What this pandemic has showed us is that administrators must have a Plan B. For sure, it was — and still is — a big learning curve, not just for the committees but for us consultants.”
Parent adds the size of the adjustment varied according to the unique circumstances of individual pension committees, but Rubenstein isn’t ashamed to admit that hers has been at the larger end of the scale.
“I’d never even heard of Zoom before all this,” she says.
Still, Rubenstein and her team have adapted quickly, breaking meetings up into shorter chunks in an attempt to avoid screen fatigue and checking in regularly with each other to keep participants engaged.
“You have to work at maintaining relationships,” she says. “By now, everyone is speaking up in virtual meetings but it took some time to bring that kind of comfort.”
“It’s working because everyone is committed to making it work,” adds Rubenstein, noting she can’t help missing some parts of the old committee gatherings. “I’m a big believer in people meeting and having coffee. That sort of social camaraderie, as people eat and drink, is really important.”
The transition was smoother for Winston Woo, the chair of the pension committee at AGS Automotive Systems, thanks to his previous experience at a multi-national technology company.
“It always made sense for us to connect remotely, so our team was pretty used to it,” he says. “I don’t think we lost a beat.”
In fact, Woo says the committee kicked up the frequency of their meetings in the early days of the pandemic —moving from quarterly to monthly — so that they could respond to the heightened risk and uncertainty that the coronavirus crisis brought to the investment market.
“The key to connecting online is getting used to the Hollywood Squares style. When you’re speaking to nine screens at once, you can’t get the same kind of eye contact or body language,” he says.
But virtual meetings aren’t all bad, according to Woo, who suggests that our glasses are becoming more rose-tinted the longer we go without face-
For example, he says the long-haul flights and exhausting inter-city car rides that are required to get the members of many pension committees together in one room can take their toll on participants, not to mention the sponsor’s balance sheet and the environment.
In addition, cell-phone distractions and off-topic chit-chat are at least as prevalent in the boardroom as they are online.
“In-person meetings can be dysfunctional as well, so in some ways going virtual has allowed us to be more focused,” Woo says.
Learning from doing
After a year observing virtual pension committee meetings — sometimes as many as 15 per month — Zaheed Jiwani, a principal at Eckler Ltd.’s Toronto office, says most show clear signs of progression.
“Everybody has struggled and nobody is perfect, but we’re starting to get an idea of what works and what doesn’t.”
For those looking to improve even further, Jiwani breaks down his advice for the perfect virtual meeting into two baskets: pre-meeting preparation and in-meeting leadership. “When you look at the preparation stage, it needs to be given as much attention as the meeting itself, which is something that is lost on a lot of people,” he says.
In addition to agreeing which platform to use for their meeting, Jiwani says participants should conduct a test run well in advance of the meeting. “What you don’t want to happen is one or two members turning up halfway through or missing it altogether because they couldn’t connect,” he says.
While many would argue a clear agenda was always central to an efficient meeting in pre-pandemic times, Jiwani says it has become even more critical in the virtual world.
“All content needs to be distributed to attendees in a secure manner in advance of the meeting. This way, if there is a technical disruption, people can still refer to their materials and follow along while they try to reconnect,” he says.
When it comes to timings for each item, Jiwani suggests organizers build in plenty of extra minutes, especially in the early stages of the meeting.
“Individual members are not going to have seen each other in a while, so you find there’s a lot more catch-up time needed for everything that would have been said in person out in the hall or as you walked in to the room,” he explains.
Finally, he says all committee members should know ahead of time who will act as chair — not necessarily the person with that title, but the individual most capable of running things in practice — because their role will become crucial once the meeting actually starts.
“They must take control right away, set the ground rules for how the meeting will flow, and importantly, how people can participate,” Jiwani says. “Then the chair has to be constantly aware of the time, making sure everyone stays on schedule.”
Platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams have their own functions for raising issues and chatting with other attendees that pension committees may wish to use, Jiwani says. Preferences will differ according to the number of people involved, but it’s down to the chair to set — and then enforce — the rules.
“The chair should clearly call on people who raised their hands, and make sure their questions or comments are addressed in sequence,” he says.
“That’s important, so that nobody is dominating and others feel able to participate.”
Looking to the future
According to Al Kiel, senior vice-president at Morneau Shepell Inc., many pension committees have adapted so well to the online world that they are likely to stick with virtual meetings to at least some extent even when they are no longer necessary.
“It’s almost second nature to a lot of us now,” he says. “I expect to see a bit of a culture shift from this need to meet in person all the time to a more hybrid approach.”
If some good has come of the pandemic Todd Saulnier, the chair of the Association of Canadian Pension Management’s national policy committee, says it has shaken people out of their comfort zones, helping them access previously untapped reserves of flexibility.
“The other day I was on a Microsoft Teams meeting and the power went out at home. There was no internet, so here I am, quickly getting my iPhone, downloading the app and logging back in three minutes later with data,” he says. “I couldn’t imagine that happening a year ago.”
At the UPP, Rubenstein remains keen to get back in the same room as her fellow trustees whenever it’s possible: “I’m still a firm believer that there’s nothing like being face to face with another person,” she says.
When coronavirus case numbers dipped in the summer of 2020, she even began investigating the possibility of a socially-distanced, in-person board meeting before a fresh spike in infections forced her to abandon the idea.
But the success of her online experience has opened her eyes to the further potential of virtual meetings.
“There are going to be new opportunities coming out of this to reach out to members in ways that we might not have done otherwise,” she says. “I’m very hopeful that when we’re all free to get together again, we’ll be able to marry that with the best of the virtual technology we’ve all come to
Michael McKiernan is a freelance writer.