Slowly, unevenly, but definitely, the year of COVID trauma is starting to thaw.
The global drive to develop, produce and administer vaccines has been accelerating for several months, and in many countries, we’re bending the needle on new infections and immunity. Masking and other protection measures are becoming second nature, local lockdowns are easing, and travel is increasing.
For the world’s boards of directors, the question arises – now what? You’ve had a year’s sabbatical from the boardroom, convening online through Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and other digital tech. Is it time for your board to start thinking about a return to in-person board meetings? The news media offer plenty of recent items on deciding when it’s safe for employees to return… but what about the unique situation of a board? Should you reconvene, and if so, how?
▪ Start your assessment with a review of just how well your board has learned digital governance over the past year. In our April 2020 issue, I suggested boards put off some big decisions until they could again meet face to face. But as the months dragged on, some of these decisions couldn’t be deferred, and boards made an interesting discovery. As they grew more skilled at online governance, more and more board actions that everyone assumed “had to be handled in person” actually could be managed virtually. Inventory your board’s new digital capabilities over the past year, and weigh other in-boardroom “musts” that maybe aren’t.
▪ Next up – inventory your board members for their views and status. Every director I’ve talked to lately looks forward to finally getting back together face-to-face, but they also have many caveats. “There is a hunger to connect,” notes Claudia Allen, senior advisor to the KPMG Board Leadership Center. Most of your board members are the older demographic that qualified first for COVID vaccinations, but they’re also more likely to have underlying health conditions. Find out who on your board is immunized, or when they will be. Also, be extra sensitive in gauging how, when, and if each member feels ready to head back into a boardroom.
▪ Step three – look at current and pending “regulations on getting together by state, and by country,” counsels Sarah Zapp, founder, and CEO of the BeyondBoard online community. Lockdown rules are shifting constantly worldwide, with bans and quarantine times in flux. Countries and airlines plan “vaccine passports” to ease international travel for those inoculated, but firm standards are yet to come. Assuming your board would meet at company headquarters, what will local travel rules there allow? Are hotels, restaurants, and transport open fully enough locally to make convening practical? If not at the moment, when? Put together a checklist of factors that must be met.
▪ Even if you hit the magical moment when you can hold an in-person board session, assume virtual meetings will be a major part of your governance mix for the near future. This can also mean customizing hybrid virtual/in-person mixes, which offer a good way to ease into resumption. If the CEO and several directors are immunized and can make it to a central location, those unable to travel yet can Zoom in from their end. “In-person can be used for smaller groups or committee meetings,” notes Allen. “A combination gives you added flexibility.” Innovate.
▪ Finally ready to bring the whole team back into the boardroom? Even if all are immunized, keep up the hygiene practices that we’ve made second nature over the past year. Wear masks in the meeting by default, spread out around the board table, offer plenty of hand sanitizer, keep boardroom traffic to a minimum, and no buffets for lunch.