Analysis: Does attendance by videolink help or hinder board meetings?

Remote working has changed the way many organisations operate, but how does it affect the traditional format of a charity trustee meeting? Sam Burne James reports

Engaging with remote trustees can be a struggle
Engaging with remote trustees can be a struggle

Allowing trustees to attend meetings through videoconferencing can improve attendance and means that people who are less mobile can still participate.

Tesse Akpeki, a governance consultant, cites the US non-profit Creating the Future as an organisation that has gone remote- only – all board meetings take place through Google Hangouts and it allows non-members to watch live or on YouTube afterwards. Hangouts is free to use, but Akpeki warns against scrimping on cost. "Sometimes the free programmes such as Skype might not work as well as something like GoToMeet," she says. "The latter has a small cost, but it provides better quality."

Ruth Lesirge, chair of the Association of Chairs, says that even with good software, remote attendees at board meetings will struggle to be fully engaged; some verbal nuances and other subtleties might be lost. "There are advantages to seeing the body language and feeling the atmosphere of a physical meeting, and to the opportunity to drink tea or coffee and chat as people arrive," she says.

She also warns that those who do take up the opportunity to join meetings from the comfort of their own homes might end up distracted if they find they can check emails or the football scores unnoticed. In addition, older trustees might be less ready to accept this kind of innovation, she says.

But the main argument against meetings by videolink concerns engagement and participation. In November Joe Saxton, co-founder of the consultancy nfpSynergy, chaired a board meeting of the poverty and environmental charity People and Planet. He says he found that the board member who was attending by videolink couldn't catch his eye and join the conversation as naturally as those who were physically present. "I don't think you'll ever be fully participating in a meeting if you're on video," he says.

Trustees must also make sure that remote attendance is permissible, or not specifically prohibited, under their constitutions, which might even need to be amended to suit. Kenneth Pinkerton, a senior associate at the law firm Turcan Connell, says: "Many charities are approaching us to make sure that their constitutions allow them to communicate electronically and that they don't have to just hold their meetings around a table."

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