6 easy best practices for your next virtual family meeting
As we continue to live with COVID and the social distancing and precautions that are required, many family office professionals and advisors are wondering if we will ever return fully to in-person family meetings.
How can a family convene if it puts some family members at risk? Many have jumped on the virtual meeting bandwagon as a stopgap to meeting in person; however, this poses problems for those who: 1. Are not tech savvy, 2. Must connect from remote locations with unstable Wi-Fi connections, and 3. Are “video-conferenced-out” and are fatigued from perpetually meeting online.
So, what does social distancing and the new COVID normal mean for the bedrock of family governance—the family meeting?
It is literally and figuratively moving the physical table-stakes of family meetings, and we must consider that conducting family meetings virtually, for now, is our best option.
What are the best practices to a virtual family meeting? Consider the following six best practices for your next virtual family meeting.
1. Times up
What may have taken 3-4 hours for an in-person family meeting might be condensed down to 1-2 hours when meeting virtually. Why? Beyond the time taken during in-person meetings for meeting breaks, group break-out sessions, and meals, online meeting platforms such as Zoom, Google Hangouts, and GoToMeeting do not naturally encourage the important family interaction and engagement that normally occurs during in-person meetings. Encourage the socialization during virtual family meeting breaks either via text, offline phone calls, WhatsApp, Skype conferencing, or Facetime calls.
2. Tighten-up your agenda
Participants typically have no appetite to be in a virtual meeting longer than they absolutely need to. To hold the attention of your attendees, design and hold meetings to a tight agenda. Virtual family meetings should focus less on “discussion” and more on prepared updates, report-outs, and voting on the issues at hand. If a meeting starts to run off course, suggest tabling the topic in a “virtual parking lot” for follow-up another time.
3. Leverage technology to engage attendees
Many popular virtual meeting platforms have features that increase positive opportunities for family member engagement and involvement in meetings. Examples of technology use may include: 1) using the platform’s chat function for sharing feedback with the entire family, 2) using the platform’s messenger function to communicate directly with the moderator to raise an issue, and 3) using the platform’s polling function to take a vote among the attending family members. Once family members become accustomed, expect to see the benefits of these powerful communication tools.
4. Advanced preparation for attendees
Many families direct their participants to read board books, previous meeting minutes, financial statements, and investment reviews prior to their meetings. The importance of brevity of virtual family meetings can be reiterated by encouraging the importance of family members coming prepared and ready to actively participate in agenda items that require input in a group forum, such as: 1) topics that will be reported out, 2) specific topics that will be reviewed as deep-dives, 3) issues that are up for a vote, and 4) new and old business. The more board or shareholders are briefed in advanced, the more productive the time will be virtually.
5. Anticipate technology troubles and develop back-up plans
From your cousin in the city in an ice storm, to your aunt in the remote mountains with poor Wi-Fi, anticipate that you will likely have one or more family members with technology issues. As such, provide all documents needed for the meeting securely in advance via a DropBox or Box.com or the family’s private document vault. Provide call-in numbers so that family members can listen and participate if the virtual meeting platform fails to connect and then have the hard copies or the documents viewable on their computer if they do not have strong enough signal or enough data to get through the meeting.
6. Record, record, record
The blessing of many virtual meeting platforms is the ability to record each meeting and download a complete meeting transcript. So, if a family member is ill, unable to attend, or simply not accessible during the meeting time, they may be able to see the recording or transcript. If you are the secretary of the meeting and are tasked with taking notes, these meeting recordings ensure that nothing is missed or is recorded incorrectly in the minutes. This may help to confirm: 1) decisions that were made, 2) feedback on issues raised from various family members, 3) family member meeting attendance, and 4) the action items coming out of the meeting.
It is uncertain when reconvening in-person family may occur; however, the new normal will certainly help the travel expense budget and help keep family members safe. The key is helping all family members find the cadence, the effectiveness, and the reinforcement of this new methodology similarly to the COVID protocols of social distancing, washing hands frequently, and wearing masks in public places. For some families, virtual family meetings will be adopted their new normal despite the pandemic, and for others it will likely become a hybrid of both in-person and virtual meetings. We hope these best practices are helpful to readers who are looking for tips when planning their next virtual family meeting.
To request sample family meeting agendas contact Dr. Kirby Rosplock at Kirby@TamarindPartners.com.