Shaping and Creating the New Normal for Boards Post COVID-19

Alan Hewitt  |  May 13, 2020

I’ve been encountering the phrase “New Normal” on a daily basis – especially as we enter our 3rd or 4th month of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Most of the changes in the way that we live or work have been driven by the extremely damaging effect of the virus and its dire impact on the human population. We have changed our behaviour dramatically, but our need and/or desire to connect with each other has remained strong. Whether that is for social or business reasons, we have seen a rapid uptake of conferencing tools like Skype, Zoom, etc. As evidence of that, consider the sales of webcams for your computer; they’re selling out everywhere. This is becoming the New Normal, at least for now.

The question that we need to ask ourselves is: what would we like the New Normal to be? Will we gradually slip back into our old behaviours and ways of working, or will we seize the opportunity presented by this terrible virus to make more longer lasting changes to how we work and play?

On the business side of the equation, what will the New Normal look like? More importantly, what do we want it to look like?

I found this article from McKinsey.

One of their summary comments stood out to me:

This much is certain: when we finally enter into the post-crisis period, the business and economic context will not have returned to its pre-crisis state. Executives preparing their organizations to succeed in the new normal must focus on what has changed and what remains basically the same for their customers, companies, and industries. The result will be an environment that, while different from the past, is no less rich in possibilities for those who are prepared.

BOARD ACTIVITIES IN THE NEW NORMAL

In the context of board meetings, what would we have learned about running more efficient, more effective meetings enabled by technology?

We need to critically study what worked better:

There are the benefits of less travel, resulting in better use of individuals’ time. Additionally, there is a diminished reliance on building or meeting rooms, which makes one wonder how much actual office space is needed in the future. Also, the fact that we have held more meetings remotely has probably resulted in paperless briefing documents.

We can also consider the matters we can improve on:

Is there a way to efficiently create and distribute information? As most of us are painfully aware, good internet access and bandwidth are critical to the success of video conferencing. How well have these worked during this period, and what could we do to improve them?

I pose this question: how will you engage your organisation in a discussion around creating a New Normal?

We are living in strange times. Nothing feels the same, but we are coping. We are all still gaining experience working in new ways that may be more structurally sound for our businesses moving forward. As the restrictions on travel and work are relaxed, we have the opportunity to shape new processes. By maintaining some of the innovative ways of working and capitalising on experience, we can establish a New Normal – one that makes us more effective and efficient.

CREATING THE NEW NORMAL

I found the following article on the Bain Company website which looks at the learning points gained, so far, during the COVID-19 pandemic, titled “Covid-19: Building a Digital Bridge to the New Normal.”

I would recommend reading the full article, but I will draw your attention to the 6th point that is made:

6. Embrace the agile, distributed workforce

Leaders are quickly building new ways of working for their distributed teams that reduce costs and enable their businesses to move faster. This entails deploying digital tools that go beyond teleconferencing to improve how the organization plans, collaborates, innovates and executes. As a result, these new ways of working already have many businesses feeling more, not less, efficient. (Read more in our Harvard Business Review article about how leading companies have embraced Agile principles.)

Our world will be increasingly made up of teams that operate remotely, hence distributed solutions and systems will be key.

Let’s take a further look at how things might, or can, evolve in the New Normal.

MEETINGS: FACE-TO-FACE VS. VIRTUAL

Boards are likely to question the reason why they need to get together in one place, when they can make better use of their time by holding board meetings virtually.

Has technology advanced sufficiently that we now feel more comfortable holding meetings virtually? I still believe that face-to-face dynamics are an important aspect of forging good, strong, effective teams, so perhaps a mix of virtual meetings and some meetings held in one physical space might be the way to go.

Remote meetings, and how they are currently being managed and facilitated, can be studied and reviewed. In a blog article from last November, we looked at Best Practices: Facilitating Virtual Meetings.

Remote meetings bring their own set of challenges:

  • How can you ensure that all attendees are contributing to the meeting?
  • How do you persuade the more “forceful” members of the group to give others the opportunity to explain their points of view?
  • How can you ensure that you are truly getting consensus when it’s not easy to see the non-verbal indicators that might be reflective of how members are truly feeling?

In reality, the same issues might present themselves in face to face meetings. I hope that the referenced blog article gives ample advice on how to best approach this area.

INFORMATION SHARING

The move to more frequent online meetings drives the need for better managed information sharing. It has become a challenge to keep everybody briefed via paper documents, therefore distributing information electronically becomes key. But digitising poor hard copy documents isn’t the answer.

In the blog article, Style Matters: Writing Effective Board Papers, from July last year, we looked at how the creation of good quality well-structured information is key to providing the Board with:

  • the information they need
  • in a format that is easy to digest and understand

Perhaps now is the time to review and change the way your organisation creates board packs. Challenge yourself to think of them as sources of information and learning, as opposed to mere documents.

USE OF ADVANCED TECHNOLOGY

We can also leverage technology and the rapidly evolving application of artificial intelligence (AI) to help us:

  • Build better more focussed agendas.
  • Ensure that attendees are clear why they are attending a particular meeting and what is expected of them.
  • Specify the purpose of every agenda item.
    • For example: Is an agenda item included to inform? Is it to frame the basis of a discussion? Or does it require a decision to be made?
    • If we structured and articulated our agendas in that way, we could use technology to ensure that:
      • If an item is labelled so as to indicate that it requires a decision, all actions taken are captured.
      • Information such as who will carry out the action and in what time frame/due date are logged as well.
      • We could then ensure that all action items are tracked and carried forward to the next meeting.
BOARD MEETING STRUCTURE

We should also review the structure of our board meetings.

We often schedule packed agendas partly because people are traveling, and we want to make the best use of their valuable time. But if we held more meetings remotely, could we have shorter meetings but apply greater focus on a single topic? Would this lead to better outcomes?

Longer meetings often result in items further down the agenda getting “squeezed” and rushed. Frequent, shorter meetings would ensure all agenda items are getting the same amount of time and attention that they deserve.

ADEQUATE CYBERSECURITY 

Finally, board portal technology has evolved to a point where we will soon be able to make all of the above a reality. However, in my opinion, technology should never dictate what we need to do as a business. Instead, it should be there to enable and help businesses – or Boards – run more efficiently and effectively.

Technology will have a major role to play in the New Normal. It will allow us to be more flexible in the way that we work, the way that we interact, and the way that we share and distribute information which means that, in this New Normal, we must do everything in a safe and secure environment.

Cybersecurity issues frequently make headlines, and the move to doing remote, online meetings has led to security exposures and risks in the systems that we are currently using. As we move forward, there are a number of key questions that we need to ask about the security and safety of the systems that we use. This excellent blog piece on data security and certifications highlights the questions that you need to ask any online supplier to ensure that you can work in the New Normal safely and securely.

CONCLUSION

To close, we have the opportunity to structure the way that we work and operate moving forward. COVID-19 is a dramatic event that we never expected to face, but as with all enforced, high-impact change, it brings with it an opportunity to reassess our ways of working and thinking. It makes us ponder on how we might be able to derive value from uncertain, trying times.

Alan Hewitt

Alan Hewitt

Alan is a Non-executive Director at Praxonomy. Alan has worked in IT Services and Consulting for nearly 40 years including 30 years at IBM, where he was an Executive Partner in IBM’s Global Consulting Business responsible for the development of the Workforce Transformation Practice. Since leaving IBM in 2010, he has worked as an independent Business Consultant working for major companies across industries and the world. Alan is a Fellow of both the IET and BCS.