The Effective Hybrid Board

By Thomas K. Hyatt    //    Volume 30,  Number 5   //    September/October 2022
Takeaways

  • The hybrid board is here to stay. Boards should thoughtfully establish a policy and process setting expectations for in-person participation in board work and setting parameters for remote governance.
  • Be a mindful hybrid board. Evaluate whether remote trustees are participating and are engaged as much as are those present in person. Evaluate also the mix of in-person, all-remote, and hybrid meetings. Be wary of recency and proximity biases that may unduly impact the choice of meeting format and the opportunity for remote trustees to participate in board leadership.
  • Hybrid governance has both advantages and challenges. Strive to manage the challenges by being adaptive and flexible in providing for in-person interaction while using the strengths of remote participation to fuel board development and promote trustee well-being.
  • Employ a menu of strategies to ensure that the hybrid governance model is maximally effective. Policy and process, board culture, user-friendly technology, full remote engagement in meetings, and monotasking will be at the forefront of these strategies.

We are living in a hybrid world. We drive gas and electric cars, wear sneakers that look like dress shoes, and get takeout from fancy dine-in restaurants. We may work from home most days, while our significant other works from the office most days. On college and university campuses, classes are often taught in part with live lecture and in part with virtual presentation. The Covid pandemic has accelerated—indeed mandated—the hybrid approach to most everything.

College and university and foundation boardrooms are no exception. Before there was Zoom, there was the telephone conference call. It was not unusual for trustees to occasionally participate remotely by dialing in instead of attending in person, but this was usually the exception rather than the rule. It served as an opportunity to participate for those who could not travel to the meeting because of schedule conflicts or travel challenges.

Yet we are now at an inflection point as the pandemic becomes endemic and the residents of offices and classrooms and boardrooms have the opportunity to reflect on and choose how they will collaborate with each other and get their essential work done together going forward. One change seems clear: in most instances, there will no longer be the binary choice of being present or being remote. The hybrid model—for work, for classes, and for board meetings—is here to stay.

Workplaces and Boardrooms

The most pitched debate regarding in-person versus remote participation occurs in the workplace. Many expected that once the pandemic was “under control” most workers would return to working in the office. That has not proven to be the case. It has been reported that as of April of 2022, only about a third of workers have returned to the office full time, while about half of employers want their employees back in the office full time.

The reasons for this phenomenon are many. In most instances, particularly in urban workplaces, workers have decided that they would prefer to skip the commute and work at home to be close to their families and to have a better shot at work-life balance. Likewise, millennials, many of whom are digital natives, have shown a clear preference for working remotely. The most frequently identified feature desired by employees in the workplace is flexibility.

This has led to more careful consideration of the type of work that needs to be done in the office. Productive work can be done as or more effectively remotely in the view of many, while collaboration, team building, and networking occur best when working together in person in an office. Many workplaces are trying to determine the sweet spot for in-person office activity and the concept of a four-day work week is trending. (There seems to be a strong consensus that nobody wants to work in the office on Fridays.)

This workplace debate, however, does not directly apply to the work of higher education boards of trustees. Boards do relatively little work through trustees acting as individuals. Certainly, there is the individual obligation to be prepared for board meetings, read the materials, be conversant in campus issues, understand what will be voted on in a consent agenda, and so on. But the fundamental work of boards is done in meetings. Discussion and debate and deliberation are the essence of board work. Accordingly, the focus for governing boards is not on what work can be done remotely and individually, but rather on what work can be done remotely while still working collaboratively in the boardroom. Another question is whether board work can be effectively accomplished when some are physically present while others are present only remotely.

Competing Biases

There are two common and competing biases that impact the effectiveness of governance in the hybrid board: recency bias and proximity bias. Recency bias is the tendency to view things based on your most recent experiences with them. In the case of board meetings, especially during the time of the pandemic, our recent experience with them (and with our day jobs) is that in most cases we can participate in them just as well at home. The technology that enables this has proven better than expected, and even many who felt they did their best work in the office or in the boardroom have now come to embrace the flexibility and additional time made available (thanks to less travel and casual dress) from operating and governing from home. Indeed, some are experiencing anxiety about returning to work in the office and to governing from the boardroom and see no material gain from going back to “the old ways.”

Proximity bias is the tendency to collaborate more closely with those we know and see on a regular basis than those whom we may never have actually met or typically see only on a conference call. It has been demonstrated that teams can be built and relationships can be forged between individuals who typically only connect from a distance. But trustees who do not participate in board activities in person are at a disadvantage. They lose the opportunity to engage socially, to read body language, to have sidebar communications during a meeting, and to otherwise connect in ways that meaningfully support effective governance.

Imagine that the time has come to elect officers of the board for the coming year. Are you more likely to nominate or vote for a trustee whom you have met before, seen in the boardroom, and have had an opportunity to get to know socially and build alliances with, or someone who demonstrates leadership skills in their board work, but whom you have never met in person or typically collaborate with only remotely?

The challenge for the effective hybrid board is to be aware of these biases and to reconcile them. Acknowledge that more extroverted trustees, and those who may have more leeway in their schedule, may be more likely to support returning to in-person board work, while those who may be more introverted or who may have personal or professional demands that make more fulsome participation and travel difficult, may advocate for hybrid or even fully remote board work. Finding a happy medium is essential to building and maintaining an effective hybrid board.

Being a Mindful Hybrid Board

A key to success is being mindful about the hybrid board experience. It should not be assumed that what is working now (or is not) is the way it must be going forward. Pay attention to individual experiences. A useful function of a governance committee is to check in with individual trustees to evaluate their experience, both remotely and in person. Has the technology been working effectively for them? Do they feel fully engaged when participating remotely? Are meeting locations and times convenient for in-person attendance? Is there a meaningful opportunity for off-meeting interaction with remote trustees? Evaluate whether remote trustees are participating and are engaged as much as are those present in-person. Evaluate also the mix of in-person, all-remote, and hybrid meetings. Is there at least one meeting each year in which all trustees are expected to participate in person? Does there need to be?

It is not necessary to wait until the end of the academic or fiscal year to make changes in the boardroom experience. Chairs, presidents, and board professionals can work together to make incremental changes to address issues that may lead to disengagement or frustration for remote trustees. Experiment. If the balance proves ineffective, modify it, knowing that nothing in the governance process and culture needs to be cast in stone.

A June 2022 AGB Pulse Survey offers useful context regarding the thinking of higher education boards in holding hybrid meetings both recently, and in their plans for the year ahead. The survey considered meetings formatted as hybrid (a mix of in-person and virtual attendance); all-virtual (no in-person participation); and in person. Of the 282 respondents to the survey question asking about meetings held during the 2021-2022 academic year, a range of 13.8 percent to 33.3 percent held board meetings only in person; a range of 39.4 percent to 61.1 percent held meetings only in a hybrid format; and a range of 5.6 percent to 34.7 percent held board meetings only in a virtual format. In planning for the 2022-2023 academic year, institutionally related foundations are most likely to hold board meetings entirely in a hybrid format, while governing boards of public institutions are most likely to hold all meetings in person. The responses showed that across all board types and geographies, 31.4 percent plan to hold only hybrid meetings, 26.2 percent plan to hold only in-person meetings, and 14.3 percent reported having no set plan and will tailor their format to local circumstances at meeting time. Only 0.3 percent of respondents plan to hold only all-virtual meetings.

Strategies for Effectiveness in Hybrid Governance

Here are 20 effective strategies to embrace the advantages and mitigate the challenges of the hybrid board:

1. Prioritize culture. The legendary management consultant Peter Drucker famously observed, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” This no doubt pertains to a board’s hybrid board engagement strategy as well. If a board does not maximize its efforts to fully engage with trustees who govern remotely, and to build synergy and collaboration among trustees that can transcend the remote/in-person divide, then all the strategy and technology in the world will not rescue a culture that fosters two classes of trustees and can lead to board dysfunction. Make the effort to promote in-person interaction whenever and wherever possible and monitor for signs that trustees are disengaged or divided.

2. Have a policy. As much of the world returns to work in the office, workers are hungry for flexibility, fairness, and communication. The same is true for trustees. We are far enough along now into the pandemic-induced hybrid board environment to have a sense of what works and what will not. Develop a board-approved governance policy that establishes expectations with regard to in-person attendance for trustees and staff at board meetings and functions. Expect that it will change as conditions and experiences evolve. Provide for flexibility but enforce it consistently.

3. Have a process. Once you have a hybrid board policy in place, ensure that the process follows suit. Use an online board portal to consistently and in a timely fashion share materials and updates with the board. Follow the electronic voting rules in your bylaws and ensure compliance with state law. Even if your state law may permit it (and most do not), avoid using emails and texts to conduct voting on action items. This “proxy voting” tool is no doubt convenient, but it short-circuits effective board dialogue and debate, which is essential to making informed decisions, especially in the hybrid board environment.

4. Anticipate both support and resistance. Wherever you land on balancing hybrid versus in-person governance, anticipate both support and resistance, even after the decision is made, as positions will vary, debate can become intense, and maintaining support can be elu- sive. Expect the same level of debate as is occurring regarding “return to work in the office” plans in workplaces across the country. This is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Strive for inclusion by whatever means.

5. Determine impact on board leadership and succession. Proximity bias tends to make trustees draw closer and work more collaboratively with those they know personally and see in meetings and at board social functions. This likewise impacts their appraisals of those who are most well suited and qualified to serve as officers of the board. Some may even conclude that trustees who are fully remote are not qualified to serve as board officers. Task the governance committee with working this through well in advance of the next election of officers. Provide training and service opportunities for remote trustees so that they have equal opportunities to lead.

6. Innovate. Effective boards are innovators. They are willing to fail, but strive to fail fast, learn, and move on. Learn from other institutions but be true to your own environment and culture. The pandemic forced many governing boards to innovate because they had no choice, with no certainty as to what would happen next. Draw on that experience and try out new approaches to keeping your hybrid board engaged and connected. If they fall short of your goals, don’t get stuck in neutral; try again.

7. Adapt. Likely many, if not most, trustees had little knowledge of how to use the latest technology for virtual board meetings until they were forced to learn as a result of the pandemic. Likewise, many likely did not appreciate how effective they could still be while governing from home. This new way of doing things is not over yet. We are still evolving, the technology is still changing, and we don’t really know what is around the corner. Be agile, adapt, and improvise in board policy, process, and procedure as you navigate the hybrid terrain. It doesn’t matter if you just spent many meetings developing a new strategy for conducting board work if it is overcome by events and rendered ineffective. Try again.

8. Work on resolving biases that undermine effective hybrid governance. The aforementioned competing biases of recency and proximity will stymie effective board work if they are not resolved. Accept that it is just as unlikely that we will do everything on Zoom or Teams from now on as it is that we will only allow in-person participation in the governance of the institution. Accept also that trustees can govern and lead effectively remotely if given the same opportunities and resources as are afforded to those who participate in-person. Strive to understand the needs and unique life circumstances of all trustees and build bridges to foster in-person connection as often as possible.

9. Get the tech right. There is no surer way to discourage and disengage a trustee who is trying to participate in a board meeting remotely than to use inadequate technology to permit their full participation, and worse, to demonstrate indifference by not working to promptly address tech problems when they arise. Ensure that adequate capital and staff resources are allocated to board meeting technology. Expect that some tech solutions will not work as advertised and that just when you have made a budget commitment to a particular vendor or product, something newer and with more bells and whistles will come along. Don’t let those challenges lull you into inertia. Appropriate technology is too important.

Key Advantages and Challenges of a Hybrid Board

KEY ADVANTAGES:

  • The opportunity for greater engagement and the likelihood of greater participation through more flexible scheduling and attendance requirements.
  • The opportunity to increase the diversity of the board by recruiting members from more far-reaching regions and constituencies, as well as those who may not otherwise be able to afford the time or cost of travel to in-person meetings.
  • For all-virtual meetings, the ability to plan meetings more quickly and more flexibly when only a call is required, rather than physical presence.
  • Adding fully remote meetings to the calendar saves on travel time that can be reallocated to deeper committee work and other priorities.
  • The protection and promotion of personal health and well-being, particularly during a pandemic, that derives from less travel and effective hybrid interpersonal communications.

KEY CHALLENGES:

  • The harm to social cohesiveness in a board that comes from the lack of opportunity to spend time together in person.
  • The likelihood of greater frailty in building boards and teams when some or even many participants are not together.
  • The diminished opportunity to build social bonds and friendships through board service.
  • The threat to stronger engagement that may arise when the technology impedes communication.
  • Greater potential for disengagement resulting from the inevitable multitasking that occurs when you participate remotely.

10. Use the tech right. Once you have made that investment, ensure that all trustees and staff are adequately trained in how to use that technology. The board professional and the governance committee should be empowered to make this happen. Trustees should treat the acquisition of these tech skills as an essential part of their job and doing so should be monitored in any board self-assessment. Two examples: actively use the chat sidebar in the meeting video conference to share comments, information, and links in a way that supports the discussion without disrupting it. Use video breakout rooms during the board meeting for committee business, social interaction, and just to help make a big board smaller.

11. Ensure remote engagement. Trustees who participate in board meetings remotely have a fiduciary obligation to be fully present. Having some flexibility to attend to brief but urgent tasks during longer meetings has become a part of the etiquette of remote governance (and is available to those attending in person as well). But it gets far too easy when governing from home to multi-task and get overly distracted by the dog, the delivery guy, emails, et cetera. Set expectations that trustees should stay on camera during meetings but provide for regular breaks and offline meals as appropriate. Some will rebel against having to be on camera, but this truly makes a difference in the ability to connect with other trustees. Note also that it can be harder to break into the flow of a video conference discussion when participating remotely. And some feel uncomfortable talking over others or get frustrated when they haven’t had a chance to weigh in. Pivot to the raised hand function of the video conference platform when discussion gets busy, and board or committee chairs should identify and invite trustees who have not been active to share their views. In executive session at the end of a meeting, go around the virtual table and ask each trustee to comment on how the meeting went and to raise any unanswered questions.

12. Maximize use of the board portal. The days of providing trustees with the board book, containing all of the relevant reports and materials for the board meeting, in a thick three-ring vinyl binder are largely behind us. One of the great electronic resources now available to trustees (and harried board professionals) is the board portal, an online digital version of everything that used to be provided in the binder, and more. These digital tools enable trustees to have the meeting agenda, the latest reports and updates, and supporting resources available at their fingertips during the meeting. Many will have them open on their laptops while attending in person, while those attending remotely will have them side by side with the meeting video screen. And the search bar saves valuable time when trying to find key words or documents instead of thumbing through that paper binder.

13. Keep your bylaws up to date and hybrid friendly. Ensure that your bylaws are up to date and fully permit and support holding meetings electronically to the full extent permitted by state law. Add a cross reference to the board policy on in-person meeting attendance for trustees (see strategy #2) or establish expectations in the bylaws. Ensure also that the board’s policy on proxy voting is set forth in the bylaws (see strategy #3).

14. Use board retreats for culture/team building. Board retreats come at a substantial expense. They require a substantial time commitment by trustees. For those reasons, they may be unpopular or used infrequently. But if ever there was a time that holding a board retreat is essential, it is now. Some trustees and staff will not have met in person for more than two years. Some trustees may be permanently remote (if your policy permits). Board retreats are a golden opportunity to go live, renew relationships, set culture and expectations, and revisit the strategic plan that likely is out of step with the new world post-pandemic.

15. Use board buddies. A popular strategy for onboarding new trustees is to assign them a “board buddy.” This is a more senior member of the board who is available to the new trustee to answer questions, navigate culture, and provide support. Board buddies may also prove useful for members of the board who govern remotely by pairing them with a trustee who generally attends meetings in person. The board buddy can answer the inevitable question of “did I miss anything after the call ended?” and can otherwise keep the remote trustee up to date on things that occur outside of the formal meeting.

16. Recruit for a hybrid board. When trustee participation can be meaningfully achieved entirely remotely, the universe of potential trustees dramatically expands. Use that flexibility to recruit more deeply to achieve goals of broad geographic representation (though be wary of too many time zones), diversity, and experience. Also, trustees who may not have the resources available to pay for significant travel costs to meetings can now fully participate. At the same time, be mindful of the challenges of a large hybrid board. The larger the board, the more difficult it is to provide meaningful speaking opportunities for each trustee in meetings. This is compounded for remote trustees.

17. Hold new member orientation in person. There are some elements of the trustee experience that are best done in person. New trustee orientation is one of them and should be prioritized. This will often be the first opportunity for the new trustee to meet the president and members of the leadership team and the board professional, and perhaps even to be on campus. There is no substitute for making that positive and personal first connection; it lays the ground-work for much of the new trustee’s experience going forward. If this cannot be accomplished, look for the earliest opportunity for a new trustee to attend a board meeting in person.

18. Support and rely on your board professional. Board professionals are invaluable, and they are the fuel that keeps governance operations moving forward. They know the agenda and meeting materials intimately, they know where you are supposed to be and when, and they know the tech better than anyone (or have IT on speed dial). Be sure to let them know whether you will be attending remotely or in person, share any logistical or tech remote participation issues you are having with them before the meeting, and understand the demands of their work when you seek their assistance.

19. Value and be open to communication in all its forms. In a hybrid environment, board communications take many forms. They may occur in person, over a board dinner, in a video call, on an audio conference call, in a chat bar, in a breakout room, and in text messages. And we communicate in many ways: by showing up, with body language, with side conversations, with emotion, with silence. Demeanor and body language are difficult to pick up on video calls and this can dilute the clarity and intended meaning of the speaker’s points. Breaking into conversation when participating remotely often requires patience and persistence. Accept that for all of its efficiencies, interpersonal communication is a work in progress in the hybrid boardroom. Strive to value and stay open to all of it, and to enable and promote full engagement by remote trustees.

20. Practice monotasking. In the digital age, we are all well-versed in multitasking. We can be on a board meeting video call while texting family members, responding to work emails, and ordering lunch all at the same time. Remote governance adds fuel to that fire. It is easier to multitask when you are not sitting next to your fellow trustees and especially if you are not on camera or are on an audio call. No doubt, this empowers us to better work through the impossible list of all the tasks we were supposed to accomplish today. But it invariably prevents us from being fully engaged in the important governance work of the board meeting. Board meeting time is a scarce resource. Strive to be as present remotely as you would be in person. Focus on the boardroom conversation in front of you. Be on camera. Participate. Put your cell phone aside until the break. Monotask.

Conclusion

Like most things in our lives post-pandemic, the board governance experience will likely never be the same as it was pre-pandemic. The challenges of the hybrid governing board model are not insignificant, but the flexibility of this model and the opportunity it presents to deepen trustee engagement, support innovation, promote personal well-being, and recruit for a more diverse and extended governing board will, for most boards, be just cause for championing it. Just don’t forget to go off mute.

Thomas K. Hyatt, JD, is the principal of Thomas K. Hyatt, PLLC and serves as the general counsel and as a senior consultant and senior fellow of AGB.