How to return to in-person board meetings and retreats as the COVID-19 pandemic winds down
It’s April 2021 and your board retreat approaches.
Half of your board members—and all of those over 65 or with chronic health conditions—have received a COVID-19 vaccine. New COVID-19 cases have dropped below 60,000 a day nationwide, and the positivity rate in your state is below 5%. Board members debate the precautions they will take to meet in person. One member says she will participate remotely. But one thing is clear: The board will meet in person—for the first time since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But how? It’s been so long since many of us have met in person. What will we do together? Will it be the same as before? How will meeting face-to-face improve on our virtual meetings during the pandemic? We recommend following the tips outlined below to have a safe and productive first in-person meeting with your board as the pandemic winds down.
1. Allow people to reconnect first as people
When family members become estranged from one another, as in the case of a parent and child after a hard-fought custody battle, professionals use “reintegration therapy” to heal wounds and to reestablish a healthy connection.
The COVID-19 pandemic has estranged us from one another. Sure, we’ve had Zoom calls—In fact, some of us have had even more meetings than before. But our contact in these interactions hasn’t been 100%. We’ve left things unsaid. We’ve been distracted by rambunctious kids and barking dogs. We’ve missed out on the nonverbal communication—and even physical touch—so critical to effective human interaction. Even virtual meetings that intentionally included social-emotional elements likely fell short of the interactions one might expect during an in-person meeting.
At your first in-person meeting, participants will need to reintroduce themselves to one another based on where they are now. We have all experienced significant disruptions—similar and different—and we have suffered losses that we have not yet had a chance to process in person with another human being’s undivided attention. Your board members care about one another and will likely want to hear how colleagues and their families are faring.
- Establish psychological safety in the design of the meeting.
- “Seal the container” by prohibiting phones, email and other distractions.
- Obtain consensus (if possible) that anything shared will be held in confidence.
- Limit attendance to board members and the CEO.
- Tell participants that they are welcome to step out of the meeting if they need to (e.g., if their emotions become too intense) and have a plan for someone to go with them to make sure they are OK.
- If possible, have someone present who has completed the Mental Health First Aid certification or other relevant training.
- Engage a professional facilitator who can create and hold a safe space for emotional sharing.
- Conduct an activity early in the meeting where all participants can share their own experiences of the pandemic. After a few minutes of individual reflection, invite participants to pair up to share their thoughts with a partner. Then slowly combine the groups (e.g., eight to 10 minutes in groups of four, then eight, etc.) until the full group is back together. Do not put anyone on the spot or require anyone to share if they don’t want to. Allow people to just sit and listen if that’s their preference.
- Steer clear of politics, which in this case includes both the 2020 election itself and the various issues (e.g., pandemic response) that have been politicized. Focus on the desired outcome of the meeting—reconnecting as a leadership team and starting a new journey together in a much-changed world.
- Share the agenda before the meeting so participants know what to expect. A participant may tell you ahead of time that they will come for the “business” part of the meeting but not for the personal sharing. They may have good reason; perhaps they are not yet ready to explore their emotions about the pandemic in public. But if they are just overlooking the importance of this sharing, tell them that the sharing is the business of the meeting—the business of reintegrating as a team—and invite them to participate if they can. If they decide to come late, let your facilitator know ahead of time in order to have a plan for integrating them into the group.
2. Approach strategy as a ‘blank slate’
Once participants have reconnected on a personal level, slowly introduce the organization’s strategic or operational context. Don’t assume that everyone is already up to speed, even on issues discussed on Zoom calls they attended. (Distractions in the background have a way of obscuring nuance and detail.) Imagine that participants have just arrived from a distant planet and need to be briefed on the situation. Where are we? What had we committed to prior to the pandemic, and what have we done since? Answering these questions will provide a necessary foundation for any subsequent strategy discussion.
Do not jump too quickly to any strategic decisions. Instead, get current with where your organization is and make a plan for the next meeting to delve deeper into strategy. If anything, the pandemic has upended how organizations think about strategy. It’s unlikely that any organization anywhere followed its strategic plan to a tee in 2020, and for good reason. The pandemic rendered a lot of strategy less relevant, reset internal cultures and revealed the limits of existing business models.
Going forward, organizations must think differently about how they plan their strategy. We are not now returning to “business as usual”; rather, we must adapt to an ongoing era of “business as unusual.” It is time to reset to zero and rebuild the future now in front of us. Use tools like sensemaking, dialogue, storytelling and scenario planning to explore vastly different futures that could emerge. Define strategy by broad principles that can be applied in complex, ever-changing environments rather than by fixed goals that assume a continuation of the status quo. Explore possibilities through piloted initiatives and reversible first steps. (See Eric’s earlier paper on planning beyond the pandemic.) Invest more time in strategic discussions, perhaps by holding two board retreats per year as suggested in Les’s podcast.
That said, there may be significant decisions right in front of you. How will staff work in the near future? Will the organization stay in a work-from-home mode, or will some staff come back to the office? Or have they already? How will you fill any vacant positions? Do those roles still exist in their current form, or is a more significant rethink of roles and responsibilities required? How has technology worked for us during this period, and what must we change? If either the pandemic or its winding down have threatened existing funding sources or business models, what needs to happen to shore up revenues or cut costs in the near term? What did we stop doing during the pandemic that we do not need to restart? Decide to take the actions you need to take now, but not the ones you don’t.
- Have a highly respected staff member provide a concise presentation of the situation—perhaps based on advance reading. Emphasize how important the advance reading is for this meeting to ensure that participants do it. Include details on any important relationships, and on how they have been maintained throughout the pandemic. Share what is known (and confirmed) about how partner organizations have weathered the pandemic. If key players in the organization’s orbit retired, died or were otherwise impacted by the pandemic, share this information as well. Leverage any survey data you have on how constituents, partners, members or customers have fared, and what concerns they have now.
- Strengthen board members’ involvement in innovative strategic thinking by introducing them to new approaches that address today’s uncertainties. Different times require different approaches to formulating, implementing and evaluating strategy. For example, consider devising a set of “principles”—statements of behavioral aspirations that guide rather than prescribe the organization’s activities. Then create a set of future scenarios to play out what alternative medium-term outcomes might look like, and explore the actions your principles might suggest in each. Take the actions that would make sense across most scenarios, while at the same time enacting cultural and structural changes that support the ongoing application of your principles in an ever-changing environment and that foster an innovation mindset throughout the organization.
- Set up the board’s strategic discussions by providing advance reading—perhaps one or more of the resources linked in this article. Provide a set of questions to prompt board members’ strategic thinking, such as: If money were no object, how would we want to look coming out of the pandemic? What changes might our constituents like to see based on the pandemic experience, and how can we find out? What have competitors done that we might consider? What board composition will our refreshed future require?
3. Keep COVID-19 Precautions in Place
Many of the habits we have adopted to stay safe during the pandemic will stay with us for some time. Eric’s family has a big bottle of hand sanitizer in the car; everyone gets a squeeze every time they get back in. Then we all wash our hands as soon as we get home. In a year’s time, we may not really need to do such things (though it would probably still be a good idea!). Even so, we may not feel safe if we don’t. Habits have a way of entering our subconscious. Don’t be too quick to relax pandemic-era precautions even if they are no longer required from a public health perspective.
- For the foreseeable future, have hand sanitizer available at all entrances and easily accessible to all participants throughout the meeting. Many facilitators put slinkies, markers and other playthings on meeting tables for participants who participate more easily if they’re fidgeting with their hands. Expect that some participants will participate more easily if they can give themselves an occasional dab of “hand san.”
- As noted earlier, the pandemic era has estranged us from one another. Even the physical experience of being near people outside one’s household may feel foreign for many participants. Treat this too as a matter of “reintroduction,” for example, by allowing more room (even if under six feet) between participants’ seats or by limiting table or small group discussions to four people. It will take a while to get over our newfound skittishness to close contact with others.
- State explicit expectations about physical contact. It may take years to go back to handshakes and routine hugs, if we ever do. Say out loud that people should ask for permission before giving a hug or engaging in any other form of physical contact.
- Be prepared to address any emerging conflict or differentiation between those who have received a COVID-19 vaccine and those who have not. Ultimately, everyone who wants a vaccine will likely get one, but as we move through spring and summer 2021 we need to adopt the mindset that vaccination is an effort of the whole to help the whole, rather than to protect some people and not others. It will take time, but we will get there. Consider using the meeting norm, “Act as if you haven’t been vaccinated, even if you have.”
At some point we will look back on COVID-19 as a historical event. But not yet. As you reconvene your board in person for the first time, the pandemic’s impacts and implications will remain front and center and must be processed. Follow these tips to make the transition from virtual to in person while taking meaningful steps forward as a board and as an organization.
Eric Meade is principal at the Whole Mind Strategy Group and author of Whole Mind Facilitation: How to Lead Workshops That Change People, Organizations, and the World. Dr. Les Wallace is president of Signature Resources, Inc. whose strategic work with over 400 boards has led to his book, Principles of 21st Century Governance.