Virtual meeting have many benefits, including saving travel time and allowing members to participate who might not otherwise. But before you rush to hold your board or membership meeting electronically, check to make certain you can. State law or the governing documents need to authorize meeting remotely. It’s also important to understand how virtual gatherings can differ from in-person ones.
Technology. Assume there will be technology issues, whether big or small. Members may experience the same meeting differently because of their hardware and connection speeds.
Meeting dynamics. While in-person assemblies may fight over proposals, there is still a feeling that it is a meeting of one organization. Electronic meetings tend to feel like individuals sitting somewhere else doing their own thing.
Transparency. Everything happens in real time at in-person meetings. If a member raises an objection, others see that. In contrast, no one really knows who’s “next in line” to speak during a virtual meeting, and if a member is unruly, the temptation exists to mute or disconnect them.
Individual engagement. It’s hard not to pay attention in an in-person meeting. The fall-off between who is logged on for a virtual meeting and who votes on motions can be extreme. That’s likely due to what we all do while on virtual meetings—work, surf the Internet, make a sandwich, and complete other activities.
Tone. Virtual meetings bring out the worst in some people. Discussion is impersonal and can be far more negative. Individuals talking to screens tend to be willing to say most anything.
Voting dynamics. Electronic votes often go differently. Noncontroversial proposals have more votes against them. Or there might be more votes to take controversial positions, remove board members or officers, or reject items that would have been easily approved in person. Personality and group dynamics at in-person meetings are missing.
“Working out” things. At in-person meetings, controversial proposals are often compromised on the floor or outside the meeting hall. For instance, maybe a motion to raise dues by “x” was doomed to fail, but members discussed the proposal and agreed to a compromise. Being physically present allowed that to happen. It is difficult to work out differences during virtual meetings, and most proposals simply get an up or down vote.
Sense of community. There is more to meetings than voting. Relationships get built. Friendships and trust are forged. All of that creates future leaders and builds a sense of community. Much of that happens during social events or during conversations outside the meeting. It is difficult to build such relationships and togetherness in virtual meetings.
Given the COVID-19 pandemic and new technologies, it has made sense to lean heavily into virtual meetings. They have many positive benefits and, with time, improved technology, and practice, they might become even more identical to in-person meetings. However, it’s currently worth weighing your meeting options (if you have them) when deciding how to meet to transact the association’s business.
New Meetings Book
Robert’s Rules of Order Fast Track: The Brief and Easy Guide to Parliamentary Procedure for the Modern Meeting by Jim Slaughter gives you everything needed to conduct shorter, fairer, more orderly meetings. You’ll find the fundamentals of parliamentary procedure, simple suggestions on motions, a primer on voting, straightforward strategies for agendas and minutes, tips for handling disruptive members, and all-new guidance on running better virtual meetings.
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Jim Slaughter is an attorney, certified professional parliamentarian, and past president of both CAI’s College of Community Association Lawyers and the American College of Parliamentary Lawyers. He is a partner at Law Firm Carolinas. Many charts and articles on meeting procedure can be found at www.jimslaughter.com.