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Here’s how you can govern through a crisis

16 September 2020 at 5:48 pm
Maggie Coggan
We take a look at four insights and learnings to help steer your board out of the pandemic  

Maggie Coggan | 16 September 2020 at 5:48 pm


Here’s how you can govern through a crisis
16 September 2020 at 5:48 pm

We take a look at four insights and learnings to help steer your board out of the pandemic  

Experts predict that the spread of coronavirus will continue to disrupt the traditional structures of organisations and workplaces long after the spread of the virus is under control. 

New research from the Australian Institute of Company Directors and the Governance Institute Australia found the profound impact of the pandemic on how boards operate has compelled organisations to transform the way they run their organisations permanently. 

The report, published on Friday, contains insights from interviews with senior directors, survey responses and feedback from roundtables with governance and risk professionals, in a bid to forge a path for organisations out of the pandemic and beyond. 

We take a look at four governance lessons and tips to help you govern through in this new age of coronavirus. 

The art of the virtual board meeting 

Working from home arrangements and physical distancing requirements have meant that for most organisations, board meetings and annual general meetings have had to be run virtually.  

Read more: Here’s what you need to know about running your AGM from a distance

Running an engaging and productive board meeting online is a completely different ball-game, requiring greater discipline and focus from all attendees. 

As the person in control of how the meeting flows, it’s critical the chair lays out meeting “housekeeping” protocols at the start of each meeting. The report said this could include keeping microphones off unless speaking, using headsets to minimise background noise, and using platform features such as ‘raise hand’ to indicate you would like to speak or the chat function.  

While there were challenges associated with running a virtual meeting, the report did find that significant time, cost and travel savings from virtual meetings could positively impact on director recruitment and allowed for increased diversity and inclusion on boards in a post-COVID world.

When business did resume to normal, many organisations reported that they would not return to purely physical meetings, with 42 per cent of survey respondents saying hybrid AGMs were the preferred option from now on. 

The physical component of meetings was still found to be important however, with Jane Seawright, a director at Netball Australia and former chair of Netball Queensland, saying in the report that even though the organisation was getting “very good” at using technology, it was not the same as being in the same room as one another. 

“I do think that organisations have to keep in mind that we are social beings and there is nothing like being in the same room – particularly, when you have difficult decisions that need to be reached,” Seawright said. 

Thinking on your feet in a crisis 

The social and economic impacts of the pandemic have meant most organisations (for at least some portion of the year) have been operating in a crisis mode. The report said that when in crisis mode, boards added the most value by providing strategic oversight, and supporting management in both immediate and long-term planning, and also stakeholder engagement. 

One of the issues that has arisen during this time is boards understanding when additional leadership is necessary, and when to respect boundaries.  

The report said that this was best dealt with when directors kept an eye on whether or not they were blurring the lines, and putting in place a firm process as to how the board communicated updates to management. People interviewed in the report also said that communication lines need to be set up early. 

The board could also let management know the information it needed in advance so that time wasn’t wasted working out a problem in the midst of a crisis, and the chair should play a key role in keeping directors informed.  

Technology can elevate stakeholder voices 

Communicating the crisis with stakeholders mainly fell to management, but chairs and boards could play an active role in making sure these key messages reached all members of staff, customers, members and the community at large. 

While the pandemic wasn’t welcomed by anyone, the report found that it had brought about a re-think of how organisations could engage with their stakeholders in new and imaginative ways such as making use of technology. 

Justin Koonin, the president of AIDS Council of New South Wales, said in the report that he was able to connect with over 300 stakeholders on a Zoom call – something that just would have never happened pre-coronavirus. 

Beyond COVID, the report recommended organisations continue engaging with stakeholders and the broader community, used technology to increase connectivity and reach with stakeholders, and that boards take regular stock of their broader community. 

Think ahead and plan for the future 

It’s become clear that the pandemic will not be going away anytime soon, and this is something the report said organisations needed to prepare for. 

Governance Institute of Australia CEO, Megan Motto, said that businesses and charities had risen to the many challenges presented by the virus, but many were still missing a solid plan on how to deal with future crises. 

“Planning precisely for a crisis is difficult, but ensuring you have the right scaffolding in place for when a crisis hits must now be a key focus for organisations,” Motto said. 

The report said that crisis plans needed to be a “blueprint not a rule book” so the board can be prepared but flexible in how to deal with an unfolding crisis, and that boards should work with management to test out and fine-tune contingency plans so an organisation is prepared before crisis hits.  

Want some more tips? Read the full report here. 

Maggie Coggan  |  Journalist  |  @MaggieCoggan

Maggie Coggan is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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