Tips for Virtual Trust Meetings

As multiemployer benefit plan boards of trustees adjust to a new way of operating during the coronavirus pandemic, many are using videoconferencing tools to conduct virtual trust meetings.

Martha Henrickson, CEBS, labor relations director for Management Guidance LLP in Saint Paul, Minnesota, suggests guidelines trustees can use for new communication tools. Before embarking on a video meeting, Henrickson said, funds should make sure their trust documents allow it. After determining that videoconferencing is allowed, she offered some tips for preparing for a meeting and conducting business in addition to some pointers on etiquette.

Tips for Virtual Trust Meetings

What’s the best way to prepare for a meeting?

Participants should test their videoconferencing platform ahead of time. Most platforms permit a participant to click the meeting link before the meeting. This allows participants to ensure that the platform works on the computer and to review its features. They can also use that opportunity to see what they look like on screen and make adjustments if necessary, such as repositioning their laptop or adjusting phone volume and room lighting. Participants should make sure they have a strong internet connection, that the webcam works and is uncovered, and speakers and the microphone are in working order. The meeting facilitator or plan administrator should make themselves available to have a test videoconference with anybody who wants one. This allows them to introduce the features and help participants manage their settings.

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Should meeting participants be expected to use videoconferencing?

Participants should be told that the videoconferencing is the expectation and the first choice. Some videoconferencing platforms offer a phone/voice-only option; however, this impedes the engagement of all participants and negates the benefits of videoconferencing. It can also be frustrating for those who do participate in the video features. If participants are uncomfortable with being on video for a prolonged time, they can stop their camera if someone else is making a lengthy presentation. But during discussion, it’s helpful to keep it on.

How should the meeting begin?

There’s a different rhythm during videoconferences than in-person meetings. It’s much more important that only one person speaks at a time, so it’s best if the meeting has an official facilitator, in addition to the chair of the board. The facilitator could be the secretary, vice-chair, another trustee or the administrator. The facilitator should create the meeting invitation and be identified by the platform as the meeting host, which permits him or her to engage in certain administrative actions during the meeting, such as muting or unmuting participants.

The facilitator should take a roll call and name all attendees. If any participants have phoned into the meeting, the facilitator should list a phone number and ask it to be identified by its owner. On some platforms, the facilitator can enter a screen name on behalf of participants who have not provided one. It is usually cumbersome to ask attendees to self-identify, since several people often speak at once. However, a meeting facilitator could ask for self-introductions and call on each participant in turn.

The facilitator can also watch for the different signals and communications that people might use in the platform and make sure the chair recognizes those people. Some platforms have a “raise hand” feature or a “thumbs up” reaction feature, but those are only valuable if they are acknowledged. Most platforms also have a chat feature, which is a great option for those who are having a hard time getting a word in edgewise or for brainstorming sessions. To work well, however, the facilitator must pay attention to it and draw the group’s attention to relevant or important questions and insights that happen there.

[Upcoming Canadian Webcast: COVID-19: Government Response Programs and Implications for Employment Insurance and Disability Plan | April 21, 2020]

How should business be conducted?

Most trust funds use a derivative of Robert’s Rules of Order or another parliamentary procedure in their meetings, but most trust documents do not specifically require this. Because most videoconferencing systems have brief lags between speakers, it can be cumbersome to make motions, second them and call for votes. This difficulty can be managed with some simple changes.

  • If motions are predictable, the administrator can draft them ahead of time and make them available in the agenda. Then the chair can say, “A motion would be in order to [read prewritten motion].”
  • After a motion and second, the chair can say, “If anyone would like further discussion, please so signal now . . . Hearing none, we’ll call the question. All those in favor, remain silent; silence is considered an affirmative vote. Any opposed, please signal now . . . motion carries.” If there’s a contentious motion, of course, motions can be managed in the traditional way.
  • At regular meetings, many actions are routine and unremarkable and perhaps do not require individual motions. In this case, the chair could say at the beginning of the meeting, “Many of our actions today, such as approvals of minutes and financials, are expected to be noncontroversial. I will note these actions, set them aside, and we will take action with one motion at the end of the meeting. I will give you the opportunity to so indicate if you would like further discussion or a specific motion on any individual item.” After review of the financials, for example, the chair would say, “You’ve seen the financials and there should be an action to approve them. That action will be deferred to the end of the meeting. If there is objection or further discussion, please signal now . . . hearing none, the next item is . . .” The administrator or facilitator can prepare a list of such items ahead of time and can track any additional action items added to the list during the meeting. At the end of the meeting, the chair would say, “The board has identified a number of action items at today’s meeting. I’ll ask the administrator to briefly review these.” The administrator would read the list of actions to be taken, and the chair would say, “A motion would be in order to approve all of these action items.” A motion, second, discussion and vote could then occur in the traditional way.

What rules of etiquette should videoconference participants keep in mind?

  • Mute yourself when not speaking. Background noise can be very troubling. Computer microphones pick up more ambient noise than a telephone—dogs barking, garbage trucks on the street outside, the sound of a coffeepot, e-mail notifications, etc.
  • It’s fine to wear headphones if you don’t want others nearby to hear everything. Headphones call also minimize background noise.
  • You can temporarily stop your video, but please keep it on as much as possible to help engagement and connectedness. Always restart it when you speak. If you don’t want people to see your space, you can set a virtual background.
  • Speak clearly and at a reasonable volume.
  • If possible, place your device or camera at eye level so that when you look at your screen, it appears as though you’re looking at your listener.
  • Backlighting, which can occur when sitting in front of a bright window, throws a shadow over your face. Try to keep your face well-lit.
  • If you have a poor internet connection, you may experience better audio if you use the phone-in option in conjunction with the videoconference platform. If you do so, make sure that you adjust your settings to turn off your computer’s microphone. Similarly, if you are in the same room as another person who is participating in the same videoconference, one person should be muted at all times.

[Upcoming Webcast: Making Investment Decisions in a Time of Uncertainty | April 28, 2020]

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Kathy Bergstrom, CEBS
Senior Editor, Publications, at the International Foundation

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