Covid-19: What does ‘return to the office’ mean when you’re a non-executive company director?

by Robyn McLeod

Under clear public health advice, Australian businesses and workplaces are cautiously emerging from working at home to a staged, carefully curated and COVID-safe return to office. Employees and management are negotiating and assessing the risks and benefits of doing this. Since the pandemic, Occupational Health and Safety has become a deeply personal issue for staff, and their loved ones. Risk mitigation and innovation are now firmly intertwined. 

In 2020 organisations adapted to hybrid and virtual workplaces. In many cases this has seen a democratisation of the workgroup and has enhanced diversity of personnel and ideas. The flexibility of working remotely from home is evidenced by many as resulting in greater productivity, efficiency, and work-life balance, for others it has been problematic, and at its worst, unsafe. 

Leaders are now exploring new ways to integrate the best of flexible work arrangements into business as usual. 

Many Australian boards and company directors are now discussing the pros and cons of the virtual board room environment and how this impacted their board performance, procedures, governance and risk appetite. The discussions now centre around how Boards should operate in 2021 and beyond, and what does “building back better” look like in the board room? 

Just as we are looking to new ways of working flexibly for our staff, I would encourage water industry directors to use their experiences of meeting during COVID using innovative technologies and enhanced opportunities for diversity of thinking, to have an open conversation about the opportunity for innovation, safety and flexibility around the board table. 

Many of my colleagues are tired of ‘virtual governance’ and relish the chance to gather again around the board room table. This option will become more viable if community Covid-19 transmission is minimised. Clearly, company boards require opportunities for face-to-face interaction to allow for more nuanced conversations and psychologically safe debate. I have observed however, during 2020 that these positive interactions and best practice decision making were still possible through a virtual Board meeting where there was a high level of trust and maturity around the computer screen. 

So, what should be considered for company directors and boards across Australia, and for corporate governance in general in 2021 as we secure our COVID-safe world and await a full vaccine rollout? 

I would encourage boards to approach this conversation as a collective and reach decisions through an innovative multi factorial lens which could include the following topics.

The views of the individual 

What is each individual director’s level of personal comfort in attending face-to-face board meetings? 

Whilst all boards in Australia are stepping up to the challenge of adding age diversity to their directorships, the reality is that most company directors still approach this career choice at the tail end of their careers. Many boards today see half of their directors over the age of sixty. 

In 2015 AICD reported the average age of company directors was 61.9¹ 

For this reason, boards should carefully consider the health advice indicating the COVID risk to this older demographic. It is also critical that directors, regardless of age, be supported in their individual decisions. We cannot pressure directors who may have underlying health issues, at-risk family members or a general sense of unease to attend face-to-face board meetings against their wishes. 

Workplace mobility 

Many company directors are on a large number of boards and board subcommittees, which in normal times would necessitate attendance at a range of different workplaces each month. A number of my colleagues are on up to six Boards. Company directors do not normally have designated office space in their organisations, usually attending meetings in a board room or conference room. Directors will also often do site visits and meet with staff in varied locations. This mobility will increase the risk for directors and would need to be recorded in attestations for COVID tracing. 

Public health advice must be paramount 

All organisations will obviously need to ensure the safety of their meeting spaces, kitchen and bathroom facilities and ventilation, as well as implement other COVID-safe practices, to ensure all staff and directors are able to attend meetings in person safely. 

Questions need to be asked around the length of meetings and the size of the meeting space. In most cases, boards meet for at least four hours, possibly longer. Should meetings be shorter? Should the organisation use larger meeting rooms or different facilities? 

Specific public health advice should be sought about the unique nature of company boards, particularly the age demographic of directors, before any collective decision is made to meet face-to-face. 

Hybrid Boards 

At the start of the pandemic, many work teams were split into specific groups, such as red teams/blue teams to ensure that if one member of an organisation was exposed to COVID-19 the whole team did not need to isolate. Today we see innovative hybrid work arrangements being implemented to mitigate risk, plus enhance skill acquisition and productivity. Shouldn’t the same practice be applied to boards and board directors who govern these organisations? As a sensible risk mitigation measure, I would suggest that boards consider either half the board members meeting in person and the other half meeting virtually, or retention of some virtual meetings, alternating these with face-to-face meetings. 

There are also some very practical limitations to face-to-face board meetings. Most boards would not have the facilities to accommodate all board directors, management and presenters in person while practising appropriate social distancing. 

Home office

Board leadership 

It is critical for boards to show leadership, promote a strong safety culture and mirror good behaviour to their organisation. Many staff will want to continue to work remotely, at least some of the time. It seems counter intuitive for all directors to attend the workplace for a meeting whilst staff and management teams ‘Zoom in’ off site. Boards should encourage and promote new ways of working if these can be achieved without impacting on productivity or on the organisation’s performance and culture. 

It could be argued that board attendance in person sends a message that the workplace is safe? However, innovative, agile and adaptive boards may want to explore and encourage successful new ways they can be effective and model new ways of leading. Good leadership does not always require a constant physical presence. Many company boards have enabled virtual attendance in their Codes of Conduct for years. I challenge boards to also look to the opportunities in virtual governance. 

Through embracing clever technology and an open attitude to change, boards could also add diversity to their ranks through recruiting more international, regional or interstate directors, directors with young families, or directors with disabilities. 

Technology

The Board needs to consider the quality of the technology that is being used for online board meetings and upgrade if necessary. Technology will be a fundamental tool in building back to better in our post-COVID-19 world. Some boards are now successfully using a hybrid approach to technology, where each face-to-face attendee has a screen in front of them so all online participants can see each board member’s face rather than just a large board room.

Innovative communication and decision-making tools provide great opportunities for boards. If the technology is best practice there is no clear reason to abandon its use now when we are still in a precarious stage of the pandemic, or into the future.

What is the way forward? 

Board meetings, by nature are very formal settings. The culture of any organisation is driven from the behaviour of its board. Clarity, respect, integrity, skill and commitment are some of the characteristics that make boards function at their best. My experience in 2020 has shown that these factors can occur in both face-to-face and virtual Board meetings. 

High-performing boards have adapted to a virtual format and the richness of their decision making continues in a focussed and safe manner whether they meet face-to-face or online. It is likely we will be continuing in some form of hybrid virtual world for some time to come and many major national and international boards may never again return to face-to-face meetings. 

I hope these thoughts encourage debate amongst my fellow directors. I encourage innovation to ensure not only our organisations, but our own boards can build back better. 

Outside the box
Robyn-McLeod

Robyn McLeod GAICD
VicWater Board

¹ “Push to reduce average Board age intensifies’ Tony Feathersone AICD February 2018  

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