As boards return to in-person meetings, they’ll operate under lessons learned during the coronavirus.
Despite the coronavirus pandemic, credit unions forged ahead with rebranding efforts, charter changes, lending initiatives, and branch openings. At the same time, credit unions changed how they serve members, increasing their digital offerings or conducting business via the drive-thru instead of in branches.
Likewise, board members adjusted how they govern.
- The pandemic forced boards to adopt new technologies to hold meetings and fulfill governance responsibilities.
- Virtual meetings improved many boards’ efficiency, evaluation efforts, and strategic focus.
- Board focus: Whether meeting virtually or in person, commit to an intentional agenda designed around important decisions.
“We’ve had a busy year,” says Kent Wipf, senior marketing specialist at $1.6 billion asset Hiway Credit Union in St. Paul, Minn. “Our board remained very active during the pandemic.”
Just as members had to adapt to using a mobile phone app to deposit checks or signing loan documents at a drive-thru window, board members and management had to transition to new ways of ensuring the credit union could safely meet members’ financial needs.
Boards met virtually, and many managers adjusted to a largely remote workforce. “You’re on mute” and “You’ve frozen up” became part of the language of getting things done.
“Leading and managing remotely requires a different skill set than the traditional in-person environment,” says Gary Chizmadia, board chair at $421 million asset Credit Union of New Jersey in Ewing. “It’s critical to find effective ways to maintain relationships via a computer screen.”
While boards had to navigate the initial bumps as they learned new technologies and processes that enabled them to meet remotely, they adapted quickly and understood why this needed to be done.
“The board remained pretty well engaged throughout our virtual experience,” says Debie Keesee, CEO of $14.6 million asset Spokane (Wash.) Media Federal Credit Union. “There didn’t seem to be any aversion to participation via Zoom.”
Leading a small credit union with no information technology (IT) staff, Keesee says board members had to adopt a “learn as you go” attitude when technology problems arose. “Not being able to assist [board members] personally was tough,” she says. “You can’t teach if you can’t reach. With our lobby open, we’re now able to help in person, and that has mitigated the issue.”
Although meeting virtually was challenging at first, as people grew accustomed to using video conferencing technology, board members could have strategic discussions, says Patrick McGinnis, Hiway’s board chair.
To ensure participation from all directors, McGinnis mandated feedback by requesting comments from everyone and by using strategic pauses.
“It became easier as everyone became more familiar with the technology and used more features, such as chat and ‘raise hand,’” he says.
At Credit Union of New Jersey, Chizmadia called on each board member to speak on issues and sought to prevent directors from talking over each other.
NEXT: Lessons learned
While coronavirus lockdowns and restrictions disrupted business, they also hastened the shift to digital services and provided an opportunity for board members to learn.
“The pandemic accelerated many of our digital service enhancement projects so we could more effectively serve our members remotely,” Chizmadia says. “The investments in time and resources to make this successful will factor into how we incorporate the changes going forward.”
The shift to virtual meetings allowed Credit Union of New Jersey to experience the benefits of video conferencing and how it was an improvement over using telephone conference calls.
The virtual environment also improved the meeting evaluation process, Chizmadia says. Board members provided more thoughtful answers and suggestions on meeting evaluations because they didn’t have to rush to complete these before leaving the board meeting.
Another benefit: With meetings taking place virtually, board members didn’t have to factor in travel time. Meetings also were run more efficiently, reducing their length due to fewer extraneous discussions, Chizmadia says.
At Hiway, McGinnis honed the meeting agenda to deal primarily with strategic issues, in part to overcome “Zoom fatigue.”
“We recognized some items could be accomplished with an email,” he says.
Brad Banta, board chair at Spokane Media Federal, also sees positives in having the virtual option as an alternative going forward.
“It will certainly allow for some flexibility when our day jobs require more of our time, which seems to be occurring more often with the labor shortages some industries are experiencing,” he says.
Virtual meetings will also allow a board member who is moving out of the area to continue to serve, says Keesee.
One lesson Keesee learned from the pandemic was to be open to new ways of operating.
“Traditional is good up to a point, but had we started with some virtual meetings beyond conference calls it would have been easier to make the full switch,” she says.
The board at $516 million asset Sooper Credit Union in Arvada, Colo., plans to hold in-person meetings in the future, but CEO Dan Kester also foresees having some directors who will continue to join virtually.
“Especially our board member in Seattle,” he says. “We upgraded our Zoom meeting capabilities, and we will be more accepting of remote work in the future.”
Hiway’s ability to accommodate board members logging in when they’re out of town—which previously wasn’t an option—improves directors’ participation, says Wipf.
NEXT: Going forward
Many credit unions have stayed with either all virtual meetings or returned to all in-person meetings, granting exceptions when requested, says Jeff Rendel, president of Rising Above Enterprises.
Regardless, “what’s most important is communication and a sense of determining comfort levels from members of the board,” Rendel says. “Most boards I work with are glad to be meeting again in person, but also understand some changes are required to accommodate others and any in-person hesitancy. The hybrid model has been the most challenging because not everyone is in the same ‘room.’”
The board at $3.8 billion asset Langley Federal Credit Union in Newport News, Va., has agreed to meet virtually four times a year going forward, says Ted Henifin, board chair. The remaining eight meetings will be held in person. The credit union covers a large geographic area, making travel to in-person board meetings a challenge.
“That was the reason the board decided to continue some virtual meetings. This is especially true for board members still working full time,” Henifin says. “We discovered that either meeting fully virtually or fully in person is most effective.
“In the past, when one or two members were remote, meetings did not work well,” he continues. “Going forward we will apply that lesson and meet fully virtual if key members cannot attend physically.”
As vaccination levels rise, credit union directors and committee members will likely reconvene in the board room, allowing board members to connect.
“There is no denying that ‘people helping people’ works best when you can look someone in the eye and shake hands at the same time,” Banta says. “This philosophy is the same when it comes to board meetings.
“Our board and supervisory committee members get along well, and it will be refreshing to re-engage in person once again.”
Even though the board set aside time at the start of Hiway’s virtual board meetings for informal conversations, McGinnis is looking forward to catching up and socializing with other directors in person.
Henifin, too, is looking forward to “resuming the interpersonal interactions that build deeper relationships.”
Whether meeting virtually, in person, or with a hybrid option, Rendel urges boards to commit to an intentional agenda designed around important decisions and feedback the CEO desires from directors.
“This shifts the focus from what happened last month to what is necessary to continue moving forward.”