While many of the principles of running good face-to-face council meetings apply to remote meetings, chairing in a virtual world does present some additional challenges.
With most council staff and councillors working remotely in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we are all becoming more technologically adept.
But a good first step in preparing for meetings is to ensure you are familiar with the technology that your council is using – Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts and Google Meet, Skype – and the different functions it has. You may want to have a ‘test meeting’ for everyone, to check their connections, and/or ask participants to join the meeting 15 minutes early so any technical issues can be resolved before you begin.
Before the meeting, all participants should be made aware of the etiquette of remote meetings – such as joining the meeting promptly to avoid unnecessary interruptions, muting your microphone when you’re not talking, and not checking emails during proceedings.
They will also need to know how to make you aware that they want to speak – whether that’s by switching on their camera, using the ‘raised hand’ facility on some platforms, or via messages to a chatroom.
At the start, welcome people to the meeting and undertake any relevant introductions, including housekeeping. Use people’s names and ask them to speak, to encourage them to take part – and allow more time for responses in case of a slow connection.
If members of the public are allowed to ask questions, ensure they are given the opportunity and that there is time for their questions to be answered.
Committees should have a ‘moderator’ to make notes to create the formal minutes, and this person may be able to help the chair with spotting who wishes to speak at larger meetings.
Voting can be done in two ways. The simplest is for the chair to perform a roll call of all committee members and ask them to state their vote, which can be captured by the moderator or another officer. Or, if all participants can be seen on the video conference, they could give a ‘thumb up’ in favour, ‘thumb down’ to vote against, and a ‘flat hand’ to abstain.
An alternative technological option is to enable participants to write down their vote – for example, by giving them access to a collaborative document, such as Google Docs, which all committee members can edit at the same time.
At the close of the meeting, clarify how any outstanding issues or next steps will be resolved, including who will do what by when. Thank everyone for their time and confirm the date of the next meeting, if there is one.
While the medium of meetings has changed, your role in chairing them – whether remotely or face to face – has not.
Your job is to give your residents or members of the public confidence that the business of the council will be carried out in accordance with the council’s constitution and procedural rules, and to make sure that meetings are run effectively and inclusively, in line with any agreed agenda, to deal with the business at hand.
Remember, you are not alone. Take advice, find out who is available at your council to support you, and work with officers before and at the meeting to make it a success.