Having made heroic efforts to master new technology quickly under pandemic-induced duress, many organizations are weighing a return from electronic to in-person meetings. And many are asking their parliamentarians for help and guidance.
This article is aimed at those parliamentarians, not at the organizations themselves. So let’s first review – what do parliamentarians mean when we talk about meetings?
For the purposes of this article, meetings are what RONR1 terms deliberative assemblies. Organizational meetings, committee meetings, conventions, etc., are deliberative assemblies; classes, staff meetings, and social gatherings generally aren’t. (See RONR 12th ed. 1:1 for more.)2
During the pandemic emergency, electronic tools provided a lifeline: without them, those organizations would not have been able to meet at all.
Participants experienced frustration as they learned the technology, but something funny happened on the way to the home office: some organizations enjoyed increases in participation and attendance. Travel costs decreased, travel time was eliminated, and a, shall we say, less casual dress code prevailed. (Feel free to pause here for your own humorous recollection.)
Post-shutdown, many organizations are considering a return to in-person meetings. They should consider their options carefully. Generally, I hear organizations talking as if they have just three options. I think it’s more complicated than this, but generally the choices fall into these three categories:
- They can continue to operate using virtual meetings.
- They can switch back to in-person meetings.
- They can attempt “hybrid” meetings, where people can attend in person or virtually as they see fit.3
Parliamentary organizations are faced with the same choices as our clients; but for us the consequences are different. We need to be ready to assist clients with all these options, and that requires practice. In the near century and a half since the publication of the first Robert’s Rules of Order, we have amassed much more experience helping clients manage in-person meetings than we have with electronic meetings.4 The pandemic shutdown gave parliamentarians a crash course in running electronic meetings, and some of us got good at them. What do we do now?
The meetings of our parliamentary organizations should, to the extent possible, model good procedure. If we expect to be acknowledged as the experts in this field, we need to be experts in all three of the options I’ve outlined. And we can’t do that if we plan all of our own meetings to be in the same procedural basket.
So what does that mean as we plan our organizations’ activities? It seems clear that we shouldn’t commit exclusively to any one solution.5 If we never hold electronic meetings ourselves, our ability to help clients will be limited; if we meet only electronically, we can expect to lose our “chops” to assist clients meeting in person. I suggest that we plan both, using various criteria to decide which is which.
Here are some examples for an organization I work with, barring another pandemic shutdown or other emergency.
- E-meetings during the winter months will permit us to conduct our business and monthly trainings without concern for the notoriously fickle Northeastern Ohio travel conditions.
- We hold a non-business annual workshop night in April (Parliamentary Law Month). We’ll gather in-person and livestream the presentations.
- We can return to in-person business meetings in May, and we should be able to offer a “hybrid” arrangement that will permit virtual attendees to participate on an equal footing with in-person attendees. 6. The operative word here is “can.” Members may prefer to continue some e-meetings even in good weather; we’ll figure that out.]
- Committee meetings generally work well as videoconferences, and some are small enough for telephone conference calls. (Sharing of documents needs to be provided for, though–working on a resolution or bylaw over the phone can be frustrating.)
- We hold an annual dinner meeting in November. We’ve been holding it electronically. Breaking bread is powerful, but not so much in front of a screen! We’ll return to a physical meeting.
The point is that we don’t have to choose exclusively between in-person and electronic meetings. We can plan formats that match the content, season, and purpose of the meeting. And that way we can continue to enhance our skills using different meeting formats, and be ready to assist our clients and other organizations however they decide to meet.
In recent years, the writer has participated – as presider, parliamentarian, or participant – in hundreds of “virtual” meetings of a dozen or more entities, varying in size from a handful to several hundred participants.
- “RONR” is shorthand for Rules of Order Newly Revised, 12th ed., currently the world’s predominant parliamentary authority–commonly called “Robert’s Rules of Order.” ↩
- It’s possible that some of these remarks will pertain to other kinds of meetings as well, but I make no such promises. ↩
- Our expectations for hybrid meetings should be pretty high, and it’s not just a matter of pointing a webcam and allowing people to listen in. But that’s a topic for another post. ↩
- Ironically, RONR is contemporaneous with the telephone. Only the past few editions have considered the possibilities of electronic meetings. Ironically, the current edition, with the most comprehensive coverage to date, was published a few months into the COVID-19 lockdown. ↩
- This doesn’t apply to organizations that don’t hold physical meetings due to the geographic spread of their members. ↩