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Family enterprises were impacted in many ways by COVID-19, with many families placing their focus on the core business both to survive and take advantage of this time to put forth new initiatives that had been put on the back burner.

In the face of these unprecedented circumstances, businesses had to make sharp, critical pivots to account for threats to their core business, while increasing safety protocols, establishing new operating procedures and implementing and relying on new technology—all under incredible circumstances and financial pressures. While this focus on keeping the business going in the short term is critical, the family enterprises that have made it through this moment and beyond also have their eye on the long term, focusing on business and on the family.

A key facet of both business and family engagement, naturally, is meeting face to face; however, the reality of COVID-19 dictated that doing so in-person was largely not worth the risk. As a result, families had to get creative to maintain connection with one another. Virtual meetings became ubiquitous, and some families continue to meet virtually even after the worst of the pandemic has passed. They’ve discovered that while in-person meetings may provide more intimate moments among family members, virtual meetings also have benefits and may be interspersed with in-person ones.

But virtual meetings require a different approach along with deliberate effort and planning. Here are some lessons we’ve learned about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to these virtual family meetings.

The Silver Lining

The primary benefit of virtual meetings is the ease of convening (especially for large families). Families had to coordinate dates and puzzle-piece through distance, travel and logistics to convene a traditional, in-person family gathering. The frenzy of the planning itself can distract from the very reason a family is getting together in the first place—to connect, to inform and to learn together. Attention to logistics is always crucial, but the relative ease of convening virtual meetings allows the family to re-channel its energy towards meeting design (agendas, goals and results), material creation and technological considerations rather than worrying about things like how the Smiths will be getting to Florida, when Maggie will be on school break and what food allergies and preferences to account for.

We’ve also found that families who traditionally manage to only have 75% of family members present for in-person gatherings are now experiencing nearly 100% participation—a result of the increased ease of attendance. To focus deeper on who is showing up and how they’re showing up, we’ve found that it’s possible to increase engagement from next-generation members given their comfort and familiarity with the video platforms used for most meetings. This yields greater participation and contributions from an age group that may otherwise feel out of its element amid large, in-person meetings. Zoom also helps level the playing field—with everyone having an equal share of the screen and position in the room within the virtual “boxes” they occupy.

Virtual formats also make it easier to break meetings up into bite-sized, digestible chunks, which reduces meeting fatigue and can help sustain the attention and focus of family members. Instead of a full-day gathering (involving activities and content for eight hours straight, with dinners and activities in between), many families have opted out of adapting to full-day eight-hour video meetings (understandably so), instead choosing to hold multiple 90-minute meetings over the course of a couple of months. With the right amount of follow-up and confirmed next steps in place, this meeting cadence can also work to support the goal of creating continuity and connection between sessions.

Tips, Tricks and Best Practices

Below are a few of our key best practices to keep in mind when executing virtual family meetings, including how to structure and sequence conversations and some technical tips for making them happen.

  1. Plan virtual logistics like you would plan for a physical meeting (but without those extra distractions—food, travel, etc.). For example, make sure everyone can access the meeting (this may mean doing a trial run with those less familiar with the platform); make sure meeting materials are ready and accessible and that any videos or documents you might want to share can be accessed and viewed. You can even use virtual meetings as an opportunity to engage family members who might not have seen a role for themselves before. For example, maybe a younger generation member has been taking classes virtually through Zoom and can help with the technical components to make sure things run smoothly. You’ll also want to make sure that meeting roles are clarified. For example—who can family members call if they have any technological challenges, who is sharing the screen, who is taking notes and capturing follow-ups, etc.?
  2. Break it up! The beauty of virtual meetings is that you don’t have to rely on people being all together (like past meetings), which means you can spread sessions across a longer amount of time. As noted above, we recommend sessions be no longer than 90 minutes with at least one short break. Many families choose to develop a series of sessions with cumulative content while others prefer stand-alone sessions.
  3. Steal your best practices from in-person meetings and be explicit about your expectations and meeting ground rules. You may consider addressing expectations on video use, muting, how to use the chat, how people interact (hand raising or jump in), etc. Think about content, breaks, as well as bringing in different voices, discussion leads, or presenters—even special guests or outside speakers, given the ease of having people join in and hop off.
  4. Make content interactive with opportunities for engagement. It’s easy in virtual meetings to focus solely on content and forget to leave room for discussion and engagement. There are many ways to make virtual meetings interactive. We recommend creating structures for conversation and engagement. For example, query the full group in the chat window, send out a poll to get real-time data or craft a virtual group game or activity to lighten the mood. You can also use breakout rooms to give family members an opportunity to hold more intimate conversations in smaller groups with less voice competition. The hope is to give family members the opportunity to laugh, share and have fun together while staying informed and keeping connected.
  5. Consider using facilitators. Now’s a time to enlist expert help to support engagement of the family and develop the capabilities, processes and supports that you need to sustain family connection and development into the future.

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