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Nov 24, 2020

Zoom ennui: Companies re-embrace landlines and comfort technology

Some call time-out on videoconferencing to get back to basics

Firms may have welcomed Zoom, Microsoft Teams and OpenExchange during the Covid-19 crisis, but they are beginning to look at alternatives because of a growing sense of Zoom ennui.

Resistance has now settled in as companies reach their tipping point, according to several panelists at the Corporate Secretary Forum in New York last week.

‘Zoom fatigue has been a tough swallow here,’ said Caroline Koster, corporate secretary and chief counsel at BGC Partners and corporate secretary at Newmark Group. ‘It has been hard for the engagement level so I think we’re fighting some of that with the old-fashioned telephone. In many ways we’re flipping to the anti-technology from time to time. I’m finding I’m spending more time on the phone just connecting with people.’

Streamlined approach

The relentless see-sawing between tech acceptance and resistance cuts across age, rank and geography. The accelerated adoption of technology tools has pushed some companies to streamline the way they operate from the board level on down.

HSBC’s directors, for example, have held multiple short, targeted discussions in addition to quarterly meetings to stay on top of the pandemic in real time, but they’ve also needed to strike a balance while videoconferencing eight or nine hours a day. As a result, the bank’s corporate secretary is taking a deeper look at agendas to make the most of the available time.

‘The virus in this environment had a very real impact on the operating rhythm of board meetings and also management meetings,’ said Lopa Zielinski, HSBC US executive vice president, corporate secretary and head of governance, at the forum.

‘There are many scheduled reports, functional reports – report-outs, if you will. We’ve taken a view to including those documents in the materials so the board is still getting the necessary communication, but at the same time now only escalating key matters for discussion.’

Zielinski said she believes the slimmed-down approach is sustainable and will drive better-informed decision-making in the boardroom.

Is the tide also turning on virtual board meetings?

The same is true for Matt Geekie, senior vice president, secretary and general counsel at Graybar, who, until recently, was preparing for a board meeting this December.

‘Everyone was so eager to get together in one city. Hotel reservations were made, and it just got kiboshed,’ he said at the forum. ‘I think we’re going to use a phone, an old-fashioned phone system – two cans and a string, almost – for that board meeting, which seems to me to be crazy. But it is a little bit of that resistance.

‘I am sure we’re going to ricochet right back to full Teams, or Zoom, or whatever the medium may be. But it’s an interesting ride here for a while.’

PowerPoint pause

While some companies assess the efficacy of virtual board meetings, others are using the nature of online meetings to pivot away from PowerPoint presentations back to old-school memos.

New York-based Voya Financial, for example, asked some of its senior management to send around quarterly, state-of-the-union style essays before meetings rather than rely on PowerPoint during virtual roundtables. The memos are more time-consuming to draft, but they give directors an opportunity to formulate questions ahead of board gatherings.

‘When you actually write a memo, you have to write prose and you have to make a point,’ said Jean Weng, another forum panelist and Voya’s senior vice president, deputy general counsel and corporate secretary. ‘And I think those white papers have been very popular with directors because for one, they are complete thoughts, and they really give you a sense of – from a finance standpoint or from a technology standpoint – the highlights and the lowlights for the quarter.’

The fine print

The tech rejection is not just a software rethink. The days of high-speed laser printers firing out slick graphics, lengthy contracts and research papers may be on pause.

‘I don’t know about you, but I’m not printing,’ said Koster. ‘I’ve probably printed only about 200 or 300 pages over the course of months. I do when I go to the office, but at home it is just not happening.’

In lieu of a printed copy, Koster now relies on other team members to ensure PDFs or other online documents are proofread and checked. ‘I’ve asked to have a second set of people just to look at everything,’ she explained. ‘To do the old-fashioned technology of the eyeball.’

Caroline Byrne

Caroline Byrne is an Irish-Canadian journalist who started her career in London at the Associated Press and Bloomberg. Over the last decade, she has worked both as a freelancer and staff journalist for various organizations including Euromoney , The...