COVID-19 has brought the wellbeing of family relationships, and the fragility of our health, to the forefront. Many clients are taking advantage of these slower times to update their estate plans and wills. Those documents are designed to protect the family assets. I suggest that now’s also the time to have broader conversations that will prepare the family for the assets. The silver lining of COVID-19 is the spotlight it shines on the urgency to take steps now to prepare families for wealth transition. One way to do that is by installing healthy communication habits for virtual family meetings to keep relationships strong.
Families are increasingly coming together for a virtual happy hours, holiday, and birthday celebrations. Now that this practice has become more familiar, it’s likely going to stay with us for a while. Even as restrictions begin to ease, families will continue to have virtual family meetings. It’s easier to schedule a meeting on short notice to make important decisions, family members are often more relaxed and able to participate more freely and virtual meetings are much less expensive than bringing everyone together.
Family businesses disrupted by the new normal are also having to come together virtually. Updates typically provided via in-person meetings are having to shift to online meetings. Keeping everyone focused, productive and able to make decisions quickly in these stressful times is vital. Family business meetings can have their own challenges such as one person dominating the conversation without much opportunity for input. Over time, individual participation is curtailed, perhaps due to distance, timing or the feeling that their voices matter. All of these issues can be magnified in a virtual setting, adding stress to family relationships on top of the stress the business may be experiencing.
Tips for Good “HABITs”
As Aristotle once said, “We are what we practice,” so let’s make sure we’re practicing the right things. Below are five tips to keep virtual family business meetings focused, productive and engaging using the acronym “HABIT.”
Homework. Do your homework prior to the family meeting, and ask each individual, “If you were going to run this meeting, what would you cover and how?” I often ask this question and am often surprised by the topics and excellent recommendations. This is a great way to ensure everyone has a voice and can see their concerns will be addressed.
Accomplish. At the start of the video call, do a round robin and ask each individual, “What do you want to say you’ve accomplished by the end of this conversation?” Be sure to record all of the comments, and then check in at the end of the call to see if each individual’s goals were met.
Boundaries. Keeping the call safe for each individual to feel comfortable contributing is vitally important. Toward the beginning of the video call, ask what everyone needs to feel comfortable speaking up. You might hear things like “I’d like to make sure we stay on track” or “It’s important for me to not be interrupted” or “I’d like to know we will begin and end on time.” Inviting everyone to co-design how they want the conversations to be managed will help them be more willing to step into the conversations.
Involve. Giving individuals active roles on the call will enable them to see how they can contribute to the success of the call overall. For example, if one individual is given the authority (role) to speak up when the topic drifts to another topic, she can help with the overall satisfaction of the entire call. Another individual can be in charge of tracking action items discussed, and another might have the job of scheduling and pulling the agenda together.
Tune-up. Perhaps the most important step is at the end. Ask each individual to say what worked well on the call, and what would be even better next time. This way, you can continually improve how the conversations happen in the future.
Along with these five steps, some other techniques I’ve found helpful include: inviting family members to take turns organizing and running the meeting, pick an online platform that works for everyone (Zoom, Facetime, Microsoft Teams, Go To Meeting etc.). It’s important to stop the conversation and check in with each other to make sure everyone is still on the same page. Ask everyone to be on video as much as possible, and have a back-up plan if the connectivity is interrupted.