John Reeve: Trustees’ adoption of virtual meeting presents adviser opportunities

More efficient meetings and the opportunity to join remotely could offer the opportunity for trustee boards to benefit from IFA experience effectively and efficiently, writes John Reeve

Fans of Douglas Adams’ ‘Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’ would be forgiven for thinking that the last few months have been like a trip through hyperspace with the Infinite Improbability Drive. The issue we all face is when will we know that we have arrived, and normality has been resumed?

We do know that pension plan governance has held up well through the recent journey – arguably better – however improbable that seems.

Before the pandemic, a home working model with remote meetings would have failed risk management assessments. Yet, overnight the industry had to change, and it did. Furthermore, most people I speak to feel that the current delivery model is superior in many ways to what we had before.

Greater input from all types of advisers has been part of the success story and I would suggest that the level of governance has improved. Quoting Adams’ again ‘I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.’

Video Conference meetings add benefits not limitations

Not only do virtual meetings work, they are, in many ways, an improvement and definitely complementary to face to face meetings.

My experience is that we have been able to have more meetings than we would ever have thought possible and we have been able to meet when we need to and not when we are able to. The flexibility to react to circumstances is something that the industry has often lacked and the idea that you can run a pension plan on four quarterly meetings a year has always seemed crazy to me.

Video conferencing offers an alternative. Shorter, more frequent and often single subject meetings are more efficient and create a pace of change that is more in keeping with the modern world

Engagement has improved.  Everyone has been able to attend all of the meetings as 60 minute meeting is just that and doesn’t involve wiping out half a day when you factor in travelling.

While there is a new skill in chairing online meetings they have tended to be shorter because attendees are less inclined to run down conversational rabbit holes and tend to stick to the matter under discussion.

The ability to record meetings provides better minutes and, if appropriate, for those who can’t attend to view some sections of a meeting – maybe a training session from the Scheme Actuary or an important discussion.

Greater input from advisers

The ability to invite advisers to the meetings without them having to travel and book time away from the office has also made it easier to get the right advice at the right time. Too often I hear trustees expressing concern that they cannot afford to have the lawyer or actuary at the meeting so they are excluded from important discussions.

Advisers can also join just for their section without ever leaving their desk. We have even been able to contact advisers during the meeting and ask them to join for just a few minutes to clear up a point. This is something that would never happen in a physical meeting and it allows the attendees to get better advice in a more efficient manner.

For IFAs this may be a good opportunity to engage more fully with trustee boards and governance committees. Many boards find it difficult to put aside the time to meet with the IFA to understand what their members need and how they can be helped. More efficient meetings and the opportunity to join remotely could offer the opportunity for boards to benefit from IFA experience effectively and efficiently.

ESG to greater inclusion

Video conference meetings offer other advantages to trustee boards. For example, the ability to react faster to specific environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues or regulatory changes regarding defined benefit transfers.

Possibly the most important benefit of video conferences is increased inclusivity. By offering video conferences we will be able to attract the disabled, those with young families or who work in remote locations and those who may have felt a room full of largely middle age men was intimidating.

Furthermore, the technology will reduce the time spent travelling. Putting aside the cost and time commitment this will improve the carbon footprint of the trustee board at a time when we all need to consider this.

I hope and expect virtual meetings to become the norm. I would expect face to face meetings to become the exception. Technology in this area will continue to improve, both Zoom and MS Teams have rolled out improved functionality and the speed of improvements is likely to accelerate. I am sure new entrants will also spring up, offering even more ideas to improve how remote meetings ‘flow’.

We all need to play a part now in embedding the changes that we have seen over the past few months.

Douglas Adams summarised the opportunity for embracing solutions that on the face of it seem like a cop out: on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much—the wheel, New York, wars and so on—whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man—for precisely the same reasons.

John Reeve is pensions actuary and director Cosan Consulting