Since the beginning of lockdown, property managers have had to come up with innovative ways to keep their residents safe while still providing the best service possible. One big change has been the way they run virtual HOA board meetings for their community associations.
While many HOA meetings were still held in person before this year, many have turned to virtual meetings to keep their associations on track. There are challenges, however, that come with moving HOA meetings online. From choosing the right tech to keeping meetings secure, and complying with state law, HOA boards and property managers have had to jump over a few hurdles to get their meetings up and running.
But, if done right, moving to virtual HOA meetings can bump up participation while reducing meeting times.
Eric Staszczak is Vice President of Association Management at Westward360, a 20,000-unit property management company that offers both association and rental management in Chicago. He has been helping his HOAs switch to virtual meetings since the beginning of the pandemic. Here, he shares his insights on how to run a tight, professional virtual HOA board meeting.
Determine Which Meetings Will Be Held Virtually
The first step is to figure out which meetings will happen online. Unless state law or HOA bylaws are very specific on the location of an HOA meeting, there really isn’t much reason to postpone it—though Staszcak says some of his HOAs have pushed quarterly meetings if there wasn’t much to talk about, in the interest of saving everyone time.
Most states don’t specify where meetings should take place. So, unless HOA bylaws specify otherwise, an online forum, as long as it’s accessible to all members, is fine.
Staszczak’s firm has been receiving legal counsel since March and has noticed that, as the lockdown continued, opinions on virtual meetings have changed. As long as proper notice is given in a way that satisfies the law and the meeting is accessible to all members, a virtual option is generally okay.
In fact, says Staszczak, the switch to virtual meetings has actually made meetings more accessible to more members of his HOAs. His firm has experienced double or even triple the attendance they had before the pandemic put an end to in-person meetings.
“We’ve gotten a ton of feedback from owners and boards, who are getting feedback themselves from owners who haven’t been in a meeting in 5 years because maybe they live out of town or maybe they work a second shift—so they never get to attend an evening meeting,” says Staszczak. “I think that there’s just so much more accessibility, people have a voice in a way that they didn’t necessarily have before.”
Hybrid HOA Meetings
One aspect of virtual meetings Staszczak has found challenging is when a meeting takes place both online and in person. Annual meetings that include elections may require that kind of setup to satisfy HOA bylaws and state laws concerning voting.
The biggest challenge, he says, is getting the audio right, so everyone online can hear what’s happening at the live meeting.
Choosing a Platform for Your Virtual HOA Board Meetings
Next, it’s time to choose the right platform for your virtual meeting. Zoom has been a popular tool for all kinds of meetings, as well as Google Meet. Other popular platforms include Google Hangouts, Join.me, GotoMeeting, Adobe Connect, and HighFive.
Most platforms have a free version with limited functionality, as well as a premium version that gives you more meeting options. Consider trying the free version before buying to see if the platform is the right fit for your HOA.
When Staszczak first started setting up virtual meetings for his HOA, he took a survey with members on their preferred technology.
“We use Google Meet in our office, but sometimes there are constraints with people not having Google accounts or being a little bit stymied by the process. So, we’ve kind of gauged how folks might prefer to meet.”
He says some HOAs even opted for a conference call rather than a virtual meeting solution.
When choosing a platform, whatever it is, it should meet 3 major criteria:
- Accessibility: Will it be easy for participants to log in? Will they need to buy into or download anything? Is it easy to set up?
- Usability: Is the platform user-friendly? Will participants have a hard time figuring out how to use the camera or audio?
- Security: What security features does the platform include to keep out people who shouldn’t be in the meeting?
Best Practices for Virtual HOA Board Meetings
Once you’ve chosen a platform that everyone is happy with, there are some best practices to get everyone up and running.
#1: Send Meeting Items Beforehand
With in-person meetings, you may have had agendas or meeting packets available when members walked in. With virtual meetings, it’s a good idea to send out all materials ahead of time (at least a couple days before). That gives members a chance to look over meeting items before they log in and it also reminds them of the meeting.
This is particularly smart if you’re doing a conference call. Members can have all the meeting information in front of them and follow along as you run through the agenda items.
#2: Test Out the Tech Beforehand
Run a test meeting before you invite everyone else. Take the time to understand the following functions:
- How the presenter’s role works
- How to turn the camera and sound on and off
- How to mute other participants
- How to use the chat functionality
- How to begin and end the meeting
- How to share your screen
#3: Start the Meeting Early
Staszczak recommends starting the meeting 15 to 20 minutes early.
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For your first few online meetings, expect a learning curve for participants. By starting the meeting early, members have time to log in and get familiar with the conference platform. You can walk them through issues such as cameras that are off or mics that are muted, and you can point out features such as raising your hand and chat functionality.
Even after regular participants are used to the platform, that extra 15 to 20 minutes gives them time to say hello and catch up before moving on to the agenda.
#4: Hold Open Forum at the Beginning (If You Can)
If your state’s laws allow it, Staszczak recommends holding open forum at the beginning of quarterly and annual meetings. That way, members who don’t need to be present for the entire meeting can log off.
#5: Share the Agenda and Other Items During the Meeting
Even though you sent members all the meeting materials, it’s still a wise idea to share your screen and show the materials you’re referencing. That way, members won’t get lost in their own stack of papers. They’ll be able to follow along, making the meeting more efficient.
#6: Close Your Tabs
If you do show your screen, close the rest of your tabs or open what you’re sharing in another window. Doing so prevents you from creating a liability or broadcasting confidential information by mistake.
“I’ve largely had the most success with moving whatever materials I want to share to another window so I can still do things in the background,” says Stasczcak. “I can still pull up contextual information, but members are only seeing exactly what I intended them to see.”
Don’t Be Afraid of the Mute Button
How many times have you been in a virtual meeting or on a conference call where you can hear someone’s TV or dog in the background? It’s pretty distracting and usually throws the meeting off track for several minutes.
It may seem rude to mute everyone in a meeting, it’s actually one of the best ways to keep the meeting on track and participants focused. Some platforms, such as Google Meet, allow the owner or presenter to mute everyone at once and unmute only the person who wants to speak.
Cybersecurity for Virtual HOA Board Meetings
When an HOA takes their meetings online, there are definite security precautions they have to address.
#1: Use Security Codes
At the beginning of the pandemic, “Zoom bombers” made headlines for their unexpected appearances on meeting members’ screens.
As a result, Zoom introduced security codes, where participants had to enter a code once they logged into a meeting. If you use a platform, make sure you send participants the code in a secure manner and remind them to keep it to themselves.
#2: Call Out Unidentified Participants
Even if you think the meeting is secure, keep an eye out for uninvited guests, particularly if you’re showing sensitive information. Staszczak emphasizes the importance of identifying everyone in a meeting. If you see an anonymous participant, someone with their camera and microphone turned off, call on that person to identify themselves.
“We’ll make sure that everyone who isn’t immediately identifiable does identify themselves. And then if we don’t get a response from someone, we haven’t permitted them access to the meeting until we can verify who they are.”
He says that’s even the case with members who can’t figure out how to take themselves off mute. It’s important, he says, to make sure information is secure, and that renters or other restricted parties don’t get information they’re not allowed to have.
#3: Keep Meetings Private
Members themselves should be warned not to log into meetings in crowded places. While most people are still staying home, some members may head out to a café or library as certain states open up again. If you are showing sensitive information on screen, however, it will be visible to anyone who walks by.
Are Remote Meetings the Future?
Staczcak absolutely believes virtual meetings will replace at least some in-person meetings. In the six months he has been running virtual meetings, he’s seen greater participation in meetings that are much more efficient.
“Not that we don’t encourage people to socialize and chat, but I think it does keep things better to the agenda, so you’re not having a needless 2-hour meeting when business could have been wrapped up in 35 minutes.”
Making the switch to online meetings won’t be a temporary fix, but part of the new routine. And knowing how to run a virtual HOA board meetings efficiently and securely could actually be a boon for your HOAs. Plus, you’ll get hours back each month.
Imagine how much can be accomplished if HOA members (who were never able to participate before) start logging in, offering feedback, and staying informed on HOA business. It simply makes your job easier all around.
While getting virtual HOA board meetings going may be a bit clunky at first, this is a low-hanging-fruit opportunity to work with your community associations toward a better experience for all members now—while they’re obliged to try something new.Read more on COVID-19