Virtual family meetings in a time of coronavirus

Key considerations in conducting virtual family meetings

Authored by the Merrill Center for Family WealthTM


The world seems upside down right now. The times are challenging for everyone, including the families we serve. Merrill Center for Family Wealth™ has had a front-row seat to observing how families are approaching the shifts that are happening around them, which are affecting them deeply.

We have seen this roll out in phases: at first the initial shock and rapid response to the spread of Coronavirus, then the period of acclimation to new habits and required behaviors, and, more recently, the start of an adjustment for the long haul. Internally, we have seen many families asking themselves questions, such as:

  • What will the world look like when this is over?
  • How will this affect our business or the deployment of our capital?
  • What do we need to be prepared for?
  • What do we as a family want to stand for?
  • How can we make a positive difference to those who are less fortunate?
  • How can we be well-positioned when the world and our communities emerge from this?

Many families we work with see this as a good time to gather the family together for deeper conversation. They are using these times to talk about the future they want to create for themselves and what they need to do to create that future. As we found before the pandemic, facilitated meetings can often produce better and more lasting results. In the last few months, we have facilitated quite a few family meetings. We have learned a great deal about what works, what doesn’t work and how to best use the virtual environment to help families gain insight and direction.

Some surprising benefits to virtual family meetings

While being together in person is more rewarding, there are some significant benefits to virtual family meetings:

1. They are far easier to organize. Family members don’t have to take time off work, travel great distances, accommodate other family commitments, book travel, arrange for child care and deal with a host of other logistics. This means that what used to be a three to six month lead time required to have a family meeting is now shortened to a matter of a few weeks to plan, organize and hold the meeting.

2. People listen more closely to each other. Because of the technology, it is difficult for people to talk over each other. The conversations are slower and often develop more thoughtfully than they do in real-time.

3. People have better emotional regulation. Because people see each other and themselves, and because they are relating through a screen, they tend to be less triggered emotionally. We have noticed that some conversations that might have been more reactive are calmer and more deliberate. As it turns out, a great deal of body language and tone is difficult to convey in virtual meetings. As we all know, it is often not so much what is said that sparks trouble, as how it is said; the virtual environment can mute that a bit.

4. People see themselves as well as each other. People are receiving immediate feedback as to how they come across to others. This often results in better self-modulation and higher executive function. It also tends to make their contributions more thoughtful and impactful.

There are also some important structural advantages. Videoconferences of more than two hours are typically too demanding. This means that a family meeting that may have previously lasted four to six hours if held face to face must be broken up. By holding a meeting in segments, family members have a chance to think and reflect on discussions. In a family meeting where one aspect of the meeting had to do with a controversy involving a difficult sibling and spousal dynamics over the use of a shared asset, the meeting was held over three days. Between meetings, there was meaningful conversation with spouses and between family units that helped to resolve the issues by the third day. This ability to sleep on issues can lead to better, more grounded and enduring agreements.

A few drawbacks

Virtual family meetings are no substitute for actually being together. Families miss the downtime of spending time together. While no substitute, it is important to build in some games and fun into the virtual environment. We have been helping families do that and have applied a variety of openings, interludes and endings that help make the virtual meeting more intimate and engaging. This is a critical component for many family meetings we facilitate.

Another aspect of not being together is that some challenges families face are too complex and personal and may require face-to-face interaction to address. If there are issues that create a great deal of friction, it is wise to weigh carefully whether the virtual environment will help with reactivity or impede the possibility of making real progress. This is particularly true if there are family members who are not as comfortable using virtual technology or who have limitations that might make it difficult for them to engage in a non-person capacity.

Other than that, the normal rules apply (with a twist)

A successful virtual meeting will still require solid planning, a well thought-out agenda, effective ground rules and a concrete purpose that results in agreements that can be tracked. As an aside, we have found that a solid agenda is often premised not on points to cover, but on questions to be asked and discussed. For example, a traditional agenda item such as “Overview of the estate plan” might be re-cast into “How can we as a family make the estate plan work best for future generations?” In our planning, we often start with the assumption that anything that can be covered in a memo probably doesn’t justify a family meeting in itself – the best family meetings are designed around important questions.

Seven insights to help foster great virtual family meetings

  1. Plan well and consider connecting with a facilitator to maximize the virtual environment
  2. Convene with purpose and focus on clear questions about the future
  3. Ground your conversation in your core operating principles as a family
  4. Consider breaking up your family meeting over several days, so people have time to think
  5. If there is an emotionally charged issue at play, connect with a facilitator to determine whether it is appropriate for a family meeting in a virtual environment or it is better to wait to address it in person
  6. If your family meetings have not included spouses and life partners up to this point, think carefully about whether now is the time to include them or if it makes sense to wait to do so
  7. Use this concentrated time to address important questions, but also try to inject some fun into the process


If you think that you and your family might benefit from a virtual family meeting, including insight from a facilitator, please connect with your private wealth advisor to explore the process.

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