After 20 years of famously holding weekly All Hands meetings, also known as Town Halls, tech giant Google recently announced a major change to internal communications following a series of leaks outside the company — it was moving these meetings to monthly.
While the leaks have been challenging for Google, the company’s “TGIF” meetings — held every Thursday to ensure all staff globally were included — have been emulated by just about every other Silicon Valley startup and were deemed too important to stop.
Google remains committed to the All Hands format, and is still holding Town Halls with impressive regularity compared with most similarly sized organisations.
Whether you call them All Hands meetings, Town Halls or simply company updates; and whether you decide to run them from a physical location or online, how can you ensure you’re doing them right?
What is a Town Hall meeting?
The first Town Halls were held by the Greeks a few thousand years ago (they called them Assemblies) as a way to give citizens a voice and a role in government.
Today, the core principle of a Town Hall remains the same: participation. It should be an event, not a series of presentations. Every Town Hall should be planned not just as a way to share information but as an engaging experience.
Town Hall, or All Hands, meetings are whole-of-company events usually run by the chief executive officer or a senior member of the executive. Unlike results briefings or company announcements, the audience is all staff — hence the name ‘All Hands’.
Importantly, at these meetings, company news is shared by the CEO or executive team, shout-outs are given to employees who have gone above and beyond in the period since the previous meeting, and anyone at the company can ask the CEO or the executive team a question.
All Hands generally put more emphasis on the executive presentation, while with Town Halls the ability for employees to ask questions may be considered paramount.
These meetings are held in-person for smaller companies, and for larger companies with multiple locations or remote workers, they may be live-streamed or broadcast over online platforms and recorded for distribution to ensure everyone is included.
Confidential information may be shared with the audience — and most companies prefer it stays confidential — so it’s important the required cultural, contractual and technical building-blocks are in place to facilitate the open two-way flow of information.
Why hold Town Hall meetings?
So why should your company hold a Town Hall meeting?
The benefits in terms of information flow, company morale and culture, and performance are generally considered to vastly outweigh the negatives.
When all-staff meetings are run well, they give employees and key executives the chance to closely interact, which builds morale and trust, promotes transparency, and helps to create a collective sense of purpose as well as build momentum towards achieving business outcomes.
After more than 10 years helping organisations communicate and collaborate effectively with their staff, at Redback we’ve learned that two of the things employees value most is the opportunity to hear directly from senior leaders and to be heard by them.
That’s why all-staff updates are important for every company, whether you’ve only got a handful, or hundreds, of staff.
How often should you schedule an all-staff update?
If you’re a tech startup or working in a fast-growing firm or a fast-moving sector, you might have enough news to fill a weekly or fortnightly all-staff update. Otherwise consider holding it monthly or quarterly.
If your communications calendar is already crowded with results briefings, announcements, investor updates and other events, you may wish to consider the following timings:
- End of calendar year
- End of fiscal year
- Special anniversary date (eg. the date the company was founded)
- Timed around a major announcement
If you choose to hold your staff updates annually, consider that it might be 11 months before some of your employees have attended even one — making it harder for you to achieve the cultural benefits you may be seeking.
Benefits of online Town Hall meetings
There are important benefits of holding regular Town Halls with your staff.
Let’s go through some of the key factors to consider, and look at how you can ensure you’re approaching these company updates the right way.
The major benefits are widely considered to include:
- Information dissemination
While many organisations choose to share company updates in regular all-staff bulletins or emails, how many of these are opened and carefully read? Town Halls ensure all staff know what’s happening within the company without the potential for misinformation or emails that go unnoticed or unread.
All-staff updates are an effective way to ensure all your employees are informed, and hear it directly from the executive, reducing the impact of gossip, rumour and external media reports as well as the filter of middle management.
- Organisational alignment
Keeping all staff focused on the right things is critical to achieving your corporate objectives. If these are sent out in annual slide presentations or documents that don’t get referenced again until the following year, it’s hard to ensure everyone stays focused.
Town Halls are an opportunity for your organisation to emphasise what’s important and keep everyone on the same page, dramatically increasing your chances of achieving your goals.
- Morale building
The deepest human need is to be appreciated, according to philosopher and psychologist William James, but not everyone can be promoted or given a raise whenever they’ve done great work.
All Hands meetings allow companies to call out the contribution of team members who have gone above and beyond, and acknowledge their value to their peers, building morale and acknowledging performance outside the boundaries of an annual review.
- Employee relations
If you’re in business long enough, you’ll know that not all news is going to be positive all the time. But if you’re not out there communicating with your employees, whether the news is bad or good, you won’t be able to influence the conversation.
All-staff updates ensure you can present your perspective to your team and accentuate the positives. Just ensure you acknowledge the facts and emotions your team brings up and deal honestly with the hard questions, or it may backfire by creating distrust.
- Staff empowerment
It’s not always the executive team that asks the best questions. And you can bet that if someone asks a question, there are others out there thinking it too.
Giving staff a voice at your Town Hall meeting makes people feel empowered to speak up and more involved in decision making and provides an outlet if the company makes a controversial move.
It’s best to know what your team is thinking, rather than risk making missteps because you’ve mis-read the room (or the broader organisational mood).
A key difficulty when your company spreads beyond its original office and timezone can be communicating with those in satellite offices, across geographic boundaries and those who work remotely.
All Hands meetings enables staff in those locations to dial in or listen remotely, and should capture questions and feedback in a way that facilitates their full participation in the event, fostering a sense of inclusion across the organisation.
- Cultural dissemination
Does your company have clear, well-known cultural values? Can your employees name them? Are they token values or does your executive team live them?
Culture comes from the top, and if your employees don’t see the executive team living your values, it’s that much harder to ensure staff actually know what they are and adjust their behaviour to match.
You can actively spread and share your values and culture by the way you communicate in your All Hands, reinforcing and disseminating key cultural values from the executive team down
What were your corporate objectives again? How are they being measured? What’s crucial to your company achieving its goals?
When your executive team reports progress against these measures to staff, you’re keeping the company at large as accountable as the individuals it includes.
Use your all-staff updates for doing this and you’ll be much further down the road to achieving those goals.
- Unification and motivation
It’s hard to motivate your team and build support across your initiatives if you’re only communicating by email or in small groups.
All Hands meetings enable organisations to build buy-in and unify teams by recognising the efforts of colleagues, sharing and celebrating success, and using them as a unifying and motivating force.
- Mood monitoring
If your CEO only spends time with his executive team, there’s every chance a disconnect will develop with your employees.
Bridge the gap and enable your lead team to get a feel for the mood of your team first-hand. Effective Town Halls, in which employees participate, allow the executive to take the pulse of the organisation without the filter of surveys or other mechanisms.
Physical and Online Town Hall Meetings – The risks, and the solutions
As with any communications channel, there are some risks to be managed when it comes to running your Town Hall meetings. None of these are insurmountable, and if you couple the right attitude with the right technology platform, you’ll be able to overcome most of them.
Risk 1: Lack of participation
If you’re not getting questions from your staff, you’re presenting to them rather than holding a Town Hall. Ask yourself — and perhaps a few of your team members — why aren’t your employees participating?
The Solution: Reassess whether your chosen format is the best possible way to conduct your updates.
Not everyone feels comfortable speaking publicly to a large audience so ensure you provide the option for staff to submit questions anonymously or in advance of the meeting to include those of your team that simply don’t like speaking out in public.
If streaming your Town Hall, ensure you have the option for a private or open chat forum to ensure everyone has a voice and can ask those questions that sometimes need to be asked.
Risk 2: Potential leaks
As mentioned, confidential information will be shared with your team at scale, making the company more vulnerable to breaches.
The Solution: If information is leaking from your All Hands, it’s usually a sign your team is not satisfied you’re taking the right steps to address any particular issues of concern to staff.
Reiterate to your team their contractual commitments to confidentiality — but also ask yourself if you’re meeting expectations in the way difficult issues are being handled.
A benefit of hosting your Town Hall online is that you can capture all data. Everything from when people join, their duration and interaction throughout the event.
Risk 3: Logistical issues
The logistics of holding a single meeting for all staff can be difficult to manage across time-zones and geographic locations to ensure everyone has equal access to the executive team and the information they’re sharing, as well as the ability to ask questions.
This includes remote workers that may need to view the meetings on delay, but may still want to provide feedback by asking questions or leaving comments.
The Solution: Choose a technology platform that can deliver against all your logistical requirements. This includes an on-demand hosting platform and access from mobile devices. It’s important to ensure your audience can watch your Town Hall once it is over and can access it from wherever, whenever.
Also remember to take time-zones, public holidays and local events into consideration.
Risk 4: Insufficient capacity
Some Town Halls need to bring tens of thousands of employees online at once across a variety of geographic territories. Large-scale online meetings can disrupt network capacity so it’s important to ensure your All Hands won’t disrupt regular services.
The Solution: When hosting a physical event, always liaise with your venue provider to avoid any audio or visual glitches.
If streaming your event online, ensure your conferencing platform can handle the volume you require without blowing out your network capacity and causing an outage. There is technology available to allow your network to handle any amount of simultaneous usage without causing congestion. Make sure that your online conferencing platform provider deploys this to prevent network outages.
When researching an online conferencing provider, choose one that provides technical support to all of your attendees so that you don’t have to deal with support calls coming in on the day.
Risk 5: Problems sharing
It’s not always easy being transparent with staff, but the open and honest flow of information is critical to the success of your Town Halls — otherwise you could do more to damage company morale than to build it.
This can be one of the most difficult things for CEOs to manage. Not all news is positive and not every response your executive team makes to questions will be perfect.
The Solution: Bear in mind you don’t have to share every detail about controversial topics. But it’s important to be honest and acknowledge problems, so your staff can have confidence your executive team can solve them.
Redback Connect – Digital Events Done Differently
Redback Connect delivers more than 200 digital events such as Town Halls every month and offers a level of expertise and experience that helps us take the stress out of the occasion.
If you are delivering a Town Hall from a venue with a live audience, our team can take care of all the technology in the room to ensure everyone is seen and heard.
We can stream in presenters from any location in the world, and our Enterprise Streaming Technology enables thousands of simultaneous connections to hit your network without impacting performance.
Our system captures and records the entire presentation and any materials associated with the presentation are delivered in real-time to your online participants.
Remote participants can leave anonymous feedback — and participants that view a recording after the event can leave feedback as well.
For those that want to deliver their Town Hall without a live audience, Redback offers cutting-edge broadcast studios in CBD Sydney and Melbourne to provide broadcast TV quality messaging. For executives that cannot travel in to our studios we can pull a high definition video stream from your boardroom Video Conferencing units if you are so equipped.
In addition, you’ll receive full reporting on both your live and post event participants.
Town Halls provide a fantastic forum to share good news, review challenges, and discuss how everyone can play a part in an organisation’s future success.
Contact Redback today to find out how we can help you connect with your entire team in your next Town Hall or All Hands.