If Robin Williams (may he rest in peace) was emcee’ing your company’s next all-hands meeting, would you go?
I used to work at a sizable, global company where we’d have quarterly all-hands meetings. Now, credit where credit is due, those all-hands included some impressive elements: rock-concert style lighting, the occasional live band… and yes: Robin Williams even dropped by once. Nonetheless, every time an all-hands rolled around, there was much eye-rolling amongst us rank-and-file on our way down to the auditorium.
Were we just jaded? A bit “too cool for school”? Maybe. Ok: probably.
What’s certain, though, is that we didn’t much care for one-way broadcasts from the powers that be. Executives talked
to at us from the stage while we dutifully listened. And that’s a shame because they were missing out on a golden opportunity to build trust and foster a sense of community with employees. (To be fair, this was like 10 years ago. Here’s hoping they’ve changed it up.)
A good all-hands meeting gives everyone from interns to VPs a chance to ask questions, voice concerns, and showcase their teams’ victories. They help people who don’t work closely together feel connected on a personal and professional level.
So if celebrity comedians and flashy lighting aren’t the keys to meaningful all-hands meetings, what is? The answer will be slightly different for each company. But to give you some ideas, I’ll share a few things we’ve done at Atlassian to make sure our all-hands meetings matter.
What are all-hands meetings all about, anyway?
An all-hands meeting brings the entire organization together to share updates, ask questions, and get to know senior leadership a little better. Unlike team- or department-level meetings, an all-hands ensures everyone receives the same information and messages.
So why not just send an all-staff email blast? Emails are cold and impersonal by comparison. Hearing from executives (like, literally hearing their voices) goes a long way toward keeping employees personally invested and connected to the broader mission, especially as the company grows.
All-hands meetings are not without their challenges, however. “There’s the risk they turn into a lecture or webinar that nobody wants to attend,” says Atlassian’s Chief of Staff, Cathy Meade. And updates that are relevant to 70% of the company may prompt the other 30% to check Facebook for a few minutes. For both those reasons, it’s important to change up the format regularly and craft agendas that include a little something for (or from!) each department.
Use all-hands meetings to create a two-way dialogue
The best all-hands meetings offer employees a chance to engage directly with founders and executives. At Atlassian, we do weekly half-hour “global town halls”, about 25% of which are devoted entirely to Q&A, and those that aren’t sometimes include space for impromptu questions.
When we were much smaller, we’d simply raise our hands and pass a microphone to whoever was called on. Now, to facilitate Q&A across a globally-distributed company of over 2,600 people, we submit questions in advance and can up-vote the questions we most want to be answered. This transparent process ensures we all have a view on what’s on each other’s minds, and that we use the time we have answering the most pressing questions.
There’s the risk all-hands meetings turn into a lecture or webinar that nobody wants to attend. –Cathy Meade, Chief of Staff
Dialogue between departments matters, too. To that end, we usually have at least one presenter who updates the rest of the company on a big project their team is working on, a big win they just scored, or even a big lesson learned.
The larger your company, the greater the perceived chasm between executives and individual contributors, as well as between departments. Non-executive presenters and regular Q&A go a long way toward bridging that gap, which, in turn, fosters a sense of belonging and loyalty.
Don’t shy away from the tough subjects
If personal connection fosters belonging, candor fosters trust. So don’t avoid thorny issues or difficult news in an all-hands meeting. Embrace the opportunity to get down n’ dirty.
For example, last month when Atlassian announced a new partnership with Slack that included shuttering Hipchat and Stride, it was a very emotional moment for everyone in the company. Anticipating this, our founders dedicated an entire hour-long all-hands to the news, including an open Q&A. Being able to engage directly with the decision makers was incredibly empowering and left us feeling stronger as a community.
You don’t have to wait for major announcements, though. All-hands meetings are a great forum for sharing information that every-day employees wouldn’t expect to be privy to – financial details in particular. How much did we spend on X? Where are we making big investments this year? How much cash do we have in the bank?
In our experience, treating everyone as an insider and trusting them with insider information has yet to backfire. Indeed, trust breeds trust. Kind of an upward-spiral thing.
Distributed all-hands? Yes, you can!
Until a few years ago, Atlassian had monthly local all-hands meetings at our offices in Sydney, San Francisco, Austin, and Amsterdam. People loved the hyper-relevant agendas, but there were significant drawbacks. Information wasn’t always presented consistently across offices, and for those not working in our Sydney headquarters, seeing a founder at an all-hands was rare.
So we did what any self-respecting software company would do: we ran an experiment. For two months, we switched to a weekly 30-minute meeting with the whole company. Challenge #1? Timezones.
There was simply no point on the clock that worked for all offices, so we chose a time that got us 80% of the way there, and started recording the meetings. In fact, our offices in Austin, Amsterdam, and Yokohama run the recording the following morning along with a company-sponsored breakfast, which helps build community within each office and fosters a feeling that each office is an equally important a part of the company.
And when a team in one of those “out of timezone” offices as something to share with the rest of the company, we simply record their presentation beforehand and play it during the meeting.
In the name of varied and relevant content, we dove right in and included presenters from multiple offices in each meeting. Hence, challenge #2: A/V set-up. After some trial and error with tools already on the market, our IT team built out a system that live-streams the meeting to all offices and lets you switch the feed to originate from a different office for each presenter. It also allows for live streaming to YouTube, a moderator, and the ability to control it all remotely. If you’re interested in trying it for your own distributed all-hands meetings, you can download it free at jitsi.org.
When everyone can see the other offices (and themselves!) on a live stream, the offices feel more connected and people are more likely to sit up and listen. –Louise Halloran, Communications Manager
Because the live-stream is a one-way feed, we changed up the Q&A format. Now, people submit and up-vote questions in advance and the executive hosting that week’s meeting answers as many as there’s time for. This is similar to how other global companies, notably Apple and Oracle, handle all-hands Q&A.
Don’t forget to have fun
You don’t need a live band to make an all-hands meeting lively. It can be as simple as giving a few shout-outs. At Atlassian, we start each all-hands presentation with the names, photos, and locations of all new hires, then congratulate people who’ve passed their 3- and 5-year anniversaries. And we go all-out with a short “roast”-style video celebrating-slash-lampooning people who reach the 10-year mark.
If videos aren’t your thing, look for other talents hiding amongst your staff. Got singers? Beat-boxers? Dancers? Poets? Get them involved! Present an update as a Dr. Suess-style poem, or deliver it in costume. Ask a designer to create sketch-notes of the meeting to display afterward. And there are very few moments when singing and/or dancing can’t be worked in. (Trust me. We’ve tested the limits on this one.)
And please: don’t make these bone-headed moves
It’ll be obvious to every employee when you phone it in. Companies who hold all-hands meetings begrudgingly tend to make missteps like these:
One-way broadcasting – I can’t overstate this. Audience participation is the key to meaningful all-hands meetings. It’s up to each company to decide how to implement it based on their size, geographical distribution, culture, etc.
Rolling out the spin machine – Don’t sugar-coat tough news or try to pass it off as somebody else’s fault. Be honest, be vulnerable, be an adult.
Criticizing competitors – Taking a tone that is competitive to the point of being aggressive may energize a handful of people, but most will find it ugly, immature, and alienating. Be fierce rivals out there in the marketplace, sure. Just play it cool internally.
Making inside jokes – Whatever joke you crack, make sure 99% of the company will get it. Even subtle comments like “Yeah, you know Matt is gonna go binge-watch Westworld tonight” divide the company into a cool-kids’ club and everyone else when most people don’t even know which Matt you’re referring to – much less his TV habits.
Under-preparing presenters – Brief them on what to do if there’s an A/V failure, and if they’re the last presenter, equip them with a good wrap-up line so it’s clear the meeting is over.
Look: meetings are an unavoidable aspect of how we’ll all be working together for the foreseeable future, so making meetings as effective as possible is a worthy investment. Creating all-hands meetings that matter doesn’t require a full event staff. It just requires some thoughtful planning and a willingness to listen.
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Also published on Medium.