Our grand working-from-home experiment (Is it still an experiment when we’re approaching one year?) has proven that employee communication is more important than ever. But it also highlighted how challenging it can be.

Take the humble employee town hall or all-hands meeting. In the good old days (before COVID-19), town hall meetings were a complex mix of employees in the cafeteria at headquarters, a few people gathered in small meeting rooms in satellite offices, others joining from the road on their phones and several manufacturing employees huddled around a laptop in the breakroom.

The result was less than successful. Employees in the main room didn’t learn anything new. Everyone else felt disconnected — as if they were listening in on someone’s party.

Layer on the pandemic with never-ending Zoom meetings, as well as multiple screens in our personal lives, and employees have high expectations about content and its delivery. Now, town halls have to work even harder.

Doing something differently requires a vision. So, let’s start with the end result — how three organizations reinvented their all-hands meetings to make them compelling and motivational events:

Moving from an in-person meeting to a virtual experience. Every year, a global manufacturer and distributor of advanced technologies brought its leadership team of 125 together. This four-day, jam-packed event had many of the characteristics you might expect: plenary sessions, breakouts, dinners and special events. Attendees spent time together but left exhausted. Leveraging best practices in adult learning, the summit was turned into four three-hour sessions (delivered during one week). And the agenda was redesigned to encourage interactivity, including ice breakers, stimulating exercises and visually focused presentations (no text!).

Turning the idea of a town hall on its head. The pandemic forced the services division of a global pharmaceutical company to blow up its annual town hall. While a standard web-based meeting would have been a logical (and easy) choice, the organizing team developed a website that was live for two weeks and included three key tools:

· Chats with senior leaders — scheduled online discussions on specific topics

· Ask the expert sessions — think virtual lunch and learns

· Content on demand — a combination of video and presentations

Making the time to connect during a crisis. When you’re an essential service in the middle of a pandemic, what’s the best way to connect with 250 leaders across your organization? A senior living provider reimagined its annual in-person, leadership summit with a 90-minute, virtual meeting that included business updates, recognition moments, interaction and guest speakers.

There are two common threads across these examples: fast-paced delivery and interaction. Imagine you’re producing a television talk show and you’ll understand how these best practices should come to life to create an engaging, virtual experience.

7 strategies to reinvent your next all-hands meeting

Ready to pick up the pace of your next town hall and add a healthy dose of interaction? Follow these seven strategies to make it happen:

1. Keep it short. Attention spans are shorter for on-screen events with the sweet spot in the 60- to 90-minute range. Spread the event over several days if you need more than 90 minutes, such as three 60-minute sessions over three days. When I design a multi-day town hall, I like to insert activities between plenary sessions, such as asking breakout teams to work on an assignment.

2. Ban talking heads and design an experience that encourages interaction with attendees. While it may be easy to have two or three presenters followed by five minutes of Q&A, the result is less than inspiring for attendees. The trick is to mix it up and increase the pace: a five-minute presentation, a group exercise or game, breakouts to address a challenge, idea generation and Q&A sessions. (Tip: Employees love Q&A! Don’t cut it short. It should be one of the longest components of your meeting.)

3. Focus on one topic. This is challenging for most meeting organizers but sticking to a topic or theme will create a better experience. Rather than ping ponging across nine topics, staying focused on one will help you explore it in meaningful detail. And it will help presenters stay focused.

4. Provide information that’s new and fresh. New content (not a rehash of what was covered in last week’s newsletter) will encourage employees to attend your event. After the meeting, continue the conversation across other communication channels. For example, the CEO could post on an internal social tool, “During yesterday’s town hall, there was a great question about safety. Here are a few more thoughts and I hope you’ll share ideas to improve our safety record.”

5. Add multiple voices and perspectives — not just the senior leadership team. Having diverse voices contributes to the authenticity of your meeting and creates a more dynamic experience. Here are a few examples: two-minute updates from teams, a customer’s reaction to a new product or someone new to facilitate the entire meeting.

6. Embrace technology. Understand all of the tools available on your meeting platform (Zoom, Teams, WebEx, etc.) and put them to work. When you use features such as chat, breakouts and whiteboards, engagement increases. And try using tools outside of your platform, such as a separate polling tool or brainstorming software.

7. Consider how you’ll include those who can’t attend, such as customer-facing roles or manufacturing employees. For example, create bites of content that can be used in team huddles, post a collection of mobile-friendly (short) videos, or launch an app or webpage to collect input on a hot topic.

How one company delivered a high-energy, virtual town hall

Now it’s your turn: Put these ideas into practice at your organization. Need inspiration? Here’s how one company used the seven strategies to create a new employee town hall.

Some quick background: After several years of rapid growth, pressure on profits and lots of change (including a new business strategy and reorganization), there was a sense of urgency to ramp up internal communication at this professional services company. Indeed, our research revealed that employees wanted to learn more about the new business strategy and craved more interaction with senior leaders.

While we knew a town hall would be an important communication channel, the company had a poor track record with them. You can probably imagine it: a few attendees in a room at the head office and hundreds of not-so-engaged employees on the phone.

So, we set out to deliver a new experience (a 75-minute Zoom meeting) focused on one topic — the new strategy. The session included quick hits of information (usually 5- to 10-minute bursts) with lots of audience participation. A facilitator joined the CEO, and together they asked for employees’ input.

Here are highlights from the agenda:

· Introduced a new summary of the strategy — a strategy map

· Used polls to test knowledge of the strategy

· Heard from employees in the field — their stories about the strategy in action

· Asked employees to respond to two questions in chat: What’s working well with the new strategy? What needs to be improved?

· Hosted a rapid-fire Q&A session

The new town hall was the highest attended all-employee meeting — 97% of employees joined. And 84% said the meeting was a good use of their time. But, perhaps most importantly, 92% believed the organization was headed in the right direction.

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