At nearly every employee town hall, there’s a moment of silence that comes when a senior leader utters these four scary words: “Are there any questions?” A hush falls over the room. Nobody moves. People avoid making eye contact. Finally, some brave soul raises his hand and everyone starts breathing again.
But town hall participation doesn’t have to be painful. In fact, there are easy ways to encourage employees to play a role. One caveat: You can’t keep doing town halls the same way and expect a different result. So although the following seven ideas aren’t difficult, they do require a new approach.
1. Rearrange the room
Auditorium-style seating sends the message to employees that they’re passive observers. So unless the chairs are bolted down, try a new arrangement. Three possibilities: theater in the round, banquet style or herringbone.
2. Move in close
As every stand-up comedian knows, wide-open spaces make people stiff. So bring employees in as close to speakers as possible. A little crowding is a good thing.
3. Set expectations
Ask your leader to state right from the beginning that the town hall has been designed to include participation. The leader should then articulate how the session will work (especially if the format is different than previous town halls).
4. Take a vote
The safest way for employees to participate is as part of a big group. An effective option is audience response devices or text polling to ask employees their opinions on key issues.
5. Vote with hands (or feet)
If you don’t have access to technology, you can still ask employees to share their viewpoint. The simplest approach? Call for a show of hands. A more fun and energetic way is “voting with your feet.” Instruct employees to move to the part of the room that represents their opinion, then ask the leader to comment on how employees are voting.
6. Enable chat
If you’re running your town hall as a virtual meeting, or if some participants are joining remotely, use the chat feature of your web meeting platform. Employees are more comfortable typing their comments or questions than having to voice their views.
7. Create a mini breakout
No matter how many employees are present, you can still facilitate a breakout called “the paired share.” Instruct each person to talk to his or her neighbor about a question or topic for three minutes. Then ask volunteers to share what their pair discussed.