How to run a great all-hands meeting

How to run a great all-hands meeting
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All-hands meetings are incredibly expensive, when you think about it. Time is money, and when the entire company is taking time to get together, not working on projects or moving the ball forward in any other way, it’s a big investment. Are you getting the most for your money? 

If you’ve ever wondered how to make your all-hands meeting more fun, engaging, and ultimately effective, this is the post for you. Read on for what an all-hands meeting is, its purpose, agenda, topic ideas, and tips for making your all-hands as great as it can be. 

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What is an all hands meeting?

Also known as a town hall, an all-hands meeting is a regularly scheduled, company-wide gathering where employees meet to discuss issues that impact the whole organization. 

The phrase “All-hands” originates with “all hands on deck,” a signal for all the crew members of a ship to meet on the deck to discuss important business or attend to a particular matter. 

How often do most companies hold an all-hands? It really depends. There’s a case for more frequency, as there are many potential benefits of holding an all-hands, and meeting more frequently can increase those benefits. There’s also the fact that these meetings are expensive, so meeting too often can mean the cost outweighs the benefit. 

At Clockwise, we hold two weekly meetings that everyone in the company is expected to attend. Polly.ai holds all-hands meetings twice per month. Atlassian’s whole team meets weekly. Experiment to find the cadence that works best for your group.

What’s the purpose of an all hands meeting?

An all-hands meeting has multiple purposes and can offer many benefits to organizations. Below we’ll dig into six of the most impactful benefits.

1. Fostering transparency

Transparency is a huge trust-builder for teams. And research shows that teams with more shared trust perform better than teams with less. Over the past decade, McKinsey has asked more than 5,000 executives to describe their “peak experience” as a team member. They consistently heard three key dimensions of great teamwork. First, great teams trust each other. This allows them to communicate openly and mediate conflicts effectively for high-quality interaction. 

When people trust they’re getting the whole, accurate picture they feel safer and able to cooperate more fully. 

A meeting where everyone in an organization, regardless of their team or role, is getting the same information, can foster a sense of openness, trust, and safety. You don’t need to tell everyone everything. “But the more open communication is around central business themes, the greater chance there is of finding creative, innovative solutions,” according to the Polly.ai team.

Perhaps most importantly, an all-hands meeting gives workers a place to ask questions. Yes, you can and should hold Q&A outside the all-hands. But when you do it publicly as a team everyone gets to know what their colleagues are wondering about and hear the answers at the same time. 

2. Ensuring alignment

Another characteristic of high-performing teams from the McKinsey research is that great teams are aligned on the company’s direction and their team’s role in achieving company goals. The all-hands is an amazing opportunity to enhance alignment around your organization’s mission, goals, and strategy. It’s a place where everyone is getting the exact same information and message. 

Joseph Folkman is a Forbes Contributor and Behavioral Statistician who researches leadership development. He finds that great leaders “communicate, communicate, communicate the vision and direction.” He goes as far as to advise leaders to “Be a broken record and help team members to be focused on the vision.” 

“It’s easy for anyone to get distracted or miss a turn,” Folkman writes. “Shiny objects are all around us and sometimes team members get diverted from their mission. High-performance team leaders keep people informed, up-to-date and on track. All-hands meetings are important avenues for demonstrating and strengthening your company culture. Talk about your company vision & mission, emphasize your values, and review how your company’s doing in terms of achieving your goals.” 

3. Reiterate company culture

An all-hands is also a great place for leaders and teammates to reinforce company culture. At Clockwise, we start every Monday morning all-hands with a reading of our six company values. Another way we reinforce culture is through our recognition system (we’ll get further into the recognition aspect of an all-hands momentarily). Every Friday we give out “Clocky awards” where nominators specify which company value their nominee exemplifies. We call the section where we showcase photos and fun quotes from the team “Enthusiasm” after one of our core values. 

An all-hands is a great place to find ways to weave your company culture into your rituals. 

4. Celebrate milestones

In Leaders Eat Last, author Simon Sinek describes how our brains reward us with dopamine when we get things done. Doing something small usually means a small hit, and something big means a much bigger hit. Furthermore, our brains reward us with serotonin when we do things that raise our status in a group. 

Leaders can use this dopamine and serotonin reward system to their advantage by celebrating people’s big accomplishments in front of the whole team. When our leaders publicly reward us for doing big things, we’re more motivated to aspire to challenge ourselves and work harder than before. 

An all-hands is a perfect opportunity to celebrate any big wins and accomplishments. Not only does the recipient feel their status rise in the whole group, but everyone sees that wins get recognition at this organization. 

5. Enhance team cohesion

When it comes to winning, great players won’t suffice. A team of college players beat the 1992 US men’s Olympic basketball team by eight points in their first month of practice. Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, Patrick Ewing, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, and Scottie Pippen had to learn to play as a team before they could win the Olympic gold and score more than 100 points in every game that year.

When it comes to learning to play as a team, there’s no substitute for spending time together. But in today’s remote and hybrid work environments, opportunities for the whole team to get together can be vanishingly rare. An all-hands might be the only place where certain teammates get to see and interact with each other. Since team cohesion is so important for results, giving people who don’t necessarily work closely together a chance to connect can be tremendously beneficial.

6. Offer recognition

Going back to McKinsey’s three keys for team success, the third key is that high-performing teams feel empowered to take risks. This allows them to innovate, bring in outside ideas, and succeed against the odds. 

One way to encourage team members to take bigger risks is to publicly recognize trailblazer teammates. Plus, public recognition is super important on its own. A recent ignite80 and Front survey of 1,106 U.S.-based office workers found that high-performing teams give and receive appreciation more frequently. 

Agenda and topic ideas for your next all hands meeting 

Now that we know what an all-hands meeting can do for your team, let’s put together an agenda. Polly.ai makes it clear that leaders should send a comprehensive, clearly structured meeting agenda (sample all hands meeting agenda) well in advance of the meeting. You’ll want to list each section of the meeting along with a brief description and duration. And ask for feedback. That way if there’s an issue that should be included, you’ll know ahead of time. “Let the audience be your guide as you develop the agenda because, ultimately, this meeting is for their benefit.”

So, what goes on the agenda? Below, we’ve compiled a list of three tips for helping to ensure your next all-hands meeting provides all the value it can for your team. 

1. Include a Q&A

Of course Q&A is a huge part of transparency. To help ensure there’s time to address the most important questions, Atlassian sets aside a quarter of their weekly half-hour “global town halls” to Q&A. The Slido blog recommends teams devote a fifth of the all-hands to Q&A. In HBR, Amy Jen Su and Muriel Maignan Wilkins advise leaders to set aside 10-15 minutes for Q&A. 

To save time, ask team members to submit questions before the meeting but also hold space for questions that come up during the meeting. Pro-tip: If you’re meeting via Zoom, Polly offers built-in features to field and moderate audience questions. 

When soliciting questions ahead of the meeting, remember that the all-hands isn’t for presenting slides from a podium. Your staff yearns to connect with each other and with leadership on a personal level. “Ask for feedback about workplace culture, management, meeting cadence, and more to help you continually make improvements to your processes,” Jen Su and Wilkins write. Questions in advance give leaders insight into what people care about discussing and give executives a chance to prepare answers ahead of time. For more candor, it might be helpful to give team members the choice to ask anonymously. Pro-tip: Slido offers a tool for collecting questions in advance. Slack also works. Perhaps follow Atlassian’s lead and encourage the team to upvote questions they’re interested in. Slido also advises following up on any questions you don’t get to in the meeting. “Show that you truly care about their concerns and follow up on their unanswered questions after the meeting. Address any outstanding ones in writing, share an internal memo, have your departmental leads provide answers individually to their team or record a video/audio recording.”

Last thing on transparency: Always record your all-hands and share the recording. Between time zones, vacation, sick days, etc. there will be people who need to catch up later. 

2. Boost morale

The all-hands shouldn’t be a chore. Use the time together to celebrate each other and grow closer as a team. Slido uses a word cloud poll question to boost morale: “What are you most proud of about our culture?” “Our CEO, Peter Komornik, did this during one of our all-hands meetings and it was truly powerful to see how people perceive our culture.” They also ask each team member to think of a person who went the extra mile for them or did an exceptional job last month or quarter. Then, everyone who has someone in mind submits that person’s name into a Slido word cloud poll to find the “Silent Hero.” “Seeing your name on the screen is a real motivation booster.”

Atlassian kicks off each all-hands with names, photos, and locations for each person hired since the last meeting. They also recognize three- and five-year anniversaries. People who reach the 10-year mark get a short “roast”-style video.

3. Keep the momentum going

After each all-hands, send out a summary with actionable next steps and ask for feedback. This can be as simple as a short survey or Polly.ai Slack poll. Slido’s example survey:

  1. How would you rate this all-hands meeting? (rating poll) 
  2. What’s the most valuable part of our all-hands meetings? (open text poll) 
  3. Any ideas for improvement of all-hands? (open text poll) 

Things to avoid in your all-hands

Because all-hands meetings are so expensive, you want to be especially careful about not wasting time during them. This isn’t the time to share business updates since last all-hands. This can be done more cheaply over Slack or email. For the same reason, you also don’t want to use this precious time to review key metrics such as sales, revenue, net retention, or NPS. Anything that could be as easily conveyed electronically and/or is only relevant to 70% of the company or less should go so no one’s tempted to check email or Facebook during the meeting. 

Overruns are another huge time waster. Every meeting should have a moderator to field questions, keep speakers accountable for not running over, greeting participants, and making sure the tech is working correctly. 

Lastly, avoid using inside jokes. Since one major purpose of an all-hands is to bring people together, you want to avoid doing anything that looks cliquey. 

Tips for presenting at an all-hands meeting

Here are three tips for presenting at an all-hands meeting. 

1. Make it a conversation, not a monologue.

The best way to get your message across is to engage your audience. A two-way conversation is much more engaging than listening to someone drone on. Ask questions, encourage your audience to raise their hands to answer or just blurt out. 

2. Use visual aids.

Don’t force people to just stare at your head on their screen. Create some slides with images, charts, or even videos to illustrate your points. 

3. Be funny. 

No one’s expecting you to be the next George Carlin. But inserting some levity into your presentation is a great way to keep your audience engaged. It can be as simple as a funny gif in your slides. Funny stories are also both engaging and help people remember what you said. 

Going forward

An all-hands meeting is a great way to foster transparency, alignment, and team cohesion. And it’s perfect for reiterating your company culture, celebrating milestones, and offering recognition. To make the most of your next all-hands, be sure to solicit questions ahead of time and offer 10-15 minutes to address those questions and any that come up during the meeting. Be sure to incorporate fun activities and call out new hires, people who are performing well, and celebrate anniversaries. And when it’s all over, send out a list of action items, the recording of the meeting, and solicit feedback from participants for how the next meeting could be even better. 

Need help scheduling your next all-hands? Clockwise can find the best time to meet for you and your whole team, automatically. 

About the author

Cathy Reisenwitz

Cathy Reisenwitz is Head of Content at Clockwise where she oversees the Clockwise Blog and The Minutes Newsletter. She has covered business software for six years and has been published in Newsweek, Forbes, the Daily Beast, VICE Motherboard, Reason magazine, Talking Points Memo and other publications.

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