February 27, 2023

Making your all-hands meeting suck less

If your employees are Googling other stuff during their all-hands or checking celeb gossip, it's time to make a change

Jag and Oliver try to bring fun to their all-hands

Most all-hands meetings suck energy from your team. You can tell it’s not working by all the people who are very obviously looking at their phones, Googling the latest celeb gossip or haven’t muted themselves and are having a separate conversation. 

But binning the all-hands altogether isn’t the answer. To grow your startup fast as a founder, you need your people to be engaged and informed. 

Here are signs you’re running a shoddy all-hands and how to fix it. 

Six reasons why all-hands suck

Even if only a few of these apply, all-hands become a blunt instrument instead of the precision tool founders need to ensure everyone is aligned and engaged. 

  1. The meeting lacks structure and clarity around why it is relevant for everyone. 
  2. Leadership abuses all-hands as an info dump. PowerPoint overkill, too much top-down information and too little credit where credit is truly due adds to the problem.
  3. Remote colleagues are forgotten and the attention and energy stay in the room. 
  4. Founders haven’t asked the team what they think about the format and therefore don’t address its shortcomings. 
  5. People don’t dare to speak up or ask the crucial questions because they don’t feel that there is enough psychological safety.
  6. What worked when you had 50 employees may not work when you have 65 employees, but then might work again when you have 250 colleagues. But how would you know?  

How to fix your all-hands

To fix your all-hands, you need to be clear why you’re doing it. 

Internal communications have three central goals: 

  • Promote alignment and focus;
  • Reinforce culture; 
  • Keep motivation high. 

If you get all three right, the result is sky-high employee engagement, which should be something on founders’ radars given how challenging employee disengagement can be for a business. Just look at the popularity of the term “quiet quitting”. 

Truly communicating with your team starts with a mental shift. Instead of an HR topic, think of internal communications as you think of marketing. You need to deliver the right message to the right person, at the right time, on the right channel.

You need to deliver the right message to the right person, at the right time, on the right channel

Let’s put it this way: Would you deliver a generic ad creative to someone you knew was 34 years old, female, worked 60 hours a week in her dream job — three of which were spent engaging with coworkers on Slack — had a mortgage, preferred Metallica to Harry Styles, loved travelling to South America and was already thinking about ways to improve the company’s go-to-market approach there? Or would you use all that information to engage them in a meaningful way?

This requires an entire set of processes to inspire and share information (push) and gather feedback from your team (pull). An all-hands might not be able to deliver on everything you need to nail those processes, but it still remains an important forum.

Acing your all-hands

If you want people to feel your all-hands is more than just you pushing out information in the hope that some of it sticks, here's how you can ace it. 

  • Think like a theatre director and make it entertaining. Use a good variety of presentation methods, spokespeople and topics to keep the audience engaged. GIFs, images, memes, infographics — anything that keeps the audience engaged and breaks up long periods of talking. Something we have seen work wonders is having a moderator who isn't C-suite in charge of presenting the agenda and introducing respective speakers. This person must be fully aware of the agenda, but should have freedom and trust to loosen the atmosphere between topics and flatten the hierarchy of the all-hands setting. 
Something we have seen work wonders is having a moderator who isn't C-level in charge of presenting the agenda and introducing respective speakers
  • Talk with people, not at people. Whoever speaks needs to connect with the audience and make sure everything presented addresses the entire company. It may sound obvious, but you need your moderator to fully own the agenda and have the capacity to challenge if a suggested all-hands topic is better suited for another internal format. For example, it would be tone-deaf to highlight the head of the legal department during a "get to know the leadership" session, if their department was currently the subject of derision by large swathes of the company.
  • Unless your company is strictly in-person, making the all-hands joinable from wherever with the same possibilities to engage is a must. Include an early, deliberate element in the meeting to connect with the folks online. A great activity for this is welcoming team members across all offices who joined since the latest offsite. The team at Slido often run polls on the topics being discussed and have members of the internal communications team engage with employees as the results come in.
  • In smaller companies, virtual icebreakers across teams can serve to increase familiarity among colleagues who don't usually meet — but beware, pairing the grumpy back-end engineer with the bright-eyed intern on the marketing team might cause both to lose interest pretty quickly. 
  • All-hands meetings are an opportunity for employees and leaders to have direct discussions. Including an Ask Me Anything format with the leadership is a great way to promote transparency and improve relations. Pro tip: Make these recurring so that everyone knows there will be an opportunity to ask crucial questions. If people hesitate to speak up, encourage written questions to be submitted before and have them asked by the moderator. This ensures you graduate from “push” to “exchange”. Spotify’s CEO Daniel Ek regularly runs AMA sessions and has built a reputation for being frank and open in answering questions.
  • Make sure to have a person or team in charge of the follow-up and execution of the decisions made during the meeting. Companies often send post-meeting notes out after all-hands sessions, and these are a great opportunity to also encourage teammates to reach out to each other. Twilio popularised this approach nearly 10 years ago.
  • “Teach-me-something-new” or Reddit-inspired ELI5 (explain it like I'm five) sessions also work well, where someone in the company takes on the challenge of showcasing their passion project or even some arcane piece of knowledge, to the wider company. Use anonymous surveys to get feedback on your all-hands format, and be ready to make changes based on the feedback you get. We recommend being super transparent about the changes you make, so people feel heard and motivated to continuously improve the communications culture (“pull”).

Lastly, a word of comfort: The perfect all-hands meeting doesn’t exist, and there will always be folks at your company who don’t love the format. And that’s okay. As long as they feel invited to share what can be improved and are included on the journey of the company, the format is serving its purpose of creating engagement and alignment.