All hands meetings are a perfect opportunity to discuss organizational goals, culture, and news. A successful all hands meeting leaves attendees inspired, engaged, and motivated to do the best work of their career. An unsuccessful all hands can produce a neutral, or even negative effect, with attendees leaving confused, frustrated, or less engaged.
This guide is dedicated to helping you and your team have more consistent, more effective, and most of all more engaging all hands meetings. We’ll start with the very basics, then cover more advanced tips.
Feel free to use the links below to skip ahead to the sections most relevant to you right now:
- What is an all hands meeting?
- Why should I have an all hands meeting?
- How do I make our all hands meeting something everyone looks forward to?
Let’s get started!
What is an all hands meeting?
An all hands meeting is a gathering of everyone in the organization, usually with the goal of focusing on a core issue or set of issues. In the past, this gathering frequently happened in person, but as remote work becomes more prevalent, all hands meetings increasingly happen through video meeting tools like Zoom or Microsoft Teams.
Why is it called an all hands meeting?
“All hands” harkens back to an idiom “all hands on deck,” where a ship captain would call all available crew members up to the deck to address an issue together. In that context, that issue was often an emergency that required every spare set of hands working in unison to resolve.
In the context of business, the goal of an “all hands” is still to bring every available member of the crew together to work in unison. While they may still be called in times of emergency, an all hands meeting is often a regularly scheduled event.
Town hall meeting vs all hands meeting: what’s the difference?
All hands and town hall meetings are similar, but there are a few defining characteristics for each.
All hands meetings:
- Include your entire organization
- Happen synchronously
Town hall meetings:
- Focus on Q&A
- Encourage broad participation from all seniority levels
An all hands meeting can be held in a town hall format, and a town hall meeting can include all members of an organization or group.
Why should I have an all hands meeting?
In a time when meeting overload (especially video meetings) is at an all-time high, why hold a regular all hands? Simply put, it’s a unique and irreplaceable opportunity to communicate with your entire team in high-fidelity.
A company-wide email might convey information, but it leaves little or no room for discussion. A General channel message in Slack or Microsoft Teams might reach everyone, but it doesn’t allow for the same structured, personal discussions an all-hands does.
How often should you hold all hands meetings?
The optimal frequency of all hands meetings usually depends on a few things:
- The size of your organization: while it may be easy to get everyone into the same meeting if you’re working on a small team, it may be exceedingly difficult to do the same thing for an enterprise organization. Modern communication tools make connecting large groups easier, but getting hundreds (or thousands) of people together all at once can still be a considerable challenge.
- Communication standards across your organization: If you’re on a team of structured and open communicators, there may be less cause for frequent all hands meetings. If communication is chaotic, bringing everyone together more frequently could help keep everyone on the same page.
- The size or nature of the news: there are some pieces of news, like a merger, an acquisition, or a major global event that might necessitate their own all hands meeting.
Finding your own balance might involve some trial and error. If you’re not holding these meetings at all, focus on getting started—then work out a schedule.
How we schedule our all hands meetings at Polly
We currently hold all hands meetings twice a month. We reached this cadence after experimenting with weekly and monthly all-hands meetings over the past few years.
When we were much smaller and departments operated as teams of one, it was important to meet frequently as a full team to share information and keep everyone in sync. During that time, we met weekly on Mondays.
As our team grew in headcount and geography, it became more difficult to bring everyone together. As departments grew, it became less important to individuals to share status updates on such a broad scale.
A continually scaling team is another factor in our schedule. All hands meetings are a great opportunity to introduce and celebrate new team members.
Our all hands cadence may change again as our organization evolves, but for now it feels like the appropriate balance of knowledge transfer and resource requirements.
How do you make all-hands meetings something your team looks forward to?
The value of your all hands meeting is directly proportionate to the effort dedicated to it. That doesn’t mean it is (or should be) all on one person’s shoulders, though. It’s important to spread that responsibility across the group of stakeholders.
Many of the most meaningful improvements you can make to an all hands meeting require input from the audience.
There are a few key elements of a successful all hands meeting that should always make an appearance; however, it’s always useful to keep trying new ways to keep the meeting interesting and valuable. Below we’ll cover some examples of each for inspiration.
If communication and information sharing are key goals of an all hands meeting, transparency is a vital element of success. That doesn’t mean sharing everything all the time, but the more open communication is around central business themes, the greater chance there is of finding creative, innovative solutions.
Ignoring an elephant in the room doesn’t make it disappear. In fact, it can make it stand out more, as people wonder, “why aren’t they talking about that ELEPHANT?”
Feedback and interaction
Feedback is another essential feature any all-hands meeting should have.
As Amy Jen Su and Muriel Maignan Wilkins explain in their Harvard Business Review article on the topic:
“If you think a town hall is your opportunity to get on stage with a big PowerPoint slide and present from behind the podium, you’ve lost them…No matter how large these meetings, they are a chance to connect with staff on a personal level. And staff yearns for a personal connection with leaders. “
Q&A is an incredibly helpful thing to add to an all hands meeting, but it often gets pushed to the wayside—sometimes out of fear that questions will be too challenging, or simply out of time constraints.
If time constraints are your concern, consider shuffling other content to prioritize at least 10-15 minutes of Q&A. If you’re concerned about the quality or content of the questions, there are tools that can help you.
Moderation helps deliver the benefit of transparently answering important questions without the potential for questions that might not be relevant to the discussion.
Upvoting allows members of the community to promote the questions they’re most interested in hearing discussed.
All-hands meeting agenda
Set the agenda in advance of your meeting, and solicit feedback on it. There might be a crucial discussion topic that didn’t make the agenda. Alternatively, the agenda could be a deep dive into an area few attendees have interest in that might be better addressed in a different meeting.
Let the audience be your guide as you develop the agenda because ultimately, this meeting is for their benefit.
Keeping consistent format is helpful because it gives the audience an idea of what to expect in the next meeting. However, there can be too much of a good thing. To cover the breadth of topics you need to in sufficient depth, it’s often helpful to have an alternating format.
At Polly, one of our all hands meetings covers OKR updates, metrics, and other key information about the company. Our alternate all hands format focuses much more on celebrating our colleagues and building stronger team bonds.
Both all hands meeting formats include elements from the other, but with a smaller focus.
Unless your presenters are pro-tier charades or interpretive dance competitors, you’re going to want some visual aids. The visual aids don’t have to be groundbreaking, but the better they are, the more they can help you communicate.
If you’re sharing numbers or trends, put them on slides, so everyone can see them during the discussion. Calling out some great work by a member of your team? Share a photo (with their permission) while highlighting their accomplishments and contributions.
At Polly, we have a branded slide template we use for all hands that gives us a lot of freedom as to how we want to convey information. It’s simple, but well-designed, and matches our brand.
It might not seem like the perfect venue for fun, but if you want people to look forward to it, an all hands can’t be all work and no play.
Even with a small audience, it’s inevitable that you’ll run into the dreaded pre-meeting awkwardness as you wait for everyone to join and get situated. This is a perfect opportunity to transform a meeting gripe into something more fun.
At Polly, we’ll often start meetings with a Hot Take (a controversial statement designed for some good-spirited debate). A good example would be: “Sandwiches should always be cut diagonally,” or “Dumplings are ravioli.”
Icebreakers can also help bring a lighter mood into what might otherwise be a somber meeting.
Because of the sheer size of the meeting audience, it’s not easy for discussions to happen among teammates during an all hands meeting. That’s why break-out rooms are a great addition.
Adding a break-out session to the end of an all hands meeting gives smaller groups a chance to digest and discuss the central themes of the meeting, or simply chat in a relaxed setting.
All-hands meetings should have a sense of familiarity without feeling like a scene from Groundhogs Day. Consider keeping a portion of your meeting swappable with different options for each meeting.
A few examples we do at Polly are “Flock Talk,” a recorded interview that showcases a different member of the team each time. “Values in action,” a segment where we nominate individuals for embodying our team’s core values.
Novelty can mean other things, too.
Most recently, we’ve been experimenting with breakout sessions held in Teamflow, an app dedicated to providing virtual spaces for employees to congregate.
Most if not all video meeting tools offer a recording option.
While a fundamental goal of an all hands meeting is to get everyone together, it’s not always possible. Whether time zones, time off, or any other barrier keep a member of your team from being able to join the live session, having a recording available makes it easy for them to catch up.
At Polly, we have an all-hands channel where we post a link to slides and a recorded version of every all-hands meeting. We also keep a historical record of past all hands meetings in Notion.
Our all-hands channel also serves as a dedicated space for discussions on topics covered in our all hands meetings. These follow-up discussions give members of the team an opportunity to dive deeper into a topic, or cover adjacent topics. Because it’s a channel everyone is a member of, it makes it easy to follow those discussions for anyone interested.
We also use this channel to send a polly after all hands meetings to understand what we could improve in the next meeting, whether it’s covering different topics, or covering similar topics from a different perspective. Capturing that data in the all-hands channel helps preserve context.
How about you?
Does your team host (or plan on hosting) a regular all hands meeting? We’d love to hear about strategies you use to lead engaging and educational meetings that the team looks forward to. Let us know @polly_ai.
Written by George Dickson
Lives to learn and build cool things with good people.