The following is a guest contribution from Rachel Ben Hamou, Director of Talent Development at PeopleStorming.

A well-executed all-hands can be a powerful way of engaging and connecting people. Done poorly, it can also turn out to be an incredible waste of valuable company time. In practice, 90% of what makes a successful gathering is down to the preparation — it’s all about thoughtful design and planning.

5 Tips for a More Successful All-Hands

Before you even consider building your content in any real detail, it’s important to start by remembering five key principles:

  1. Start with the “why.” As with any meeting, the success of an all-hands meeting hinges on clarity of purpose. Start by verbalizing and documenting your goals for the all-hands. Is your focus more on connection, motivation, or sharing key information? Most teams start with, “we should all get together occasionally” and, while that’s true, it doesn’t scale as a justification for getting everyone on a call.
  2. Make sure the “sync” makes sense. Having 200 people (for example) meet for an hour is really, really expensive. Using a formula that accounts for context switching costs, the meeting could cost the company somewhere in the region of 450 person-hours. That’s about 10 person-weeks (assuming 8-hour days). If all you’re doing is sharing information, you should also consider making some aspects asynchronous by using videos or blog posts (or both).
  3. Timing is everything. Done right, all-hands meetings create a drum-beat in your organization — propelling people forward with energy, motivation, and common purpose. Though you could, in theory, use any cadence, we’ve overwhelmingly seen that two or four-week gaps work best. Beyond that, aim for the middle of the week so that you aren’t caught by “the Monday scramble” or “the Friday exodus.” Finally, pick the earliest time of day that is still in core working hours for the majority of your team. If you are spread around the world, consider rotating the time.
  4. Less is more. One of the flaws I’ve seen with virtual all-hands is that they are simply too long. Our attention spans are limited and video call fatigue is real. A tight 30 minutes with links and resources is better than a drawn-out 60 minutes. Share any follow-up content (recordings, docs) immediately after, as their value decays rapidly. Lastly, don’t feel compelled to fill the slot you’ve booked. If you have 22 minutes of content, end at that point and give everyone eight minutes back.
  5. Have a high bar for tooling. Use the right conferencing platform. Zoom or Teams doesn’t fit every situation, particularly if you’re trying to create a certain feeling. You might consider a tool like Butter, whose creators know that video calls need a bit of pizazz. Does everyone speaking have a high-quality webcam and headset? Is their machine good enough to make virtual backgrounds work well? Is their internet spotty? Do you know how to get a high-definition recording of the event? Satisfying these questions is most often just a matter of spending a little time and money in the right places.

Designing Your Content

The more you invest in content quality and planning, the better the outcome of the event will be. First, some key things to consider when designing your meeting:

  1. Don’t forget the ‘Rule of Three.’ A common mistake we see is people hanging too many different agenda items on the all-hands — like a Christmas tree, too many different baubles detract from the overall impact. Max your key points or segments to three.
  2. Engage from the outset.  Start with something light-hearted and fun. Breakout rooms are your friend here. Send people in groups of 2 or 3 into a breakout room with a couple of good prompt questions for a few minutes. There are some ideas at the end of this article.
  3. Talking heads become dull, fast. Ideally, none of the presenters should speak for more than three minutes at a time. Think of your all-hands as a conversation much more than a presentation — engage people through the chat, emoji reactions, polls, and anything else you can lay your hands on.

Key Segments

Once you’ve kicked off with something light-hearted, it’s time for something more substantial. Ask yourself, "What are the key things you want people to know, feel, and do as a result of the gathering?"

I’ve seen a lot of all-hands segments that answer this question well. Some of the most popular and effective segments include:

  • Customer spotlight: Got a new customer? Share the news and give people a breakdown of who they are and why they chose your product and company. Always seize opportunities to build customer empathy.
  • Photo of the month: Perhaps it’s a photo of someone's cool home-working setup, or a visit to a customer site, or even an incredible meal that someone made.
  • Leadership Q&A: Using a tool like Sli.do (or a Slack channel) to collect questions for leadership in advance of your all-hands is a great way to crowd-source the topics that your team is interested in hearing about. You can have people upvote (or emoji-vote) questions to help with prioritization as well.

    A key consideration here is whether you will allow anonymous submissions or require people to supply their names? Have a policy and some clearly articulated logic on this. Bearing in mind that questions may range wildly in topic and some may be of a personal nature.

    It’s good to have leaders (and other relevant people) think about the top-voted questions in advance but, ideally, don’t allow them to fall into the trap of over-preparing. Your team members value authentic responses from their leaders.
  • Culture stories: If a person or team did something that reflects the best aspirations of your culture, why not have them or someone on the team, tell that story.
  • Celebrate team member anniversaries: Have someone celebrating an anniversary tell a story from when they joined. Maybe show some pictures of what the office was like then - or images from a contemporary team event/retreat.
  • Data of the month: What’s the most interesting piece of data you have right now? Insert one simple graph/chart into the all-hands and have someone explain it. It could be something about the company, the team, revenue, recruitment, sales, new customers — anything really! Give folks some insights beyond their day-to-day life and help them see new ways to frame success.

Getting Started

With all that in mind, it can feel a little overwhelming to deliver on the potential value of an all-hands. This is why it’s so important to focus relentlessly on your goals. It’s also vital to remember that, just because you’re organizing things, you don’t have to be the one to host each gathering. Think about team members who might enjoy MC-ing if they were provided with sufficient preparation notice and support.

Beyond that, having consistently high-quality, impactful all-hands meetings means having a process. As soon as one all-hands is done, the planning for the next one has to start. I recommend building out a structure that can help you stay on top of the who, what, why, and when of the content and experiences you’re trying to realize. Tools like Airtable can be very useful for building up content management and session planning structures of this kind.

Lastly, pace yourself. As with any change to a complex thing that involves a large number of people, incrementality is the key. Pick one thing you might improve about your all-hands and socialize that you’re planning to do it. Then ask for feedback from participants on how successful and impactful they found it. Rinse and repeat.

And if you need support or would like something a bit more juicy or elaborate, get in touch.

About the Author

Rachel Ben Hamou is the Director of Talent Development at PeopleStorming and a Resources for Humans community ambassador.

Rachel has been growing happy, healthy, and high-performing teams for around fifteen years. She believes that how we work is as important as what we do, and this has kept her fascinated by workplace collaboration. Connect with Rachel on Linkedin.