Why you need to run all-hands meetings

A typical all-hands meeting : Photo @byfoul

We’ve been told that culture eats strategy for breakfast, and organisational health trumps everything else in business and I wouldn’t disagree. Strong teamwork and effective communication are the best ways to build trust, and trust is at the heart of every successful team.

As a leader in a fast-growing company, one ceremony I’ve found crucial for encouraging effective communication is a weekly ‘all-hands’ meeting. This is an hour where everyone across the team congregates to share plans, ideas, stories. It’s a place for sharing, to improve awareness, reinforce values and to help develop an inclusive culture which ultimately results in stronger trust. Every company should do this!

Company all-hands 🙌

Originally, when our company was much smaller (say, fewer than 20 staff), we started a weekly all-hands as a ‘sprint demos’ meeting. We’d all gather at the end of the week and do a show and tell on what product improvements had been made. It was a bit awkward to begin with, but it was fun and we’d finish off by going to the pub.

As the company grew and the composition of the audience changed, the meeting structure evolved with talks becoming broader in scope, encompassing sales journeys, marketing initiatives and sometimes off-topic talks such as ‘how to make delicious coffee’ (I still follow this lesson) or in-depth explanations of how American Football works (I still genuinely don’t understand). It was still fun! And when there were too many people to go down the pub, we bought a fridge and filled it with beer, wine and soft drinks.

The company all-hands was an end-of-week ritual that became established in the culture of the company. It was a safe, welcoming, inclusive place for everyone in the company to gather, be themselves and listen to colleagues from different areas of the business. The goal was for everyone to have fun and come away having learned something new, or gained a valuable new perspective. It worked, and it continues to this day, 4pm every Friday, in a rebranded ‘Town Hall’ form.

Team all-hands 🤓

As the company grew, from my perspective the number of engineering-focused talks reduced and there became less of an opportunity for engineers to get into the weeds of the tech and maintain audience attention. Tech-focused talks are really important to a healthy engineering team culture, so we created a second weekly all-hands (4pm, Thursdays). This is held in the ‘Town Hall’ spirit, but the content is focused purely on engineering-related topics.

This engineering all-hands – or, as we call it, the Engineering Forum – has been happening every week since 2012, as I unearthed during some email archaeology:

Olly Headey Wed, 7 Nov 2012, 14:30 to Engineering

Don’t forget we’ll have our inaugral [sic] forum this afternoon at 4pm. There is no plan, and although I’ll be present I will not be running it. All I would suggest is you bring your ideas, write them on the wall and we’ll pick one topic (or more, if time) and go from there. The idea is it’s run by you, for you!

Olly

The forum started small, had it’s ups and downs as we tried to figure out what worked well and what didn’t, but we persisted and it’s still going strong today. We now have an engineering organisation consisting of over 115 staff, 50% of whom are fully distributed (of course, during this pandemic we’re all fully distributed for the time being), so the engineering forum takes place over Google Meet.

There will be a range of talks such as presentations on a new product or feature, deep dives into the weeds of a refactoring, live coding demos (🙈) and sometimes lightning talks. It’s really whatever people feel like talking about, frankly. They key point is the goal remains the same: to create a welcoming, inclusive environment for people to be themselves, and for everyone to come away having learned something new, or gained a valuable new perspective.

The secret sauce of a successful all-hands 🌶

Things that I find work well in an all-hands:

  • A compere. Find someone who can lift the room and keep things on schedule. Shiny suit optional.
  • Short, snappy talks. A 20-minute talk is probably 10 minutes too long. If you’re road-testing a conference talk, do it as a lunch ‘n learn instead.
  • A free and open agenda, arranged in advance. We use Trello with a list for each week and anyone can create a slot for themselves.
  • A suggested talks list. People might not realise they have an interesting talk in them until they see someone suggest a topic that they know something about.
  • Celebrations! Who’s new? What notable milestones were achieved?
  • Practical examples in an “I did X and I learned Y”. The goal is for the audience to go away having learned something.
  • Using it as a platform to reinforce clarity. You’ve got the entire company (or your whole team) in one place, there’s no better time to re-communicate a goal or your values. For something to stick, you’ll need to repeat yourself way more than you think you probably should.
  • Answering pre-prepared questions. If you have a mechanism for people across the company to ask questions in advance (anonymously or otherwise), use a slot in the all-hands to answer them.

Things that work less well:

  • Long, rambling talks.
  • Lack of diverse talks in an agenda. It’s worth ordering the agenda to make it flow, and try and end on a high note. If all the talks are of a similar nature, consider curating the agenda a bit.
  • Bad A/V. In the all-distributed Zoom age this has become far less of a problem but A/V can make or break an all-hands. There’s no perfect solution but spend time and money on making it as good as you can.
  • A stiff, formal corporate vibe. Relax, it might never happen.
  • Group discussion. A couple of questions at the end is fine but try and avoid “what does everyone think?” unless you want chaos or, worse, deathly silence.
  • Winging it. Some people are born to wing it and have an incredible knack of pulling things off unprepared, but for us mere mortals it’s worth having a couple of run throughs beforehand.

Everything evolves over time and what works for a team of 5 probably won’t work for a team of 50, and what works for 50 won’t work for 500. You’ll need to experiment and adapt to your audience, but get them involved in shaping it. Make it your own.

While the all-hands plays a vital role in communications, don’t save everything for this meeting. An hour isn’t long and it can (and should!) fly by quickly. You know you have to over-communicate everything, so make use of your announcements Slack channel and consider a long-form discussion forum as well (way better than email). Sometimes things are better written up, and often the real-time nature of Slack means that important things can get lost in the noise.

If you’re not running an all-hands, give it a go. Maybe it won’t work for you, but you’ll never know unless you try.