In the earliest days of a startup, company communication is often an informal mix of ad-hoc discussions, brainstorming sessions, and the periodic over-the-shoulder announcement. Eventually, the time comes when that three-to-five-person team goes into a thirty-to-fifty, to three hundred-person company — and what worked for you early on stops working.
This kind of growth in a company can lead to the constant shifting of projects, roles, and priorities. When a handful of new people are entering roles that previously didn’t exist each week or month, confusion and silos will naturally be created. To prevent this from taking place as the company grows, communication needs to become intentional and consistent. By taking a proactive approach in shaping these various communications, you can keep collaboration and alignment strong and shared goals in place as your company evolves.
In Atrium’s two years (and over 150 people), we’ve put in place a number of intentional communication tactics. And based on recent questions I’ve received from advice on this topic, I’m going to focus this post on an essential communication process: the all-hands meeting. More specifically, why it’s crucial to run an all-hands meeting that inspires and excites your team.
Why all-hands are important
An all-hands meeting, simply put, is a meeting attended by the whole company. The purpose is to bring the company together to celebrate successes, align on priorities, and maintain transparency as the collaboration may become focused into smaller groups. It’s a time to remind team members of the big picture — the larger purpose the company is striving towards and how everyone is contributing to that collective effort.
Other meetings may get pushed and rescheduled, but the company all-hands is the throughline that provides steady routine and structure. This is likely the only opportunity for the entire company to meet and discuss projects as a single, unitary body and will set the tone for the team and management meetings that follow. For these reasons, all-hands meetings are crucial to the effectiveness of the company’s overall internal communications strategy.
When to start holding all-hands meetings
There’s no standardized employee count to dictate when you should begin conducting a robust and repeatable all-hands meeting – though it’s never too early to proactively improve your company communications. Some indicators that it may be time to start holding an all-hands meeting include:
- Your company can no longer fit into a single conference room together.
- You’ve started building middle management, creating a layer under your direct reports.
- You’ve started adding remote employees and want to ensure they feel just as a part of the day-to-day company mission as others.
As your company grows, the all-hands meetings will become increasingly important to building trust and approachability for the exec team. The sooner you get a head start on this, the sooner you’ll be able to establish the kind of culture you want in your company.
How to define and design your all-hands
As with many pursuits in business, running an all-hands meeting is part art and part science. The artistic side of things includes presenting to your employees in a way that inspires and motivates, while the science side of things includes designing a structure that makes this process effective and sustainable.
Having built and scaled a few companies, I’ve seen my fair share of all-hands meetings — ones that sunk, and ones that sailed. There’s no question that hosting a good all-hands meeting requires valuable time and effort from key team members, time that could be spent on other activities. Though from first-hand experience I can attest that uninspirational all-hands meetings can damage employee morale, engagement, and performance. In fact, poorly-run all-hands meetings can be worse then not hosting them if they create confusion and waste time. So it’s important that the people contributing to these meetings understand the impact these efforts can have on the company morale and employee motivation.
In addition to ensuring your team understands the basic definition and importance of an inspiring all-hands meeting, it’s crucial to establish a clear sense of purpose. The best way to do this is by simply defining the desired experience and results of attending these meetings.
The experience of your all-hands
Before you think about what team members should derive from your all-hands, consider how you want team members to feel during the meeting. When I started running all-hands at Atrium they weren’t the best (okay, I’ll be honest: they were terrible). There wasn’t much effort put into them and I got feedback from folks that I didn’t look excited to address the company and more specifically, that I didn’t smile — at all! This not only affected the productivity of those meetings but the company’s overall engagement (or lack thereof). I found that in order to set the right tone I needed to pump myself up. I now do push-ups before kicking off each meeting — it gets my adrenaline going and gets me enthusiastic, which then leads to an upbeat and engaging meeting. Intentionally engineering a meeting that produces certain feelings will ensure that team members are in the right mind-state and will respond in a positive way. During the meeting, your employees should feel:
- Engaged: Avoid presenting material that would have been more effectively received via email. Inevitably, there will be — and should be — announcements during an all-hands. But keep the announcements focused on the high-level information and defer the full details to a follow-up email lest people get bored (and they get bored quickly). Strive for action and/or conversation during your all-hands. Incorporate ways for the audience to engage or contribute by holding a Q&A, calling on the audience to answer questions or provide feedback, or doing a live survey.
- Excited: Celebrate successes and milestones, such as team achievements and employee anniversaries. As social beings, we’re wired to come together and share our experiences. Acknowledging these events while everyone is physically gathered will further the social bond and subconscious alignment of your teammates, much like the psychology behind walking meetings. In every Atrium all-hands, we celebrate work anniversaries, announce every new employee and give them an opportunity to introduce themselves.
- Motivated: Share progress and areas of needed improvement or opportunity, all framed with an attitude of optimism. If you don’t demonstrate a clear belief in the success of your company, your employees won’t have an ounce. When sharing progress or updates on a project, have the person closest to the project share this information. By no means should this be a meeting where only the CEO speaks. Each executive should present what they’re teams are working on when relevant. At Atrium we feature a different team each meeting that shares recent successes and what they have in the works. This helps motivate the individual contributors to receive recognition as well as shed light on projects and opportunities for collaboration.
- Respected: Establish a culture of consideration and empathy for the challenges and difficulties various teams and individuals will inevitably experience. Maintain open communication with team leaders in regards to what they plan to present at the all-hands, make sure they practice beforehand, and ensure that these meetings don’t inadvertently plummet into an airing of dirty laundry. Have all leadership members submit their contributions to the meeting ahead of time so that any controversial or difficult topics can be dealt with appropriately, and framed in a way that is transparent but also shows an action plan or solution. The agenda for each all-hands should be determined in your exec meetings. Once the exec team has decided on the focus of the upcoming meeting, the actual slides and who will present them can be decided afterward — but the base agreement of what will and won’t be discussed is key to determine in person.
The results of your all-hands
Now that you’ve clarified how you want people to feel during your all-hands, you can define exactly how attending this meeting will make your employees better at their jobs. Consider what you want team members to take away from the meeting into the hours and days following it. Employees should leave feeling:
- Invigorated: In the vortex of a busy workweek, it’s easy to lose sight of exactly how the many narrowly-focused tasks are contributing to the wider mission. Ensure that your meeting finds ways to remind the individuals of the value they’re adding to the overall effort. At each of Atrium’s all-hands, I restate our company’s mission: “To accelerate our clients’ growth through world-class legal advice and frictionless transactions.” When we created this mission, we also created a mission statement and goal for each function so that individual teams could more easily relate to how they’re working toward the larger mission. Each time a team presents their progress or success on something during this meeting they restate their team’s mission and tie it back to the larger picture.
- Empowered: Use this as a time to announce new resources and team members, whether it is a mentorship program within the company or perhaps an employee with a unique skill set that will open up new opportunities for the business. This can bring excitement and facilitate other organically developed ideas. Also, highlight and encourage involvement in upcoming happy hours or initiatives developed by employees. Some examples of this at Atrium are Video Game Thursdays (developed and managed by Elliot, an engineer) and our LGBTQ+ group (developed and run by Dana, an account executive). It’s important to show that the company supports this type of proactiveness, and helps ensure that everyone is taking full advantage of the resources available to them.
- Educated: At Atrium’s all-hands meeting, our Chief Business Officer, Joanna presents a thorough update of our five key metrics we track as a company like Signings, Revenue, and Client NPS. It’s important to define the key metrics you want to track as a company (this is an article in and of itself) and then report this out to the business on a recurring basis, regardless of whether the numbers are good or bad. Even if it feels repetitive, that’s okay. New hires need to get familiar with these and the more everyone hears the metrics the more they’ll understand them.
- Informed: Use the gathering as a time to communicate changes and be sure to provide context into why the changes are made, or even re-educate/remind people of a specific process or goal. Recently we decided to change one of our core company values. In our all-hands, I explained in depth what the new value was and how the value we were eliminating would not be lost but incorporated in a different way into one of our existing 5 values. Then we followed that up with new values flashcards for each employee (each employee receives Atrium values flashcards on their first day).
- Aligned: The all-hands meeting is not the place to tackle the details of a cross-functional project — low-level action items and deadlines should be agreed upon elsewhere. What is valuable to these meetings is for the functional leaders to provide brief overviews on new projects and initiatives. Or even better, highlight a cross-functional project. Any way that you can show buy-in cross-functionally, do it! When we release product features at all-hands, we have the project managers and an attorney demo an example it so that we can explain not only what it is but how it will be used in the field with context from an industry SME.
What to include in your all-hands
You’ve defined the experience of your all-hands and how it will empower your team members. It is now time to outline what should be included in every all-hands meeting. Consistency is key here. Create a repeatable framework so that preparing for each upcoming all-hands is as low-input as possible, while still resulting in a high-caliber meeting.
Celebrate people and accomplishments. I find that starting the meeting with this excites people and gets them engaged. I’d suggest spending 15% of your time here. If you decide to make your all-hands an hour-long meeting, keep this section to just under 10 minutes.
- Small Talk: Surprisingly, the most important part of your all-hands may be the small talk that occurs at the beginning, as well as the spontaneous banter throughout. Small talk at the start of a meeting helps establish rapport with attendees and will make everything that follows better received. These meetings need to be kept to a tight schedule — but allow the first few minutes to meander a bit. This doesn’t mean you should stand in front of the group and talk about nothing – it just means that a brief, humorous (and respectful) anecdote — while seeming like a distraction or waste of time — may actually set a more productive tone for the rest of the discussion by taking peoples guard down a bit and piquing their interest. I always try to make a few jokes to kick things off (funny or not) and get folks engaged.
- New Hires: Announce and introduce new hires. At Atrium, new hires are announced and called up to introduce themselves to the group by sharing their names, professional background, and a personal fun-fact. No matter how big we get I think it’s critical for everyone to put faces to the names of the people they’re working with.
- Work Anniversaries: Your employees dedication is all you have — without employees building and selling your product — you have nothing. Celebrate them and their hard work. The significance of an employee’s tenure at a company is relative to the lifespan of the company itself, so cater these to befit the maturity of your company. At Atrium, we celebrate the one-year mark. As we evolve, year five or ten will be worth calling out.
- Shout-Outs: The actions and achievements that merit a shout-out during your all-hands are up to you and your team members to determine. Though at a certain point, you won’t have time to recognize every single team member who goes above and beyond in their duties during these meetings. At Atrium, we have a #gratitude Slack channel for recognizing the ongoing efforts of our team members. Employees can call people out based on how they’re representing one of our six values and nominate them as the Values Champion. Then one or two of these outstanding persons are recognized live as the top Values Champion(s) during the all-hands.
Once you’ve got everyone’s attention, it’s time to get down to business. Spend 60% of your time to drive alignment around mission, strategy, and priorities. If your meeting is an hour, spend just under 40 minutes here. This section can really drag and make people feel like they’re just being talked at for a big chunk of time, so it’s key to make this part interactive by having different people speak and finding ways to involve the whole group.
- Purpose: Reiterate the company’s purpose and illustrate (by example) how your team members’ efforts are fulfilling it. Have the team working on a complex or difficult client come up and share how they were able to solve the issues. I’ve brought investors into Atrium to explain why they invested in us, and I’ve also brought clients in to tell their before-and-after-Atrium stories. Other times, I’ve simply shown emails I received from clients that praised an individual attorney’s work or gave positive feedback on a new product feature. Hearing the impact directly from the client is always the best way to understand the purpose of your work.
- Alignment: Reinforce your high-level strategy by stating (and re-stating every meeting) your company’s highest aspirations, what challenges lie in the way and what it will take to overcome them. At Atrium we call this our Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG). We discuss this every all-hands as the opening of our metrics update and then have someone speak to an initiative that’s driving toward our BHAG — improving our client survey tool and email process, for example, which will increase the number of NPS scores we receive (one of our 5 key metrics).
- Performance: Check in with functional teams on performance updates and share the progress with the company. Define company OKRs, then report out progress against these and the core company metrics you’ve defined. We benchmark these metrics against industry and market-specific averages to add context to the numbers. We include quarterly and annualized progress, indicate whether we’re behind, on track, or ahead of our goals, and Joanna and others then expand on what it all means for the company and our strategy going forward.
You’ve just dumped a lot of information onto your employees. Now give them a chance to ask and answer questions. Allocate 25% for this portion of the meeting. If your meeting is an hour long, set aside at least 15 minutes.
- Do not skip this: It’s critical that you designate time at the end of your meeting to give employees time to voice themselves. 25% may seem like a lot for this, but allowing everyone to freely ask questions is engaging and will give your team members a sense of empowerment.
- Plan a question ahead of time: Start your Q&A with one planned question to encourage others to open up.
- Redirect: Have the person best-suited to address a question respond to it. Just because you’re an exec doesn’t mean you should know all the details of everything. I’ve seen companies that shy from live Q&A’s and instead make employees submit questions ahead of time, and then only choose to answer the questions they want. This is a recipe for mistrust. Be okay with the hard questions, give your employees the transparency they deserve.
- It’s okay to not know the answers: Remember that it’s okay not to have all the answers, but follow through on resolving the question. If you have an all-hands Slack channel, you can follow up with addressing the question there. If you share the slide deck and recording with everyone over email, then address the question within that email. To supplement the Q&A during our all-hands, we recently launched an “Ask me Anything” Slack channel so that folks can have a casual way to ask questions to the executives at any time.
How to present your all-hands
The practical logistics of running an all-hands meeting will vary from company to company, and largely be based on factors like headcount and maturity. Below are the items to consider when planning your meeting.
- Cadence: Base the frequency of your meetings on factors like momentum and bandwidth. Holding an all-hands each week may require too much time while holding one every month may not provide enough alignment and transparency. At Atrium we hold one every two weeks.
- Timing: Find a day, time, and duration that makes sense with the logistics of your employees. A good rule of thumb is aiming to hold your meetings when attendance is likely to be high, people are easily kept engaged, and preferably not wishing they were somewhere else. We previously did our all-hands on Friday afternoons but have since moved it to Friday mornings so that rather than feeling like a barrier to the start of the weekend, it now serves as a vitalizing kick-off to the day.
- Presenters: While it’s good to have a clear and consistent leader taking the reins on these meetings, the CEO for example, it helps to also pass the mic throughout each meeting and have new voices address the group and share their insights. This is an opportunity for employees to get to know all the executives. The engineers may not interact much with the head of sales for example, but they can get to know him or her during this time and establish more familiarity.
- Mechanics: Having things run smoothly during these meetings is important to the engagement of your team members. Technical difficulties will certainly occur, but take some time to prepare the necessary equipment and logistics, e.g. microphones, projectors, clickers, and a camera. If you have remote employees, it’s important to consider the quality of the experience from their perspective. You want remote employees to feel just as engaged as those in the room. This may mean you need certain AV equipment and also need to make sure that speakers are always using microphones and standing in the frame of the camera. Atrium learned this the old-fashioned way by getting feedback that it wasn’t going well. As a result, we’ve made significant improvements in our AV equipment and approach.
Other communication practices to consider
While the all-hands meeting acts like the central nervous system for all other internal communications, other formats can be valuable as well. Below are some additional practices I’ve adopted in order for me as a CEO to remain approachable and involved in company communications no matter how large we grow.
- Skip level round tables: I hold meetings with those at all levels of the company in order to get a feel for everyone’s engagement, provide a forum for open communication, and get candid feedback on what’s working and what’s not.
- Office hours: I hold office hours once a month for anyone in the company that would like to come and chat with me about any topic.
- Ask me Anything Slack channel: As mentioned above, this serves as a way for team members to have a convenient way to ask questions to the executive team at any time, and for everyone else to have access to those discussions.
- JIWJK: This stands for Jumping in with Justin Kan and is an after-hours open discussion I host. We bring in food and discuss a specific topic. Most recently, we discussed balance, gratitude, and meditation — something that has become a focus of mine over the last year.
This is just the tip of the iceberg for building a robust internal communication strategy. What we are doing here at Atrium to improve alignment, transparency, and collaboration is always a work in progress, so I’m open to your suggestions! Feel free to comment below. And let me know if there are other growth topics you’d like me to cover.