Leading effective all hands meetings: The complete guide

Written by
Marlo Oster
January 20, 2021

In this guide you’ll learn:

The benefits of having company all-hands meetings

How to determine the right cadence and length for your organization

How to create engaging agendas that keep employees aligned

How to leverage all hands meetings to reinforce company culture and boost morale

An all hands meeting should bring together all levels of staff, including the CEO and executive team. All hands meetings should align the leadership team and staff on the company’s direction. Unfortunately, many attendees leave these meetings feeling overwhelmed with information or resentful from a flood of bad news. 


Employees can leave these meetings feeling empowered and appreciated, while leaders accomplish their objectives too. 


Leaders typically want to use this meeting to deliver high volumes of information and discuss company values. It is essential to cover relevant information while addressing core values and goals. However, these meetings present other opportunities for leadership teams, such as clarifying goals and unifying the company. 


Executives, department leaders, and managers should strive to host purposeful and consistent all hands meetings. Throughout this guide, we address how to promote participation, address critical objectives, and structure a successful and efficient all hands meeting. At the end, we leave you with an all hands meeting template that you can use within WorkPatterns for your next meeting.  

What is an all hands meeting?

The all hands meeting calls “all hands on deck” or assembles everyone within the organization together. This particular type of meeting should always address the current state and future of the company. The leadership team should address the company values, challenges and answer employee questions. 


In addition to all hands meetings, which are information-driven, companies may also host town halls. A town hall functions primarily as a Q&A session. Town halls and all hands meetings give employees access to owners and high-level leadership members. 


Why are all hands meetings important?

These meetings are critical for employee engagement and keeping the company moving toward its goals. The format of the all hands gathering provides the perfect opportunity to recenter the staff on company values and showcase collaborative efforts. All hands meetings deliver mission-critical components of communication, including:

  • Transparency & Alignment. Leaders should unify the staff through a message that impacts everyone. Aligning efforts across the organization and providing information transparently can ensure that staff members understand their purpose. 

  • Opportunity to Celebrate Wins & Acknowledge Challenges. Recognize big moments of success, department success, and individual wins as well. When employees hear about the company’s success, they’re more likely to set and achieve their goals. Take this chance to give your employees some public appreciation. 

  • Employee engagement. As more employees work remotely, leadership teams are struggling more than ever to keep their staff engaged. Everyone at the all hands event, from the interns to the VP, has a voice and is welcome to participate. That doesn’t mean that employees run the show. The leadership team, and possibly a moderator, will conduct the event to promote participation and engagement.

  • Visible leadership. It’s common for managers, executives, and other leaders to work behind closed doors. All hands meetings are the perfect opportunity for the CEO, President, and other leaders to take center stage. 

  • Inspire and return the focus to company values.  Company values should be more than a bulleted list in a business plan or a fancy quote on the company website. An all hands meeting gives leadership the team to show how the company values appear in everyday work. 

  • Establish trust. Some information just doesn’t fit in a memo or company-wide email. Hearing about bad news or upcoming challenges straight from company leadership can reduce the likelihood of rumors and misinformation.

  • Conversation. Every all hands meeting should allow everyone to ask questions and provide feedback. The ideals of transparency and open discussion are the guiding tools to boost employee morale and promote ongoing success. 

All hands meetings cadence and length

When meetings run too long, even the company’s President can have trouble keeping people’s attention. You also don’t want to run through data points and excuse everyone. Your company’s size and how frequently you conduct all hands meeting wild determine how long your meetings last. 


To start, determine the best cadence for the event, then focus on the length. Consider these factors:

  • How big is your company? Small businesses can host informal all hands meetings weekly or monthly. A medium-sized business might need to hold these meetings monthly or quarterly. Large companies may need to find formats that support quarterly or semi-annual frequencies that also accommodate their large team. 

  • Which formats serve your teams best? If everyone can fit into one Zoom screen or room, then you can host meetings more frequently. If you need more supportive platforms, you might need to consider spacing out the meetings to ensure everyone can attend. 

  • How often will you have major talking points? Few people want to watch the big boss make small talk. If you don’t have updates for the entire company every month, you don’t need to host monthly all hand meetings.  

  • Can you make the cadence and length sustainable? Is a monthly 45-minute session more sustainable than a quarterly two or three-hour meeting? Consider shorting meetings more regularly. 

  • How can you devote enough time to each topic and speaker? Delegate part of the meeting to other leadership members. Make sure they prepare to present and have time estimates for their portion. 


Regularly schedule your all hands events, but ensure that you space them so the leadership team has valuable discussion points, the right platform for staff, and can accommodate the company’s size. 


All hands meeting agenda topics

All hands meetings should only include information that is relevant to everyone. It is easy to derail these meetings by focusing on department-specific topics or overloading staff with information that doesn’t relate to them. Stick to the following format to ensure that the all hands meeting is informative, relevant, and engaging. 

Company overview

Open the meeting with a quick company overview to set the context. During the company overview, you should provide updates on:


  • The financial health of the company 

  • Company outlook

  • Product development and milestones

  • Strategies for reaching company goals

  • Updates from the department heads


This portion should not take long, but it should come from the CEO, President, or the business owner. This is an opportunity to inspire continued alignment against the company’s vision and mission.

It’s also an opportunity to tie the individual work of employees to organizational goals. Remember, many employees in the organization don’t interact with you on a daily basis so it’s an opportunity to connect directly with them. 

Team or business unit spotlight 

It’s not mandatory at every All-Hands but featuring a specific business unit, team or initiative is commonplace at many staff meetings. This typically rotates at each meeting and it’s your opportunity to pass the mic to another member of leadership, another manager or even a high potential employee.


Special projects and cross-functional initiatives are perfect for this. Special projects often pull on resources from a variety of teams. So it’s a chance to showcase the teams involved in these initiatives and acknowledge their efforts. 

Announcements


Delivering the bulk of the meeting, you can cover essential topics, celebrate staff members, and check-in with various departments. Cover topics that staff want to know about, such as:

Promotions, work anniversaries, and welcoming new hires. Take a moment to acknowledge those moving forward, celebrating their time with the company, and those new to the team. 


Milestone accomplishments. Leaders can share the company’s milestone accomplishments. These milestones help employees assess their ability to contribute to company goals and impact significant milestones. 


Changes to organizational structure. Teams can come together or evolve into two separate teams. Use this as a chance to notify everyone of structural changes. Then no one is missing out on these updates. 


Layoffs and furloughs. Tough information such as the notice of layoffs shouldn’t come from a team manager. This information should always come from top-level leadership. No one wants to hear that they might be losing their job through the grapevine. 


Department updates. Although this might seem specific to individual departments, these updates can keep everyone engaged. As department leaders deliver their updates, they can connect those updates to larger company goals and other departments’ accomplishments. 


Acquisitions. Acquisitions can seriously disrupt normal operations; it’s best to prepare all staff members for upcoming changes. Even if some teams won’t feel the impact, it is a significant step for the company.


Fundraising events. Spread the news of upcoming events and explain what the event would benefit. Give some details on how staff members can get involved. 


Milestone accomplishments. Leaders can share the company’s milestone accomplishments. These milestones help employees assess their ability to contribute to company goals and impact significant milestones. 


Special projects and cross-functional initiatives. Special projects often pull on resources from a variety of teams. Identify the teams involved in these initiatives and acknowledge their efforts. 


Q&A: Create a two-way dialogue


The Q&A section requires a bit of planning, and there are multiple ways to collect questions and feedback. To create a two-way dialogue: 


  • Survey the company for questions and concerns before the meeting. Encourage questions and concerns from members who might not speak out in a public forum.

  • Address those questions directly during the announcement or company overview, if possible. 

  • Set aside time for a live Q&A. Ensure that there are ways to solicit questions that don’t exclusively favor bolder team members. For example, allow employees to submit questions through their managers or team leaders. 

  • Consider the size of your company. If there are many questions, or the company is large, you might arrange for a follow-up town hall event. 

  • Follow up afterward to collect feedback for the next meeting’s Q&A section. Consider using surveys, or collect feedback through management.

All hands meeting tips and best practices

There are many ways to run a successful all hands meeting that won’t leave your staff feeling drained, overwhelmed, or downhearted. Everyone should have the opportunity to receive meaningful information and participate. 


Before the all hands meeting


Take these steps to prepare for a smooth meeting:

  • Set a fixed date and time (Host these meetings regularly, e.g., the first Monday of each month).

  • Send invites early and make sure to invite everyone.

  • Place reminder posters. These posters can serve as visual reminders for staff to submit questions for the Q&A. 

  • Build a clearly-structured agenda. Use realistic time estimates to allow speakers to cover their points without rushing.

  • Put all the slides in one place. When hosting remote meetings, it is imperative that the meeting run smoothly without others having to load slides or upload their presentations.

  • Appoint a moderator. 

  • Sync with your AV technician. Rely on your technical staff to minimize the chances of tech-related problems during the meeting.

  • Select a champion for remote teams

  • Gather questions before the meeting.


During the all hands meeting 


Be authentic. Honesty and transparency will go a long way in building trust within the company. Authenticity is more than a buzzword. It’s something that employees want but don’t always expect from leadership team members. 


Express your authenticity by taking these steps:

  • Acknowledge that you, and aspects of the company, aren’t perfect.

  • Connect with staff through storytelling. Use storytelling in a context that fits within your company culture. Storytelling doesn’t have to include your personal life. Instead, use stories and voices that represent the business. 

  • Accept that remote members may have distractions happening behind their screens. Barking dogs, kids playing, and more might be on mute, but the employee is still experiencing those obstacles. 


Encourage audience participation. Your all hands meeting might be virtual or have some members attending virtually with in-person attendees as well. 


Managers have struggled for years to increase meeting participation. Use these methods to promote involvement in a positive way:

  • Start the meeting by checking in with some participants. You might ask some team managers how they are feeling or a few employees near the front if they submitted questions for the Q&A., Ask your attendees how they’re doing and if they’re ready to get started. 

  • Gamify participation. Toss around a ball to encourage questions, or offer a free pizza slice to anyone who speaks up. Encourage and reward participation rather than pushing people into engaging or singling out quiet team members. 

  • Ask people to take a moment of silence to reflect after delivering essential information. Give everyone the chance to process information before jumping into questions or concerns. 


Allow various speakers to share the stage. It’s vital that every team and department feel represented. Encourage department heads and key team leaders to present information that involves their team. Connect with as many people as possible by highlighting the leaders that they see and interact with daily. 


Make it fun. Virtual meetings and in-person meetings have the same opportunity for an engaging and enjoyable experience. Implement games such as trivia, or promote company pride during the meeting. 


Avoid these all hands meeting mishaps

These pitfalls are common, and it can be challenging to overcome them. However, identifying these issues alongside some careful planning can ensure your all hands meeting runs smoothly. 


Don’t:

  • Shy away from, or downplay tough subjects. Layoffs, bad news about losing a significant client, or changing benefits are hard to discuss. Your staff deserves to hear it from their leadership team and to have all the information that is relevant to them. 

  • Play the blame game. Blaming external factors such as the economy, competitors, and bad marketing tactics means that the people leading the company aren’t taking responsibility. If leaders don’t take responsibility, then the employees won’t either. It is immature and avoidable.

  • Forget to say thank you. Always thank people for speaking up, submitting questions, and participating. 

Meeting management is better with WorkPatterns

WorkPatterns provides one on ones, team collaboration, feedback, recognition & goals — all in one place. With WorkPatterns, you can guide your team with continuous feedback and rich goal management that goes beyond simple to-do lists.