video chatting
All hands meetings serve a purpose, but they need to be run effectively to gain their full value PHOTO: Thomas van de Weerd

Anyone who's worked in a large organization in the last decade has experienced an “all hands meeting.” Usually called by an executive or a department head to broadcast information to employees, these meetings tend to be one-to-many, with little support for interactivity.

These meetings serve the same purpose of Franklin D. Roosevelt's “Fireside chats” during the Great Depression: improve morale and update people so they could understand what was going on and what their part in it was.

Shift forward 70 years, and people have the same needs, but what is different is both the technologies that enable these meetings and the generational cohorts who are in them.

Done right, all hands meetings can provide multiple benefits:

  • Better corporate transparency
  • Consistent and timely information sharing with all employees
  • Better coordination of resources and understanding of company goals or initiatives
  • A place to showcase new talent or use motivational speakers
  • A time just for the company to look at and celebrate itself
  • A way to drive higher levels of engagement from employees
  • Visible leadership — better to deliver messages in person (rather than email)

Assuming you know how to run an effective all hands meeting — and there are many pitfalls there — this post will cover how technology can increase the effectiveness of these meetings and reduce the pain.

Evolution of Meeting Technology

Broadband and the internet changed everything. Employees want to know what's going on with their organization (company directions may affect their future careers, or issues they have with social justice) and it is always better to find out internally, than hear about it from external sources.

These types of meetings have traditionally been run using one of two types of software: either meeting software (provided by companies including Adobe, Citrix and WebEx) which have been extended to support all hands meetings, or event software that has a special category of event called “All Hands Meetings," or "Town Hall Meetings" (which ON24, Bluejeans Primetime, mediaplatform, BeaconLive and others provide).

Both classes of tools have been in use for over a decade, and have added new features along the way. Many are offered as online services, some offer greater interactivity through back channel chat, one-to-one conversations between employees, or through polls and submitted questions, but a variety of challenges still exist.

4 Challenges of All Hands Meetings

1. Lack of interactivity 

All hands meetings tend to follow a formula: a broadcast from the CEO to the rest of the company. It is all one-way communication. Sometimes a back channel chat is an option, where you can send in a question or comment, but interactive it's not. 

Think about it though: full interactivity by 10,000 people would result in chaos. No one would be heard and nothing would get done. So some level of controlled interactivity is required: limiting chat and questions is one way.

2. Difficulty and Cost of Creating Content 

Creating the content for such meetings can be both difficult and expensive. Let’s say you want to make a short recording of a customer endorsement to play. You need to book the time with the customer, send a crew to film the customer, edit the film, insert the film at the right time in the meeting, etc. It can end up being quite a production for a two minute video clip, with costs running over $15,000.

3. Cost of Software

Standard software, such as Cisco’s WebEx Meeting Center, allows you to do meetings with up to 200 people for $40 per person per month. It also offers “assist services” for a larger meeting or event, and Cisco “producers” to help with meeting details.  

Then there are services for virtual events or all hands meetings like ON24 for Internal Communications and Town Hall meetings. These meetings not only include a “producer,” but also feature different options to create content (e.g. making a recording to play at the event or in the meeting) and analytics about the meeting (e.g. attendee numbers, number of questions asked, voting and polling responses, etc.).

4. Analytics

All tools let you know how many people attended, but do you know which of your distributed offices asks the most questions? How can you tell how engaged employees were? How do you relate the meeting to any changes in productivity or revenue?

Who's in Charge of Running These Meetings?

Preparation for a meeting like this is always a good idea. But if you are not a huge organization with a big budget for meetings, events and production, it is often up to someone in “internal communications” to deal with all the details of the event. If you are a company under 500 people, you may not even have an internal communications person.

In a straw poll we did during the third week of May with a variety of HR, IT and facilities experts, we asked “Who runs or manages these 'All Hands Meetings?'" 

HR or IC (Internal Communications) were the top responses, with some IT support for the actual meeting logistics. The meeting's content or message often came from the C-Suite, or department heads.

For many people, fear of public speaking can be greater than the fear of death. Add to that the fact that only one to two percent of all meetings are this large, broadcast-type meeting. Often these meetings do not occur on a regular basis, or may be implemented in time of crisis. These “all hands meetings” might be what's keeping your CEO up at night ....

New Technologies for Meetings

New types of software tools are coming to market which are more dynamic, interactive, require less preparation, allow easier content creation and are much less expensive. 

Data Visualization Tools

Soon, I expect we'll see a new AI service from IBM’s Watson or a start-up that offers executives help in creating the content for these meetings in the most effective way possible. As author, data journalist and information designer David McCandless said in his TED talk: 

"By visualizing information, we turn it into a landscape that you can explore with your eyes, a sort of information map. And when you're lost in information, an information map is kind of useful."

Tools like: DataHero, Timeline, Visual.ly, Tangle and more help you make more interactive charts and infographics with much less pain for your presentations.

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Figure 1: DataHero Dashboard

Gartner predicts that by 2018, 20 percent of all business content will be authored by machines. Right now natural language processing of data for meetings can help executives make easily understandable visuals from complex data. 

AI can even write prose that is (mostly) indistinguishable from human prose, but until AI passes the Turing Test, I'd treat AI as more of a helper to produce content, rather than the final author. 

Virtual Assistants for Scheduling, Mobile Meetings and Security

Several new AI technologies can help you schedule an all hands meeting: Clara, Julie, WizCal x.ai, Cortana and more. But what about the more mobile workforce? Security? Broader reach or greater employee coverage?

One example of a tool that deals with some of these other issues is RHUB’s TurboMeeting. I have been using TurboMeeting for years. It is stable, secure and offers features comparable to WebEX or GoToMeeting. It used to require a download and awkward sign-in process, but no more.

Most all hands meetings are not mobile, yet RHUB has developed a secure server for meetings that is smaller than a cigarette pack. You can use the server on premises or as a cloud service. Businesses can use it as a mobile meeting server — ready to hold your next all hands meeting in an amusement park? 

And finally, there's the question of cost. For example, WebEx Meeting Center is $49 per person, per month. Add to that the cost of WebEx Assist Services (pdf). So, for example, if you held one all hands meeting a year which required 200 Webex Meeting Center licenses for a month. The cost would be $9,800 plus $200 for Assist services, bringing the meeting cost to $10,000 without even covering costs for content development, which could add another $20,000.

RHUB tackled the cost of an all hands meeting through software licensing. The initial cost for the server is $2,500, but after that you own it, so you can use it for as many meetings as you want. The company currently charges a $500 a year maintenance fee, but the cost for your first meeting is one-fourth the cost of the WebEx meeting, and any additional meetings that year would essentially be free.

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Figure 2: RHUB Mobile TurboMeeting Server

While the product may not help any executive get over their fear of speaking, this might just reduce any fears associated with costs for the next all hands meeting.