One of the ways workers who are returning to physical workplaces can reconnect to management and one another is through town hall-style meetings. Gathering everyone together can be helpful in smoothing the transition back to the office, as long as it's done right.
Sometimes called "all-hands" or "total team" meetings, town hall meetings serve many purposes. In a post-pandemic world, they can be used to foster relationships with senior leaders and colleagues in a more meaningful way, as some of these relationships may have weakened or disappeared in recent years.
"Town hall meetings connect the leadership team with all team members to share important information and inspiration, and to understand what's on their minds," said Cheryl DeSantis, chief people and diversity officer at SmileDirectClub, a dental services company based in Nashville, Tenn., with more than 3,600 employees. "It's important to come together."
In fact, some companies report that their returning employees crave clarity and connectivity—and town hall meetings can be utilized to address both.
"Coming out of the pandemic, employers' ability to provide clarity has become further distorted," said Nick Goldberg, founder and CEO of virtual professional coaching platform EZRA. "From lack of certainty around key business decisions, staff transitions, going digital and much more, employees are left with a sense of ambiguity, which can result in feelings of distress at work. The sort of information that may seem trivial is what employees [used to] readily access in an office setting" and need again, said Goldberg, whose London-based company has 280 employees.
Cheryl Cecil, chief people officer at law firm Fennemore, which has 14 offices and more than 500 employees in Arizona, California, Colorado and Nevada, said her company uses town halls (they call them "all-hands") to promote camaraderie, communication, culture and cohesion.
"Employees hear firsthand important information and see the firm's values exemplified through our leadership's participation in the discussions," Cecil said.
Think About Meeting Structure
While town hall meetings can boost productivity, cultivate community and encourage transparency, it's important to know how to run them properly. For instance, try to hold them in person.
"After COVID, one of the biggest problems most of our employees reported was that they felt as though they were disconnected from each other, as well as from management," said Eyal Pasternak, founder of Liberty House Buying Group, a company in Florida with 25 employees. "We decided to switch our town hall meetings to in-office even though work is hybrid now. This allowed me, as the CEO, to interact with newer employees, as well as catch up with old ones. It enabled them to speak directly to me about any particular concerns or anxieties they had."
Another tip is to have a clear and meaningful goal for the town hall since employees are taking time out of their workday to attend. Having an agenda, for example, shows that you value their time, Goldberg said.
"If you can't fill the hour with meaningful space and discourse, it's not going to be a productive town hall, and chances are your team will be multitasking their way through it," he explained. "Instead, know the outcome you're looking for and make that clear to your team. Is it to get feedback? Is it to brainstorm? Simply to create space? Make sure this is intentional and communicated up front."
While it's important for company leaders to talk about new developments, they also need to be open to questions. "This makes employees feel seen and heard and, in turn, creates a positive workplace culture," he added.
A Chance to Build Morale
The time spent in a town hall meeting should also be used to foster community, Goldberg said. One way to enhance company morale and employee recognition is to kick off the meeting "with a nonwork-related topic or ice breaker to put attendees at ease."
At Qumu Corp., an enterprise video platform headquartered in Minneapolis, "celebrating and recognizing employees outside of formal recognition programs is an important component of our town halls," said Mercy Noah, global vice president of human capital. "This includes shout-outs for key accomplishments, milestones and completed projects."
Noah added that it also is critical for each business function, including finance, HR, sales and engineering, to provide updates about where they stand and what they are planning. "It's important to expose employees to the entire organization," she said.
For employees who prefer to attend remotely, the key question is whether to allow this option or not. At Liberty House Buying Group, Pasternak allows employees to tune in via Zoom, but only if they aren't feeling well or they have to leave town due to an emergency.
"We try to be rigid with these rules because the town hall is one of the few times everyone in the company is present at the office together, since most employees have alternate days of [working from home]," he said.
While Qumu Corp. encourages employees to attend its virtual town hall meetings live, each meeting is offered via on-demand video. "We also make sure we host the town halls at a time that's most convenient for all of our regions around the world," Noah said.
At SmileDirectClub, large group meetings are recorded and sometimes edited into a shorter version, DeSantis said, explaining that "regardless of time zone or team, you are able to view the important content."
To be sure, some companies require even remote employees to attend important town hall meetings in person, and cover those travel costs when it makes sense for the organization.
"Zoom is not a panacea or a silver bullet," Cecil said. "The key is intentionality and making attendance at the meeting appealing so that folks don't feel it is a waste of time or inauthentic, regardless of setting."
Kylie Ora Lobell is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.