How to Have Town Hall Meetings Without Spreading the Coronavirus

Picnics with prepackaged sandwiches might take the place of packed conference rooms and buffet lunches

By Katie Navarra June 17, 2020
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social distancing outside

​Social distancing requirements to prevent the spread of COVID-19 are making traditional town hall meetings challenging at best and nearly impossible. Yet during the pandemic's upheaval and uncertainty, it's important that company leaders connect and communicate with staff. How can organizations meet state guidelines for social distancing, protect people's health and keep up interactions with the whole workforce?

Three HR experts share their thoughts on what all-staff meetings will look like in the coming months.

Blended Format

As Christina Abbott, director of HR at Alliance for Positive Health, prepares for 120 employees to return to offices spread across five counties in New York, the logistics of all-staff meetings are already being discussed. Abbott and organization leaders met onsite to evaluate how seating can be arranged and where Plexiglass may need to be installed.

"Even just walking through the offices, it's like we realized it's not going to be what it was," she said. "We could put all these plans in place and two months later things could get shut down again. So, we're trying to put a comprehensive plan in place realizing we may have to change it."

Chase Adams, SHRM-CP, a manager of organizational development at Hanna Resource Group, works with clients across the country from his office in Lexington, Ky. Adams says plans for company meetings vary by state and the space an organization has available.

"Some are talking about removing chairs to create six feet between each seat," he said. "Others don't have the space to spread out chairs and still [be able to] accommodate a group of 50 to 150."

Companies without enough space are exploring a blended format. A portion of the staff will gather in a large meeting room, with others joining in virtually from their desk in another part of the building.

Increased Frequency

States have different guidelines for group gatherings, and travel restrictions into and out of each state differ, as well. With four offices and 130 employees spread across three states, SMRT Architects and Engineers is uncertain when their quarterly in-person "fireside chats" will resume, according to Jean C. Gabriel, SHRM-CP.

"For example, in Massachusetts, the way our office is laid out, at this point we can't all be in the office at the same time," she said. "I think we're going to end up doing the fireside chats virtually for a while."

However, the frequency has increased to monthly and she says Microsoft Teams is working better now than when the company tried video conferencing a few years ago. SMRT President Ellen Belknap is also encouraging staff to reach out to one another to connect, much like they would stop by a colleague's desk at the office.

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Coronavirus and COVID-19

What's on the Menu?

Food is often the highlight of town hall meetings. It sparks socialization and is often what staff looks forward to most.

"They are always asking, 'What kind of food is going to be there? Who's catering? What kind of sandwiches are we having tonight?' " Abbott said.

Adams predicts that companies won't be able to serve communal food for a long time. Buffets and self-serve dishes will be replaced with individually wrapped, grab-and-go items. Bottled beverages will substitute for pitchers and shared coffee pots.

"I don't think we'll see any kind of shared food for a very long time," he said.

Although the weather in New York can be unpredictable, Abbott hopes Alliance for Positive Health can consider picnic-style town hall meetings. Scheduling staff gatherings at parks may be an option for fostering the communal aspect of meeting in-person while having ample space for social distancing.

"Maybe that is a way that we can all still see each other and be together and kind of break bread," she said.

Evolving as Times Change

Town hall meetings work because they invite conversation and engagement between leadership and staff. Knowing how to read an audience to encourage participation is vital, as is managing feedback. In-person staff meetings rely on nuances of physical face-to-face interactions that can be missed in virtual meetings. Participants may also be reluctant to contribute online.

"The awkward silence hits differently on video than in person. I preface calls with, 'I know it's awkward to meet via video, but please participate as much as possible'," Adams said. "Polling is one feature that has helped in having people give feedback in a controlled format so it doesn't turn into mass chaos when you have 55 people on a virtual meeting."

It may take a bit of creativity and a willingness to evolve through trial and error to find a format that works with the new normal for in-person or virtual all staff meetings.

"Pulse surveys are a great way to solicit feedback on what you're doing, to measure engagement and find out what is working or not working," Adams said. "If it doesn't work, try to tweak it until it does."

Katie Navarra is a freelance writer in New York state.

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