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Leadership/Vision

Engage or Enrage: The Secrets to a Good Company Town Hall

Glitzy company get-togethers can enthuse or depress staff. Town hall veterans share their secrets to doing them right and how the format’s changed during lockdown – for the better.

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It’s a fact: Happier employees do a better job. There’s plenty of research to prove it, including a 2019 study by a team at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School, which showed that happier employees not only worked harder but also made more sales than their miserable colleagues.

Town halls – big company get-togethers at which senior executives press the flesh – have been the way in which companies have tried to spread a little happiness.

But they can be a tricky act to pull off, delivering inspirational speeches while also listening to the rank-and-file’s worries and gripes. If they’re done well, workers will walk through walls for their bosses. But if they’re not, they can make the leadership look aloof and suck energy out of the room faster than a pay freeze, sending workers shuffling despondently back to their desks.

Also, the old town hall format, with all its razzamatazz, has been derailed by the pandemic.

Here, a number of CEOs and communications specialists share their secrets to getting town halls right – and how they’ve adapted to get their message across to employees who are working from home.

Keep it short

Bosses need to curb their natural instincts to hog the limelight and keep what they say to a bare minimum. Any more than 10 minutes and “nodding donkey syndrome” will set in among the audience, warns Charles Willy, a communications consultant who’s worked for a string of FTSE companies.

Lockdown prevented Ed Broking from holding its annual staff meeting. It considered running the event online, but, instead, held a presentation lasting no more than 45 minutes every morning for a week. Staffers liked the innovation, says CEO Andrew Draycott: “Engagement was strong and the feedback we had was universally positive as it didn’t take a whole day, which was particularly appreciated by parents!”

Mix it up

Familiarity breeds contempt, and that also holds true for company gatherings. Stick to the same old format and you’re guaranteed to cause your employees’ enthusiasm to plummet.

“We have organised our town halls so that our team can hear from a variety of people and get a broader image of the business and all its moving parts,” says Ashley Stockwell, Chief Marketing Officer of Convex. “Having this variety prevents them from becoming formulaic and can go a long way in keeping everyone engaged in the discussion.”

Videos are a good way of injecting some much-needed pizazz to the proceedings – providing they work. Willy vividly remembers the assembled workforce watching nothing but a black screen after he pressed play on the company’s much-ballyhooed new corporate video. But PowerPoint presentations are a turn-off. “I wish I could have banned them,” he says.

Keep it real

It isn’t just the message that’s important for a town hall – the language used to deliver it is just as crucial. “It needs to feel real to your audience,” says Willy. “They know he or she is earning 50 times what they are, so they don’t necessarily trust them. But you need to win them over because these people produce your profits.”

Some CEOs use business jargon as a sort of comfort blanket, but it doesn’t work on their employees. They want a leader who inspires them but who they also trust. “I’ve dealt with many CEOs. Some were self-effacing but came across as being completely authentic. Others were very charismatic, but nobody believed a word they said,” says Willy.

Can you hear me?

One of the biggest pitfalls of town halls is that they become a one-way conversation. “Be prepared to receive as well as transmit information – it’s too easy to fall into the trap of thinking only about what information you need to convey to colleagues,” says Draycott. “We have spent time asking people what they want to hear about and what is important to them.”

At MS Amlin, many of the issues discussed in its town hall sessions have been raised in its employee-engagement surveys, says its CEO Johan Slabbert: “We frequently have ‘meet-the-exec’ sessions, which are open to all staff and serve as a guide to staff’s level of interest in certain topics. We are simply responding to their needs.”

It’s easy for a boss to hold an open forum with employees when things are going well, but it can be a different matter when times are hard. “If you’ve just cut hundreds of jobs, the inevitable first question the CEO will face is: ‘how many more jobs will go, and will mine be among them?’ They simply can’t answer that, but the danger is a non-committal answer makes them look evasive,” says Willy.

“It’s better to use a tough question like that to empathise with people and provide an honest but positive message: ‘OK, it's tough but we'll ensure the process is fair and transparent.’”

Lockdown breathes new life into an old routine

Since lockdown forced many people to work remotely, companies have had to call off their regular company get-togethers, and have, instead, been forced to improvise. The result, surprisingly, is the pandemic has actually breathed new life into the grand but often stale town-hall format. Strangely, the online experience has proved to be more intimate than the physical events.

“Working virtually has, in some ways, democratised the town hall,” says Stockwell. “We are all working from home, facing similar challenges. Seeing the CEO and other members of the executive team presenting from their homes makes the style of the town hall a little less corporate and formal.”

Virtual town halls have been an unexpected hit with employees, with companies seeing a surge in the numbers of people participating in their online events – so much so that many firms will keep the virtual format even when their people return to the office. “It’s easier to get a lot of people together virtually for shorter, more timely communication and we’d like to carry that on in the future,” says Draycott.

It’s not hard to understand why the virtual town hall has been popular. Stuck at home, starved of the usual work-related conversations, staff are keen to hear news about what’s happening at their companies. Also, town halls have become an attractive diversion from juggling work, home-schooling and household chores.

Online town halls just can’t produce the same buzz of excitement, though, Draycott believes. “We’re really looking forward to the time we can have people in the same room together again, because the energising effect of that just cannot be replicated virtually,” he admits.

But, despite the benefits of big get-togethers, some find smaller is better. “The town hall is just one option, but I’ve found creating smaller groups is much more effective, because people love to meet the boss and it’s much easier for him or her to get their message across,” says Willy.

Also, companies mustn’t forget the home truth: you need to communicate with your workforce every day, usually through your middle managers, not just every year through your C-suite execs. “If they don’t get this right, then it doesn’t seem to matter how many big CEO events you do, the employee engagement score will drop,” one in-house communications manager cautions.

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