Town halls or teleconf?

Yesterday we were celebrating the move to the new office. On Monday the final set of people moved in and so we are now 'moved'. It's all very exciting, and to celebrate we held a 'Town Hall', immediately followed by the 'Holiday Party'.

The 'Town Hall' wasn't strictly a town hall, but more of a 'Staff Meeting', (UK) or 'All Hands' (US). A Town Hall is traditionally an informal democratic forum in which citizens have an opportunity to put their point of view and hear what others have to say on a specific political issue or community topic.

The term has now migrated to organizations to describe a large scale face to face meeting where orchestrated information is presented for information, update, or education. It seems that organizational Town Halls are less about consultation and more about telling staff things, although there's usually some form of Q and A slot. For example,

"Steve Jobs recently held a Town Hall meeting for Apple employees, and according to Wired, he had some very choice words for both Google and Adobe."

Designing organizational Town Halls is a skill – they need to be informative, and with a participatory element. I came across a very useful guide to planning one called 'Maximizing outreach through town halls: a planning guide. It's got step by step instructions, and various tips on how to promote the meeting. Although it's focused on town halls around addiction education the planning points are entirely generalizable.

Our move celebration town hall was designed so that all 1400 staff could listen. As the hall only holds about 200 people we took advantage of the technology that the new building offers. Thus the face to face proceedings were streamed live to smaller conference rooms in the building and also to people's computers. And we heard some lovely stories like the one from the person who was traveling to the Town Hall to be there in person but was running late so was watching it on his i-pad in the shuttle bus.

Various constraints meant that the 'voice of the occupants' piece – a panel discussion was videoed not from the main hall but from a different room, so there was a certain amount of switching. All this was fairly nail-biting as it was the first time the technicians had used the new set-up, and although they'd spent a lot of time in testing you can never tell what will happen on the day. (That seems to hold true however familiar someone is with the technology).

Also yesterday I attended a different form of all-hands/Town Hall/Staff meeting. This was billed as a teleconference where staff members (50+ people all over the country) would get an update on a staff survey, and the business plans for the coming year. This suffered the standard teleconf difficulties of some people putting their phones on mute and others not so that there were the strange 'noises off' that one gets. In my case I couldn't access the website with the powerpoint so as the speaker pointed out the percentages on the pie chart I was looking at the apple pie remaindered from the holiday party earlier. Questions were entered in the 'chat box' on screen – also unavailable to me but fortunately the option also existed to ask questions over the phone.

Thinking about the two meetings I realized that they had characteristics in common:

• They were for a large group of people – the Town Hall for 1400, and the teleconference for 50+

• They involved various communication channels

• They were largely one way but with some limited opportunity for questions from participants

• Each lasted an hour

• They were orchestrated with an agenda and each had a specific purpose and intended outcome

Where they differed was in their original choice of channel. The Town Hall was planned as primarily a face to face event, and the teleconference as phone and web powerpoint presentation. Once again this set me wondering about the power of face to face communication and when it is worth the time, money, and other resource to invest in it.

I've never met any of the 50 people that I had the teleconf with, but I've worked alongside them for several years. In presenting the employee satisfaction survey that had some disappointingly low scores in several dimensions, not once did the notion of having a face to face meeting – a real Town Hall or failing that a video conference – come up as a suggestion. I think that it might make a real difference to the way people feel about both the organization and their colleagues.

Orchestrating it in the face of stringent budgets, time constraints, and other hurdles might be difficult but seeing the enjoyment people got in the face to face Town Hall and the buzz of seeing colleague on screen from those watching on computers suggests that face to face is good for communication.

Any views on face to face over voice only? Perhaps the growth of telepresence answers that question?

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