Your company’s annual meeting is an opportunity to showcase who you are as a team, which is especially important now as businesses continue to grapple with uncertainty.
“All-hands meetings, or really any type of offsite, have become the pillars of building company culture,” says Jared Kleinert, co-founder and CEO at Offsite, a team retreat planning firm that works with remote and hybrid companies. He notes that for remote companies especially, it’s the only time team members have to build relationships.
But while engaging your employees in team-building opportunities is imperative for a great annual meeting in 2023, so too is providing professional development and achieving strategic planning and alignment. “These can all be components, and arguably should be components, of a great all-hands meeting,” explains Kleinert.
With that, here are nine new ideas for a better annual meeting in the year ahead.
1. Keep It to Workdays
Shifting your annual meeting from the weekend to the weekdays prioritizes your employees’ work-life balance and acknowledges that the weekends should be time they spend with their families. It’s a trend Amanda Masick, director of marketing and web development at Event Solutions, an event planning and management agency, says she is seeing across companies. It has an added advantage for the bottom line: trimming travel expenses on weekday bookings instead of weekend rates.
Masick notes that attendance at events held during the week also tends to be higher. Among her clients, she says, “one company in healthcare boasted the best overall attendance for the year on the day of their all-hands meeting, suggesting employees are not only engaged but also excited to attend.”
2. Create Comfort
Dana Lowenfish, chief experience officer at Sequence Events, an event production agency, notes that “people are focused very much so right now on sustainability, diversity, inclusion, and the growing awareness around all of these pieces.” So when bringing a large group together for a company event, she says it’s important for executives to be “thinking more about inclusion and making sure everybody is comfortable.”
As a best practice, Kleinert suggests scheduling breaks into your agenda for employees to recharge and take care of their personal needs. For example, on day one when employees are arriving, consider hosting an optional welcome experience or happy hour, then build in flex time before joining for a group dinner. This allows time for your employees to shower, unpack, call their families, or decompress from traveling before they engage with their colleagues.
3. Choose Your Own Adventure Activities
The expectation that all employees will engage in — and enjoy — a single activity is unrealistic. It’s also likely that a single event will exclude some of your employees, such as a hike that an individual with a mobility disability is unable to partake in or a pasta cooking class that a team member with celiac disease can’t attend. When planning your event, it’s important to ensure every attendee feels included and is able to enjoy the experience.
Lowenfish explains that having multiple activity options that appeal to different interests provides employees with “the opportunity to take the event into [their] own hands and figure out what [they] want to do, what’s benefiting [them] as a person.” Further, planning several activities that employees can opt into allows better connections to form among smaller groups with similar interests.
Activities companies are incorporating into their annual event agendas include yoga, hiking, wine and painting, sewing, cooking classes, and even roasting marshmallows around a campfire to make s’mores. At a recent team retreat, Kleinert said he and his team volunteered at a beach cleanup in Miami to better connect to the location they were visiting.
But opt-in activities aren’t all for fun. Companies can also incorporate a variety of skill-building and professional development sessions, giving employees opportunities to pursue areas they feel will be most rewarding and beneficial for their own career growth.
4. Gamify Your Message
Annual meetings still need to incorporate company messaging, and many leaders are looking at how to gamify this component and add a networking element to maximize the in-person experience.
“Now you see people engaged in groups. They’re doing something together, and they’re creating memories as well as absorbing the material that they’re learning,” says Masick.
Lowenfish says her firm has helped companies organize trivia games, bingo, and scavenger hunts around key messages that leadership teams want their employees to learn. These games can be designed to build on a project they are currently working on, learn their whereabouts at a new office, or teach them to solve technology challenges.
“We also incorporate photo clues where the guests need to travel around and take photos of the answers of where they have been, all incorporating elements that would relate back to the company’s messaging,” says Lowenfish. “These activities encourage social connection and getting to know your peers.”
An added bonus of gamified activities? Photos you can share on social media to showcase your company culture.
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5. Explain with Extended Reality
Bringing technology into the meeting space can increase employee engagement and improve information retention. Through extended reality (XR), you can display pieces of data, such as charts or statistics, as a hologram next to where your speaker stands — but it goes much further than that.
One client Masick’s firm worked with wanted to display the internal workings of an engine. To do so, employees wore headsets and were able to see the 3D parts of the engine and interact with them through movement. They also incorporated apps so that attendees could scan the device on their smartphone and see it broken down.
By adding these interactive elements, “it’s no longer a catered presentation experience; it’s an actual engagement,” says Masick.
6. Bring In an Outside Speaker or Facilitator
A TED and TEDx speaker and facilitator for Fortune 1000 teams himself, Kleinert is seeing an increase in companies that choose to bring in someone from the outside to help with strategic planning, skill-building sessions, and employee engagement.
“The use of outside facilitators, if done properly, can ensure that the time that you have with your team is spent more intentionally,” he explains. This person can act as a moderator so that no one from the leadership team is dominating the conversation and the agenda stays on track.
Kleinert notes that a speaker could be a valuable customer or an investor — someone who can inspire and energize your team. Some companies with larger budgets hire well-known keynote speakers, which serves as another source of social media content your company can share to attract candidates.
7. Add a Virtual Option
Virtual was the only way to host an annual company meeting during the pandemic, but the option is likely to continue to be offered moving forward. Whether an employee is sick, has social anxieties, or has family obligations that require them to stay at home, offering a virtual option ensures they don’t feel left out.
Masick says her team recently live-streamed a banking client’s leadership conference, and online viewership was nearly twice as large as the in-person attendance. Even accounting for those who might have watched more than once, the evidence was clear that having a virtual option was worthwhile.
One benefit virtual recordings offer that in-person events don’t, Masick explains, is that “the information is able to be better digested at the pace and as needed for the viewers.” That’s especially true when materials such as downloadable documents, charts, and key points are provided as supplements.
To boost the social element of a virtual event, you can incorporate gamified activities, live chats and message boards, surveys, and quizzes. “For one client, we even had a virtual photo booth that used their camera,” says Masick. And to replace catered meals, consider sending your virtual attendees a gift card for a local food delivery service.
8. Get Feedback Before Planning
When working with clients, Kleinert says his team sends out pre-event surveys to “gather feedback from attendees on what they would like to experience and what would be a meaningful outcome for them.”
The pre-event survey can be used to gain insights into what skills your employees are looking to develop or areas of the company they want to learn more about, he explains. It should also inform leaders on dietary restrictions, travel sensitivities, and disabilities. For instance, if you’re contemplating a group hike during your event, first ask what level of activity your employees are comfortable with.
“All those [insights] are considered in agenda creation, activity, and vendor selection, and helps the offsite planner determine how much of the offsite they’d like for team-building versus strategic planning versus other goals like problem-solving or personal and professional development,” says Kleinert.
9. Spread Your Budget Across Several Events, Not Just One
“If an all-hands meeting goes poorly, your company culture could suffer for many quarters or years to come,” Kleinert warns. “On the flip side, you can plan it very intentionally, have it go extremely well, and then during tougher moments, your employees know that they have a friend at work or they feel more connected to their colleagues and to the mission of the company.”
For this reason, it’s important to think about these events more programmatically, Kleinert says, which might mean doing away with the annual company meeting and replacing it with several all-hands events throughout the year.
Kleinert has clients who choose to meet once per quarter, bi-annually, and at different times of the year for different purposes. “Companies are figuring out what the best cadence for those all-hands [meetings] are,” he explains.
By choosing less expensive locations that are easy to travel to and cutting the frills that are no longer necessary to get employees to attend, you’ll be able to spread your budget further and focus on more regular in-person connections for your team.