It’s that time of year again — annual-meeting season in Q1 as corporate leaders bring employees together to share the previous year’s results and the new year’s priorities.
But things have changed, and there’s no going back — at least not anytime soon — to the old days of gathering the troops in one location for a PowerPoint presentation from a stage. After all, if the goal is to unite your staff, an in-person event may actually achieve the opposite.
“We expect that many [employees] will skip an in-person event due to safety concerns, leaving gatherings of this nature divisive, in that those fearful and unvaccinated will be excluded or identified by their absence,” says David Lewis, president and CEO of the human resources outsourcing and consulting firm OperationsInc in Norwalk, Conn. His company serves clients across 70 industries in all 50 states, from the BBC to Peloton and Versace. “Most of our clients, at our recommendation, are skipping an in-person event at this time, even if they know all are vaccinated.”
Same for annual shareholder meetings: “Even if COVID goes away, there will be two types of shareholder meetings: virtual and hybrid,” says Mike Biafore, senior vice president of product management at American Stock Transfer & Trust Co., a professional services firm that, among other things, helps client companies produce shareholder events. “People will expect convenient access online with a simple click to participate. We’ve all been in hundreds of virtual meetings. It’s been ingrained in us.”
For larger organizations with multiple offices across the country, virtual meetings offer significant cost savings, since you can scrap the airline flights and hotel reservations formerly required to bring everybody together once a year.
“We are being forced to reassess the value of doing something the way we’ve always done it,” says Biafore, who recently had a client tell him that she may never fly her company’s board of directors to an in-person, hour-long meeting again. “It is about expense, logistics and convenience.”
Best Practices for a Virtual Company Meeting
When planning your annual company meeting as a virtual event, focus on the basics — not on any bells and whistles.
“Even before the pandemic we were seeing a de-tuning of the importance of creating a big spectacle around an annual general meeting or shareholder meeting,” says Kevin Larstone, channel lead of live events at communications firm Livewire Communications. “The pandemic cemented that trend.”
Start, for instance, by ensuring easy access to your annual company meeting. You don’t want to hear from frustrated employees who were unaware of the virtual event or unable to overcome any technological barriers to entry. “Ensuring access is barrier-free is a number one priority,” says Larstone. Blast the event’s date, time and access details to employees via your intranet, email, Slack and other standard communication vehicles. Let them access the event in multiple ways — via a virtual meeting or by dialing in on the phone.
“Companies have options available in their secure systems. With Zoom or Microsoft Teams, it’s easy to set up and invite people to the annual general meeting, manage registration and voting,” Larstone says.
As for the content of your virtual annual meeting, Biafore says many clients’ first inclination when COVID turned meetings virtual was to “put on a show” for their shareholders. Corporate clients asked for multimedia events that included streaming videos, PowerPoint presentations and a stage of C-suite execs projected via live stream to remote viewers.
However, “not a whole lot of shareholders were coming back and saying, ‘Wow, what a great show,’” he says. “CEOs might be tapping their fingers, going, ‘I have to put on this multi-media show.’ No, you don’t.”
But that doesn’t mean your annual meeting shouldn’t be interactive — nor that you and other presenters shouldn’t be engaging.
“When people go to an online environment, it becomes stilted and less personal. Do all the same things you’d do in a room,” Biafore suggests. For example, don’t cut straight to the business. “Mingle” a bit, if you will; acknowledge and thank the audience for being there.
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Fresh Tactics to Consider for Your Annual Company Meeting in 2022
To prepare for your annual company meeting, leaders should identify desired outcomes and determine how to measure the meeting’s effectiveness — both during and after the event. Consider:
Use chat and live-meeting apps to read and engage “the room” during virtual meetings. “Prior to the pandemic, we never actually created tools to gauge audience reaction in the room. We had our own eyes and ears to gauge what was going on,” Larstone says. “Now, we are more inclined to use digital tools to engage with audiences.” Tools such as chats, surveys, polls and even emojis can be used real-time. “Even an electronic thumbs-up (or thumbs-down) is a way for employees to express their mood,” Larstone says. Designate a communications pro to manage the moderator function during your live meeting, so that questions get filtered and escalated quickly to either be answered during the annual meeting or documented for a response later.
Collect substantive feedback in real-time by recruiting a member of your leadership team — and/or a focus group of rank-and-file employees — to share comments privately with a communications leader who can in turn share them with presenters during breaks, Biafore advises. Are presenters coming through loud and clear? Is the slide presentation moving too fast or too slow? Did an executive accidentally misstate any details that should be corrected? Leaders, be prepared to embrace on-the-fly feedback and pivot as necessary to improve the remainder of the annual meeting.
Establish natural break points to enable real-time feedback to be shared and digested with executive presenters. Most annual company meetings aren’t simply one-hour affairs — and many, in fact, stretch out over the course of a full day or even two. Breaks are only fair to attendees; also consider them your hidden opportunity for halftime adjustments.
Use the event as an opportunity to let C-suite leaders other than the CEO shine. Employees or shareholders may tire of hearing from the same person the whole meeting. “Listening to one voice can be hard,” says Larstone. Craft an agenda that invites a variety of company leaders to contribute. The benefits are two-fold: You’ll hold employees’ attention, and the varied perspectives will promote an image of teamwork and unity among leadership.
Or. . . scrap your annual company meeting altogether. For some business leaders, the annual meeting is a thing of the past. “Get rid of it. Put your time to a better use,” says Haris Iftikhar, president of Safar International, a travel firm based in Burr Ridge, Ill. “When you talk about annual meetings, it’s just a game of appeasement. There is no substance.”
He says the best way to communicate with employees and key stakeholders is one-on-one, whereby management can cut to the heart of the matter – whether it’s company performance or the employee’s own goals. Face-to-face interaction, he says, shows “respect.”