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5 Simple Rules to Keep an All-Hands Virtual Meeting From Becoming a Disaster

Wouldn’t you have thought that as we approach the two year anniversary of the pandemic, with millions of employees still working remotely, we might have gotten our virtual meetings down to a science?

At the very least, perhaps we would have figured out how to put on large-scale, everyone tune-in, “C-suite talks with the troops-style” virtual meetings. 

And yet. Case in point: Peloton, where a virtual all-hands meeting featuring a “conversation” between incoming CEO Barry McCarthy, and outgoing CEO John Foley, reportedly was cut short Wednesday, after some recently laid off employees accessed the chat function associated with the video meeting.

By “recently laid off,” we mean literally the day before, which as my colleague Jason Aten wrote, was when Foley announced he was stepping down (but remaining on Peloton’s board) and that 2,800 Peloton workers (about one-fifth of the Peloton workforce) would be out of a job.

According to CNBC, both current and now-former Peloton employees had a thing or two to say in the chat:

  • “I’m selling all my Peloton apparel to pay my bills!!!”
  • “This is awfully tone deaf.”
  • “The company messed up by allowing people who were fired into this chat. Too late to mod [moderate] this.”

Actually, it could probably have been a lot worse; at least we can print these comments on a family-friendly website like Inc.com. But, CNBC reported that the Peloton call ended “abruptly” and “earlier than planned” as a result.

“No comment,” McCarthy reportedly replied, when someone asked during the conversation if laid-off Peloton employees had gained access to the chat.

Now, does this really affect Peloton in the long-term? That’s debatable. 

The company has bigger problems. Yet, if Peloton recovers or if it winds up quickly acquired, as many observers predict, the meeting will merit no more than a footnote.

It’s not even the biggest recent example of an all-hands going off the rails. We’ll mention a couple of those below.

Still, it’s a teachable moment. Maybe your company isn’t as big as Peloton; maybe you’re not likely to lay off 2,800 employees in a single day. 

But I still think we can identify five key rules for any type of all-hands virtual meeting you might host.

1.    Know the tech.

This is so basic, but that’s why I put it first. Nothing looks less professional than when the person leading a video call has no idea how the tech works. 

It can be something as simple as launching into their spiel without realizing their microphone or video isn’t working, or as significant as not knowing that the employees to whom they’ve just shown the door still have access.

2.     Know who is on the call.

Peloton is an easy target, so let’s look at another all-hands call that went viral for the wrong reason: LinkedIn, which had to deal with employees sharing “appalling comments” last year about racism and diversity in a company wide online meeting.

About 9,000 employees were online for the call, after which then-new CEO Ryan Roslansky pledged that LinkedIn would not ” a company or platform where racism or hateful speech is allowed,” and also decided that anonymous comments would not be allowed in future staff meetings.

3.    Murder board the hard parts.

It’s the rare all-hands that doesn’t involve at least some contentious issues. Smart leaders rehearse how they’re going to address them, and how they’ll respond to pointed questions.

When I was an appellate attorney, we called this murder boarding: making your case in a practice run, with other attorney colleagues playing the parts of skeptical judges. Far better to make your mistakes and face your most hostile audience during practice, so that you knew how to handle yourself during the real thing.

4.    Put yourself in your employees’ shoes.

Remember just before the holidays, when Better.com laid off 9 percent of his company’s global workforce over a Zoom call? Then-CEO Vishal Garg spent a jarring portion of his time talking about how bad he felt.

 Most outsiders had no idea whether the layoffs were necessary or ill-advised. But the performance suggested a lack of empathy, which colored reaction as much as anything. 

5.    Be prepared for it to leak.

Cautious people used to say that you should never say anything that you don’t want to see on the front page of the New York Times. How quaint.

The entire Better.com video is available online. Frankly, I’m surprised that my Twitter hasn’t been flooded with video from the Peloton meeting. 

Bottom line: We’ve had two years now to prepare for this kind of meeting. If you don’t feel as if you’ve got it down yet, it’s past time to make a plan and practice.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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