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Getting the most out of an all-employees gathering

This summer, for the first time since the start of the pandemic, we gathered all of our employees together in Ottawa for a three-day meeting.

I can’t emphasize how wonderful that meeting was. Not only did it cement personal and work relationships, it also generated a blast of creative energy that is already improving what we do and how we do it.

In this post, I want to share what we learned about how to organize and profit from an onsite meeting of all employees.

Work out logistics well in advance

Our last employee gathering, in 2019, was organized more or less at the last minute. We literally finished preparing for it the day before it was held.

Of course, we had only 13 people on staff back then. This time we had nearly 70, with many flying in from out of town and even from overseas. We couldn’t wing it; we needed to make sure we maximized our time together – all the more so since bringing 70 people together for three days is an expensive proposition.

Luckily, some of our employees had taken part in this kind of gathering in previous jobs, and a few months before the scheduled date they began urging us to get organized.

We created a six-member committee, which met every week for two months to work out the details of the work and social agendas for our three days together. That included finding a venue (we chose a hotel in downtown Ottawa); coming up with ideas for our discussions; choosing and inviting guests; and organizing team-building and social experiences.

We still overlooked a few things. For example, I realized only the night before that we needed name tags, since so many people would be meeting in person for the first time. And I would have liked to have had Knak company banners announcing our presence inside the hotel. I felt a pang of envy when I saw that another company holding a meeting in the same hotel had banners of their own.

Those things were minor; overall, we were ready.

But that was only because we had done a lot of advance planning.

Put a lot of effort into creating a useful agenda

Creating an agenda for the meeting is an important part of the planning process.

We started by asking ourselves what we wanted participants to take away from the meeting. How did we want them to feel? What did we want them to know?

We decided we wanted them to feel inspired, so that they would always want to do their very best work. We wanted them to understand and believe in our mission, and instinctively grasp the connection between it and their work.

It was important that people feel connected – to the company, to their teammates, and to the people in other departments they might not work with every day.

There were also things we wanted them to know.

First, we wanted them to know who we sell to, and how important our customers are. They needed to know why our customers love Knak, how they use it, and how it improves their lives.

Finally, we wanted them to understand the competitive landscape we work in, who our rivals are and how we disrupt their lives.

We built our agenda based on that outline. For example, we created team-building exercises to get people working collaboratively so that they got to know each other.

And we invited customers to the meeting so that employees could meet them and understand their needs.

Create opportunities for learnings that can only happen when everyone’s together

People are much more engaged when they meet in person than when they chat on a video call. They cheer, they laugh, and they are much less likely to multitask or be distracted. There is more energy in a room full of people than you’ll ever find in a Zoom call, and as a result you accomplish much more. (Try holding an eight-hour Zoom call and see how engaged everyone is!)

We tried to capitalize on the energy generated by our physical togetherness to do certain things.

For example, having customers take part in the meeting and address employees directly was very powerful. Their words and their stories had much more impact than anything the leadership team could have said because they were coming unfiltered and unvarnished.

Employees had a lot of ‘Aha!’ moments. All around me I saw people suddenly grasp how the work we do changes the lives of our customers.

As a founder, I am just too close to everything; it’s easy to assume that others share my knowledge and understanding of the company. At our meeting I realized that’s not the case. Only by getting everyone together physically could certain concepts and ideas be truly understood.

The energy our meeting generated was so strong that we made a lot of noise – so much so that another company holding a gathering in the same hotel complained that we were too loud. It sounded to me like we were having a lot of fun. I was personally very proud of that!

Realize that the social agenda is as important as the work agenda

We estimated that between 50 and 70 per cent of our employees had not yet met any other employees in person before our gathering. So allowing people to get to know each other was a big part of our onsite meeting.

There were purely social events, like dinners, a cruise on the Ottawa River and a visit to a tiki bar, as well as team-building exercises like ziplining designed to get people out of their comfort zone.

When we only had a dozen or so employees, you could pretty well count on each person interacting with everyone else over the course of a meeting. But with 70 employees, we had to plan for interactions to happen, and make sure they happened in a useful way.

For example, we had to decide which activities people would do with colleagues from their own department, and which would bring people from different departments together.

(One fun activity was getting people in each department to create a one-minute video explaining what they did and why someone might want to work there.)

Organize the meeting for maximum work impact

As wonderful as our 2022 onsite meeting was, I think it would have had even more impact if we’d held it at a different time of year.

Why? 

We held our meeting in July, shortly before our annual summer shut-down. With so many people going off on holidays so quickly after the meeting, we could not capitalize as much as we would have liked on the energy and momentum it generated.

There is also the question of location.

We held our meeting in Ottawa, where Knak is headquartered. That meant that our local staff was not able to get away from their daily obligations and distractions at home. They might have been even more engaged if they had been able to do so.

It’s all about trade-offs. Meetings like this are expensive, so you want to make sure you get the best possible return on investment.

Plan for follow-up

A good meeting ends with everyone on a high. But it’s important to make sure that ideas generated at an onsite meeting get translated into action as soon as possible. That means planning for follow-up.

We had five customers take part in our meeting. Every single one of them asked that we build one particular feature. In fact, the idea came up so often, people started making memes about it!

The feature was on our roadmap; we were going to get around to building it eventually.

Now that we know how important it is to our customers, you can be sure that we are making it a priority. In other words, we will be following up quickly on that particular customer request.

Enjoy the energy

Before COVID, we used to have meetings like this twice a year. The pandemic put a stop to that, unfortunately.

This summer, it was obvious everyone was ready for an in-person meeting.

The buzz of conversations was so loud, and the energy level so high. It was obvious there was a lot of pent-up demand for getting together. I heard a lot of comments like, ‘I haven’t been in a group like this for a long time!’

I’m so glad we were able to hold our get-together.

It’s so easy to do your work routinely every day, to send your emails and to go to your meetings, that you can forget why it is you do what you do.

Our summer meeting this year reminded us how important we are to our customers’ lives; how in some cases they could not do their jobs without us.

That kind of thing is tremendously inspiring and motivating; I know, because so many people came up to me to spontaneously tell me so.

I love the team we have at Knak. And it was wonderful to see everyone so motivated and energized.

I was reminded once again that you can’t do that virtually.

Pierce Ujjainwalla has years of experience as a CEO, entrepreneur, and marketing leader. He has lived in the marketing trenches at companies like IBM, SAP, NVIDIA, and Marketo, and he launched Knak in 2015 as a platform designed to help Marketers simplify email creation. Visit his personal blog, Unsubscribed!, for more of the insight he’s gained as founder and CEO of Knak.

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