I never wanted to be an event planner, and yet, somehow, I’ve planned company events since the digital marketing startup for which I worked partnered with Facebook at the then-cool Ace Hotel (Facebook had just opened up their advertising API and the internet and our attention spans would never be the same). I’d always thought of events more as tactical work instead of strategy, approaching them as something closer to getting Thanksgiving Dinner on the table, piping hot, accounting for all dietary restrictions.
Working remotely in 2021 has shifted my narrative (the only thing I can control) around planning company events. Internal virtual events should be a strategic company priority and should be positioned as such by default. These events lack meaningful opportunities for late night camaraderie, but they monopolize the expensive and finite resources of our time and attention. Without intentionality around how precious on-screen time is spent however, virtual events can be exhausting and deflating.
At Guru, I try to help our team be better at their jobs by developing and testing processes for digital wellness and improving internal communications. According to the Slack Funds Future of Work, "83% [founders] believe that their biggest challenge while shifting to remote work was ensuring that their employees felt engaged and connected to their work."
Everything is internal communication
If the biggest challenge is fostering engagement and connection, the solution sits in the approach and process around communication rather than a specific software/tool. From the innards of calendar invitations, to the 2-gallon vat of popcorn that’s now empty downstairs, how we reach out to and connect to one another matters. Public recognition and tone can make someone’s day. Unclear expectations about why you’re in a meeting and how you’ll add value to the discussion can break it.
How can Company Kick-Off (CKO) have a positive impact on revenue and morale (delighting employees) when they are exhausted and likely have vitamin D deficiencies? How can we motivate a team whose attention is divided?
How we planned our virtual event
So after a year's worth of video meetings, and all of the challenges that come with them, how did we set this large scale event up for success?
1. We provided visibility and accountability around our FY22 Company Plan
Days ahead of the kick-off of the virtual kick-off, our CEO sent an announcement to all employees. Along with the essential event details and expectations, this consolidated communication included Guru’s company plan and our objectives and key results (OKRs) for the quarter.
At Guru, we send announcements to employees when there is action required of them. In this case, we wanted employees to come to our Town Hall (the inaugural kick-off event) having already read and digested our company goals and direction. This is all well and good, but how did we then ensure employees don’t gloss over this essential context due to distraction?
2. We blocked time for Sustained Silent Reading (or SSR for those who read Ramona Quimby in the '90s)
We set specific calendar blocks for the whole company with detailed instructions for how employees might use that solo time, including catching up on pre-recorded sessions, or doing specific pre-work related to company investments.
"Pre-Reading in advance was helpful as was clearing meetings for focus time." — Employee feedback
For example, we have a company-wide implicit bias training in March for which requires extensive pre-work. By adding blocked time to calendars now and giving our employees time now to do that pre-work (vs. doing it at the last minute or not doing it at all), we've given everyone the tools they need to get the most out of a future event.
3. We suggested that asynchronous knowledge-sharing be the default communication methodology
Using a mix of Guru and Loom (video recordings providing context for documented material) we replaced the need to read decks at live sessions, making the sessions themselves more efficient. Using Guru to document company-wide information (like our Q4 revenue attainment and trends) gives employees the autonomy and authority to digest information in the time and space that works for them.
"I really enjoyed seeing across the org and aligning on what the company is doing and where it’s going. I liked the series of Cards where Rick defined these things, the asynchronous nature of that work, and then meeting to be able to align on the initiatives and apply them interpersonally." — Employee feedback
4. We spread our typical 3-day in-person event out over a 10-day remote period
Normally, our company kick-offs are 3-day off-sites that involve full days of sessions (and full nights of concerts, dinners, trivia, and parties). With that no longer an option, we intentionally spaced company-wide events over 2 weeks. With no hotels to budget or bowling to plan, rather than force people to spend 8 straight hours on Zoom, we decided to integrate the larger event into a more normal type of work week.
This pacing also had the benefit of allowing us to set expectations about when to tune in ready to engage without wearing people out. Certainly, one concern is that spreading content and messaging out over 2weeks will reduce its potency and urgency (after all, maybe it IS just a normal work week). But while that’s possible, I’m a fan of the “slow burn” methodology for strategic change management.
5. We made sure there were delights and surprises for employees (and supported the USPS in the process)
To make this a cool virtual kick-off, not a regular virtual kick off, we partnered with our amazing brand team to sprinkle surprises and nuggets of knowledge throughout the event. We wove food, awards, rewards, competitions, and content engagement throughout every day of the kick off via Slack and Guru.
Probably the most important—and fun—part of this CKO was an All-Company puzzle led by Secret Character (complete with Slack profile and Guru Life Story card) named Knowledge Master who helped us work together to find the ultimate company-wide prize for completing the event: in addition to a swag pack (frisbee, beanie, your regular chic outdoorsy apparel) we gave our team a 4-day weekend.
What we learned about putting together a virtual event
"Even though we weren’t in person this all felt really special and I felt connected to Guru’s mission and team." — Employee feedback
Having just finished our 10-day kick-off, here's what we've discovered: setting expectations—and then surpassing them—is the key to making a fully remote event work. In a remote environment, distractions are a given. To interrupt that status quo, knowing how you're expected to spend time helps keep us focused—but being surprised at points where attention might start to flag helps us reset and reengage.