Are town halls & webinars effective tools of communication for senior leadership?

Some of our experts feel that webinars may have been overused

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Town halls have always been considered as an effective medium for the top leadership to get closer to their employees. It is an ‘open to all’ forum for everyone in the organisation, where policy matters are discussed, road maps assessed and employees allowed to ask questions. Webinars, which were earlier far and few between, became the go-to tool for organisations in 2020. With remote working becoming prevalent due to the pandemic, companies used the medium to converse with their employees who were located in different parts of the world. It will be wrong to think of one as an alternative to the other because they are really not. Town halls are always broader in approach, context and audience, while webinars are mostly subject-specific discussions.

“They are an ideal way to feel the pulse of the people, which can then be followed up. Effectiveness comes only if it is two-way, transparent and authentic. There has to be an openness to embrace some difficult questions. They help develop a sense of trust in the organisation.”

Abhay Srivastava, CHRO, IKS Health

The question, however, is how effective are these communication tools that organisations swear by? It goes without saying that the format of town halls is designed to let employees participate. This is their only medium to connect with the senior leaders and get their concerns addressed. Webinars may not be as elaborate, but they do help disseminate information on a particular topic. So do these tools do their job well? Do they build a bridge between the leaders and the employees?

Abhay Srivastava, CHRO, IKS Health, reveals that it’s a clear agenda-driven communication platform on a specific period basis. The state of things is communicated to the larger groups in a transparent manner. Usually, it is a two-way communication. Town halls are also used at times as R&R platforms for recognising some great work. “They are an ideal way to feel the pulse of the people, which can then be followed up. Effectiveness comes only if it is two-way, transparent and authentic. There has to be an openness to embrace some difficult questions. They help develop a sense of trust in the organisation,” he asserts.

“Virtual town halls and webinars are effective, but not to that extent as we cannot connect to each other physically. If it is driven by founders or CEOs then it’s more of a one-way communication, with people asking questions simply to please the CEO.”

head of people and culture, Medikabazaar

Nobody is a fool. Everyone can see through what the leadership is doing. What they can do now is align people’s energies to communicate well. In case of webinars, Srivastava feels they are effective for knowledge dissemination on certain topics, “but what we saw during the pandemic is that initially webinars worked as important tools, but eventually they were overused, resulting in people going through a webinar fatigue,” he points out.

Srivastava also questions the authenticity and quality of webinars. “I see each and everyone participating in it. We have to find out whether real experts are coming in to present their views. As it is, one is sitting for 8-9 hours in front of the screen,” says Srivastava.

He also mentions here that some of the organisations have used webinars for internal communication. They have picked up issues, which were real for them, and got people from within the organisation to share their opinions. Such webinars have proved to be an important way of solving problems. In his experience, they can be used to gauge the climate of the organisation by throwing questions during virtual town halls.

Debjani Roy

“We tried building the same enthusiasm, but it isn’t happening. Unfortunately, the seriousness of the pandemic outside isn’t helping either. It hasn’t given any relief to the corporate world. What stories does one have to share? Where are the breakthroughs or mergers? That camaraderie or bonding of the physical town halls is lost.”

Debjani Roy, CHRO, Mind Your Fleet

Anil Mohanty, head of people and culture, Medikabazaar points out that before the pandemic employees generally waited for this activity, of course in physical, every quarter. “Virtual town halls and webinars are effective, but not to that extent as we cannot connect to each other physically. If it is driven by founders or CEOs then it’s more of a one-way communication, with people asking questions simply to please the CEO,” he explains.

“It is an open forum to take feedback with transparency and give some resolutions then and there. There is no scope of escape. However, many leaders just ignore and consider this a populist campaign,” adds Mohanty.

That means, they only use this forum to convey their achievements and plans, whereas the feedback session is just a formality wherein employees generally don’t come up with real issues, nor open up. Most end up saying something which pleases everyone.

However, the pandemic did put a spoke in the wheel of these town halls even when webinars continued unabated. Debjani Roy, CHRO, Mind Your Fleet, tried to align people’s work hours with those of the leadership in the hybrid culture, but it didn’t work. “We tried building the same enthusiasm, but it isn’t happening. Unfortunately, the seriousness of the pandemic outside isn’t helping either. It hasn’t given any relief to the corporate world. What stories does one have to share? Where are the breakthroughs or mergers? That camaraderie or bonding of the physical town halls is lost. Town halls are a viable and palpable communication tool, to address issues fairly amongst maximum number of people. Webinars fall far short. Half of the people are working from remote locations, where connectivity itself is a big issue. They may have to be really lucky to log in,” says Roy.

Webinars may be the in-thing now due to the virtual way of working forced upon everyone by the pandemic, but town halls will always be a favourite because they connect the ends of a broad spectrum in an organisation.

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