Ask Me Anything: A Unique Way to Connect to a Distributed Workforce
There are three types of AMAs
At one technology firm I worked at there were some 19,000 employees spread across 192 offices in 73 countries. With Covid-19 that workforce is even more dispersed, making it even more pressing for leaders to find ways to engage their staff.
Employees crave more interaction from leadership. Individual contributors want to know more (and more often) about the company’s strategy for growth and its leaders’ takes on evolving market conditions, and even about their leadership styles and who they are outside the office.
In times like this — whatever you call this Covid-19 experience — you need a platform and tactic that can transcend geographic boundaries and can be replicated easily.
The solution comes from Reddit’s Ask Me Anything (AMA) forum. The AMA features experts and amateurs from any field or experience — like Barack Obama, 97-year-old grandmothers, climate experts, firefighters, average Jane champions, you name it — taking questions from the public and answering them in real time through written responses.
Despite the pride your company may take in being a “flat organization,” some (most, depending on the size) employees will never get a chance to meet the head of their department, regardless of whether they sit in headquarters or a remote office or at home. A lightweight, real-time Q&A format is a good match.
Chat systems — Yammer, Slack, Google Hangouts, WhatsApp — are a mainstay of every desk-bound employee’s daily workflow, meaning everyone can participate in a chat room without additional training.
- The barriers to entry are nonexistent.
- AMAs are fun for employees (and managers) because it’s an out-of-the-ordinary way to connect.
- With loose grammar and sentence rules de-rigueur in chat room conversation, the format is conversational, engaging, and informal, which helps everyone relax.
Three Types of AMAs
The first AMA I hosted involved 175 staff in 12 offices on five continents speaking with an executive in San Francisco. By the time I left the company more than a dozen AMAs had been hosted by departments around the globe, showing just how easy the format is to replicate outside Internal Comms.
- Topics ranged from free-for-alls (literally, ask me anything) to a focused conversation on Asia sales strategies to how engineering is addressing issues of diversity and inclusion.
In my experience, there are three kinds of AMAs:
- True AMA: All employees regardless of where they sit hierarchically in the company are invited and the floor is open to any topic employees want to discuss.
- Thematic: This approach is theme-focused, such as career development or evolving market conditions. It is appropriate for a targeted audience (e.g., all employees in South America; salespeople in Europe).
- Granular: This is the most focused AMA, in that the conversation is narrowly directed (sales strategies for product X; reasons for an upcoming merger) and the invitation is limited to audience members who are directly affected, such as salespeople who sell product X; employees being absorbed in a merger, etc.
Caveat: The singular disadvantage of a chat room is that the conversation is not nested and possibly is difficult to follow for those jumping in and out of the AMA because they’re also checking email, taking calls, distracted by other work, etc. Nested chats (or forums) display the parent (original) comment, with all replies “nested” below. Visually the format makes it easy to follow particular conversation threads.
Convincing the Boss
Unless your boss is Sheryl Sandberg and willing to share life moments in regular internal Facebook posts, you may have to expend time and energy convincing executives to participate in an AMA.
- Managers can be loath to put themselves in vulnerable situations, especially a forum called Ask Me Anything.
One can forgive an executive for being shy about opening up in front of employees, what with every gaffe being so tweetable. And few enjoy being put on the spot or called out for something they weren’t prepared to address.
But executives should not fear being heckled by their employees. Employees normally will avoid posting nasty items, especially when their name is attached to it.
You could minimize an executive’s anxiety by limiting the conversation’s scope.
- One option is to add an object to the end of the AMA title: Ask Me Anything About Sales in Asia. Ask Me Anything About Our Go-to-Market Strategy for Project X. Ask Me Anything About Leadership. You get the idea.
- An addendum to the title focuses questions coming from employees because they understand the bounds of the conversation.
What About Technology?
Any old chat tool will do: Google Hangouts, Instant Messenger, Asana, Slack, etc.
Just because the setup is easy doesn’t mean you should leap before looking. From a technology standpoint, there are several variables to consider: security, scalability, and ease of use, not to mention the cost.
- External (third-party) platforms can be risky because data typically is stored offsite, making it vulnerable to cyberattacks.
- Before you commit to a tool — if you lack one — be sure your risk and compliance teams vet the platform.
- If your employees are global, make sure the technology can be used in their countries.
Another consideration is capacity. Can your chat room handle hundreds of participants, if need be? Where does it max out? I soon discovered at my company that its proprietary chat platform defaulted to a maximum number of room participants at 500. When we hit that number we realized we needed to request an upgrade to 2,000+ participants.
I also recommend participants be unable to engage anonymously. Sure, they can submit questions in advance and ask not to be named, but whether it’s in an email or a question dropped into a chat, the employee’s name should be apparent.
- This is a practical fire line to ensure silly and off-topic questions are minimized.
Last, be sure you can capture the conversation for archiving and editing. It’s possible that once you shut down the chat room, you’ll lose the content. You should be able to email or download a copy of the conversation. At least you can copy and paste the discussion into Word.
So You’re Ready to Host Your AMA?
Click here to read the eight steps you need to do to create an Ask Me Anything session.
A version of this article originally appeared in PR Week.
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