The Future

How the all-hands meeting became a way for bosses to give you the finger

What once brought startups together is now tearing them apart.
The Future

How the all-hands meeting became a way for bosses to give you the finger

What once brought startups together is now tearing them apart.

In 1999, a few dozen Google employees huddled between cubicles for an all-staff meeting. It was a new practice at the nascent company, which had only been in business for a year. Video of the gathering, shot by an early Google hire, has a warm and intimate feel to it, like an old family movie. The staff sings happy birthday to co-founder Larry Page and shoots silly string at each other. A few times, co-founder Sergey Brin knowingly glances at the camera, aware that the entire thing is being recorded.

These meetings, coined TGIF, became routine at Google; a decade later, they were still taking place every Friday. But this month, Google’s current CEO, Sundar Pichai, sent an email to the company announcing that the company’s weekly all-hands TGIF meetings would now only occur monthly. “TGIF has traditionally provided a place to come together, share progress, and ask questions, but it’s not working in its current form,” he wrote in the email, which was obtained by the Washington Post.

It’s hardly surprising that this practice hasn’t scaled well, and it’s not just because these companies now have tens of thousands of employees who can’t comfortably shoot the shit in a small office. All-hands meetings were once a way for Silicon Valley leadership to informally debrief their small but growing companies. But the practice has come to offer an illusion of corporate transparency and solidarity — and also an opportunity for disgruntled workers to show their bosses’s asses to the public.

In the last year alone, there have been leaks from all-hands meetings at Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Uber, WeWork, and Github, about issues such as layoffs, morale, bad press, weak sales, and contracts with certain government agencies. The all-hands meeting, a creation of the very Silicon Valley ethos of solidarity and the free exchange of ideas, has evolved to be one of its greatest adversaries.

The practice of making top executives accessible to their workforce as a whole can be traced back to early era Hewlett Packard when its founders, Bill Hewlett and David Packard, were still running the company, Margaret O’Mara, a history professor at the University of Washington, told me. O’Mara said she can’t pinpoint the exact genesis of the all-hands meeting, but the spirit of the practice in Silicon Valley was first embodied by HP.

HP, an information technology company founded in 1939, was a driving force in Silicon Valley’s earliest years; its company-wide philosophy, the HP Way, aimed to differentiate it from the Fortune 500. “Both Dave and I believe we all operate more effectively and comfortably in a truly informal and personal name atmosphere,” the HP Way booklet states. “Hopefully, with increasing growth we can retain this ‘family’ way of operating with the minimum of controls and the maximum of a friendly 'help each other' attitude." According to O’Mara, HP’s philosophy manifested in “management by walking around,” a culture that abolished corner offices and established an annual employee barbecue. “Hewlett and Packard would be at the grill flipping burgers,” she said.

Tandem also held town hall meetings and started sending out company-wide emails beginning in 1978.

The commitment of HP’s executives to being visible and accessible to its employees was, at the time, a revolutionary management style. In a 1998 Stanford Magazine piece, Packard recalled a conversation he had a conference a decade earlier. “Somehow, we got into a discussion of the responsibility of management,” Packard said. “[One person] made the point that management’s responsibility is to the shareholders — that’s the end of it. And I objected. I said, ‘I think you’re absolutely wrong. Management has a responsibility to its employees, it has a responsibility to its customers, it has a responsibility to the community at large.’ And they almost laughed me out of the room.”

HP’s influence spread. Former HP manager James Treybig founded Tandem Computers in 1973 and, per Stanford Magazine, adopted the “management by walking around” style and also a staff-wide “Friday beer bust.” Tandem also held town hall meetings and started sending out company-wide emails beginning in 1978, now both practices commonly implemented at tech companies and, pretty much the rest of the economy. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak worked for HP as an engineer in the 1970s before leaving to build the company with Steve Jobs out of their garage. Valley historian Michael S. Malone told Stanford Magazine that Hewlett and Packard are “the role models for everybody who wants to be a major player. They set the road map.”

The spirit of transparency also became a selling point for potential hires

By the 2000s, this management style took root with the new titans of Silicon Valley. Companies like Google and Facebook modeled their companies around the informal and accessible cultures seen at HP and Tandem. “In the way that Bill and Dave created HP, Sergey and Larry very self-consciously built Google like, let’s take the most awesome things about grad school at Stanford and turn it into a company,” O’Mara said. “There were so many things they picked up goofing around in the computer science building. It was again philosophical: ‘We are a different sort of company, we want to be super open and transparent.’”

Of course, highly skilled labor is an important resource for Silicon Valley startups, and unconventional perks like ping pong tables and free food are key to alluring talent. The spirit of transparency also became a selling point for potential hires: the idea that anyone who worked at a company could approach an executive and have their questions and concerns heard — a far cry from business of yore at which a lower-ranking employee might never see, much less talk to, the company’s leadership.

A few years after Google started doing TGIF, Facebook adopted a similarly casual and recurring practice. Kate Losse was Facebook’s 51st employee and worked there from 2005 to 2010. In her 2012 book The Boy Kings, she describes the tone of the company’s early all-hands meetings: they always took place on Fridays, served to recap the week and make plans for the next, and were followed by a happy hour. Losse characterized the meetings as intimate, casual, and “almost festive.”

“It definitely felt effective,” Losse said. “I think they really worked in that way, to bring that togetherness and communal spirit.”

As start-ups companies grew and matured, though, it became harder to maintain that spirit. In recent years, the sense of a shared mission once cultivated through all-hands meetings has begun to dissipate as more workers feel emboldened to question and resist leadership’s visions and choices. The companies are, in effect, caught in a Catch-22: they have baked a cultural ethos of openness and accessibility into their once-nimble businesses; even though their companies are behemoths, they still must at least pretend to be faithful to their founding values.

“Now, they are getting pushback on, okay why are you having dinner with President Trump? Much more big existential questions, political questions that are being posed to these leaders in these forums that’re kind of an uncomfortable place to answer those,” O’Mara said. “All-hands meetings are awesome when you’re just wrestling with business ideas and it’s kind of a back-and-forth that is helping to make the business better and everyone in the room is feeling like we have a shared goal. And now there's a division that wasn’t there before, and that's really challenging the Silicon Valley tradition.”

An accusation of collaboration with the Trump administration, for example, is one such “big existential question” sowing unrest in Silicon Valley. The leadership of the Microsoft-owned software repository Github has largely declined to address the company’s contract with ICE outside of an internal blog post and a letter from the CEO. GitHub CEO Nat Friedman announced in October that the company will renew its $200,000 contract with ICE to license its enterprise services. In response, employees have resigned and held demonstrations with replica ICE cages. For Github’s workers, sharing information gleaned from an all-hands meetings felt like the only way to force management’s hand.

“I think employees see these as good candidates to leak information primarily because there really isn’t an alternative,” a Github engineer, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, told me.

Rather than address the controversy head-on, GitHub executives canceled an October 11 all-hands meeting that was set to discuss the company’s ICE contract because of leaks, according to the Los Angeles Times, and canceled a further meeting to address a survey indicating negative employee sentiment toward GitHub leadership. “We are all responsible for respecting and protecting internal, non-public information from being disclosed and protecting the privacy of fellow Hubbers as we engage in open dialogue on sensitive issues,” GitHub’s Chief Operations Officer Erica Brescia wrote in an email to employees after the cancellations.

Another large challenge to the all-hands corporate ethos is that the term all-hands meeting is a bit of a misnomer these days. Contractors at Google, who make up about half of the company's workforce and will only just start to receive basic benefits in 2020, aren't included in such meetings. Instead, contractors hear about them via word of mouth, or when they notice that half the floor gets up to leave at the same time.

“It leads to this very odd alienation and it just makes you feel like a second-class citizen within the company you work for to not be invited to these meetings where really important information and updates are being shared,” one former Google contractor told me.

The true purpose of the all-hands meeting has little to do with what they were once centered on: transparency and inclusion.

Failing to invite all the hands, as well as scrapping meetings about uncomfortable topics, suggest that the true purpose of the all-hands meeting has little to do with what they were once centered on: transparency and inclusion. As anyone who has ever worked in an office can attest, such meetings typically happen when the news is extremely bad, like layoffs or restructuring. They’re now seemingly no longer for the workers, and are instead an opportunity for leadership to manufacture a spirit of camaraderie that feels to workers like a relic of the past.

Although the idea of the all-hands meeting — having a low-key conversation with your bosses in front of all your coworkers — hasn’t changed much, the situation at places like Github or Google today does not so much resemble HP in the 1970s or fast-growing startups in the early 2000s.

“It's not that I think that the goal of the meetings has changed,” as Losse put it to me, “as much as the context of the meetings is so different.”

Melanie Ehrenkranz is a freelance tech and culture writer based in Brooklyn.