Huddles are a key part of most NHS organisations nationwide. But how do you huddle virtually – and successfully – in an organisation of 500 people? Senior Communications Officer Claire Gordon tells us how we’ve done it – despite the photo bombers.

When I was first asked to take over organisation of our staff huddles back in 2016, I was a bit bemused. They didn’t sound like huddles to me. They were quite formal sessions where senior managers presented to staff in a boardroom, questions were posed in advance and responses were scripted. There also seemed to be a huge amount of work involved in organising them. Not that I’m shy of a bit of hard graft, but if there’s a better way, I’ll find it!

I quickly decided it would be best for everyone if the huddles were exactly that; an informal get together, on the office floor, where staff and managers could come together to hear updates from each other, share news and celebrate success. 

This worked pretty well for people based in our Edinburgh and Glasgow offices. We often attracted large numbers with good levels of engagement and interaction from staff and, latterly, board members. But it didn’t translate across to the tele huddle, which always felt like a very stilted one way conversation down a phone line. Colleagues based in local health board offices just didn’t get the same opportunity to engage with senior managers as everyone else.

Taking to Teams

Fast forward to 2020, COVID-19 and the rapid move to homeworking and all of sudden it wasn’t possible to huddle. Well, not in the physical sense. We thought about videos and webinars but nothing seemed to fit the bill. Then along came MS Teams and a chance to gain back a little bit of that organisational closeness we’d lost.

The first huddle on Teams was a test of technology and nerves. We’d often talked about how we couldn’t possibly accommodate the whole organisation in one huddle when we we’re all office based because phone lines would crash, video conferencing facilities would stall and the world, as we knew it, would undoubtedly end.

But, with big girl pants on, I invited the entire organisation to join us for a virtual huddle on Teams for the first time back in May. The response to the invite was overwhelming. Almost every employee said yes, they’d be there with bells on (not quite, but I like to pretend everyone is as enthusiastic for huddles as me).  A second session was hastily arranged after I realised that Teams could only accommodate a maximum of 250 participants!

Tech issues vs human errors

Ahead of the first session, my Comms chums helped out with a dry run. My Comms colleague Stephen Ferguson doing a grand impression of our Chief Executive and huddle host, Robbie Pearson, and another colleague, Victoria Edmond, testing the chat function, a display of skills which later saw her promoted to official Chat Monitor.  It worked with six, so it would work with 250 surely!?

And it did. Surprise and relief washed over me as our first virtual huddle went without a hitch, technically speaking.  We had over 200 people on the call with no obvious sound or vision issues to report.  And I felt rather emotional when I saw lots of folks commenting on the chat about how nice it was to get together, saying hello to each other for possibly the first time in many weeks and sharing the odd smiley face emoji or two.

It hasn’t all been plain sailing. We’ve had what I like to think of as the Teams equivalent of a ‘photo bomber’ – that rogue person whose camera suddenly switches on while the CEO is mid-flow and then walks away from the screen – cue mad panic and quick @mention in the huddle chat in the hope they’ll come back and notice we’re all staring at their front room.

Apart, together

It might sound a bit over the top, but I feel like our huddles have been redefined during lockdown.  They now give us a chance to unite as one organisation, if only for 45 minutes. We don’t get the facial cues, the spontaneity or the visual feedback, but we do have the ability to ask questions and make comments in what feels like a safe space. And it’s reassuring, when we see colleagues reacting to those posts, to know that we’re not alone and that someone else, sitting somewhere else, feels the same way. Okay, that was maybe a little bit over the top.

Since organising the virtual huddles I seem to have gained the reputation of being some kind of expert on Teams – which I’m really not! So, despite the imposter syndrome, here are my top tips for a good virtual huddle:

  • Set the expectations out in the invite. Be clear on what participants need to do and if you’re asking them to do something a bit techy give some simple steps to follow.
  • Prepare speaking notes and circulate these to all the speakers in advance. Keep the notes brief, bullet points, to encourage talking rather than reading from the page.
  • Set the tone of the session from the top. Pop a nice friendly message in the meeting chat while everyone’s waiting to go and open with a warm welcome.
  • Encourage participants to use the chat function.  It makes the session more interactive and engaging. It works best if you have someone monitoring the chat and cherry picking questions and comments to pose to speakers.
  • If someone’s not following the agreed etiquette then @mention them in the meeting chat and reiterate the rules and do this promptly and consistently.
  • Start and finish the session on time. We’re all suffering from Teams fatigue so don’t keep anyone longer than you said you would.
  • Build in time for Q&A, and try to cover as many questions as this allows, with follow up after the meeting if it’s not possible to answer them all.
  • Be brave. If it all goes horribly wrong then just politely apologise, bring the meeting to a close and promise to try again soon.

Claire Gordon is a Senior Communications Officer with Healthcare Improvement Scotland.

More information

Visit the Healthcare Improvement Scotland website for information on our response to COVID-19.