How Sun Life shifted its town hall approach to make meetings more meaningful

Shifting its town hall approach to make things personal, relevant and conversational helped Sun Life boost employee engagement.

While there are many forums and touchpoints for directly reaching your employees, none have the potential to engage them quite like a town hall meeting.

According to the 2024 Ragan Communications Benchmark Report, town halls remain the most popular channel for leaders to communicate with employees, with 68% of respondents.

Since many town halls went virtual in 2020, savvy comms leads have monitored employee engagement around these events to figure out what messages, cadence, formats and overall approaches resonate best with their workforces.

We caught up with Sandra Hunt, director of internal communications at Sun Life U.S., to learn how the employee benefits company transitioned from in-person town halls that saw minimal engagement to hybrid experiences that give all employees — including frontline workers — an opportunity to tune in and get involved.

Moving from crucial updates to dialogue

When the world changed in 2020, Sun Life pivoted quickly to working from home. Before that, the company ran a more formal quarterly town hall that featured leaders reviewing financial results and key business updates, and often ran for an hour or an hour and a half. Speakers would present from a podium at their local office, and Sun Life would connect them via a video conference tool. This approach made it challenging to gauge audience reactions, with Q&A a disjointed exercise at the end.

“If you were the person presenting from an office in Massachusetts, you could only see reactions of attendees in your own conference room. You wouldn’t really have a sense for how anyone else was reacting in other offices across the business,” explained Hunt. “Then you’re trying to go from office to office through the video conference system and ask, ‘Does anybody have any questions?’ There’s nothing from Kansas City, nothing from Waterford, Ireland right now.”

Then in 2018, Sun Life began using Workplace Live, but still in the quarterly format. All that changed in March 2020.

While the initial focus of town halls was on updates to the business and operations, everyone working from home meant that the need to keep employees connected was paramount.

“The conversation was a little bit more personal than it had ever been before, with so many people sharing comments and questions over the chat – or even just a greeting,” said Hunt. “So these became more than just a business update. It was a way of making that connection between communities. I don’t think that we could have possibly engineered that — it’s something that happened organically. Like everything else that was positive at the time, we tried to take what was good and new, sustain it and build on it.”

Virtual accessibility considerations

Hosting town halls on Workplace as a live stream also doubles as an accessibility win, ensuring that all employees can join the meetings and join the conversations wherever they are without the need for single sign-on (SSO) or other barriers to access.

“Everybody is viewing in the same way,” Hunt said, emphasizing that Sun Life has a number of employees who don’t work near a hub office. “If you can’t join, you can still join the conversation after the fact because the chat is always going. The experience is a bit more democratic.’

This experience also allows Sun Life to collect stronger qualitative insights from its workforce.

“Now it’s not just Q&A, but we’re actually seeing how people are feeling,” continued Hunt. “For us, knowing how that content is landing has been very powerful. People are saying ‘fantastic presentation’ and rooting for their team members who are presenting. It’s a bit of a warm hug and a little bit of, ‘Oh, you made me think about something I hadn’t thought about before’.”

Changing the cadence allows for space to get personal

While initial town halls were longer affairs, Sun Life learned in 2020 that these would be more effective if they took place more frequently — every two weeks—but were shortened to just a half hour.

“They’re quick updates, but because the meetings are so frequent, we can cover a much broader range of topics and include real-time updates,” Hunt said. “It also forces everyone to be a lot more concise with what they present. Your attention span is different when you’re just watching on screen. We’ve really modified the format to fit the medium.”

The format and frequency – still happening today – generate a ton of employee engagement and real-time interaction. The modifications allow for a sharper focus on matters about culture and employee engagement.

For example, Sun Life’s Allies Acting for Change organization, which was formed to ignite the DE&I conversation internally, now has a more conversational forum to share out with the wider organization beyond the ERG meetings and cultural awareness campaigns.

In addition, this format has also allowed for more focus on specific issues than before. Sun Life’s Flexibility 2.0 initiative, for example, came up when the company saw an uptick in parents homeschooling their kids for the first time.

“We got to say, listen, if you need to get your kindergartener on the computer at 8 a.m., don’t work at that time — it’s totally fine,” Hunt explained, adding that the company also launched a virtual summer camp program for employees in 2020 based on the discussions at town halls.

“It’s a lot of, ‘Let’s talk about what we’re doing for you,’ and that invited people in because it became more about the whole person and not just updates from the executives.”

Designing for maximum inclusivity

Sun Life has found success by thinking through its town hall strategy along a whole calendar year. In 2023, they had more than 50 unique presenters, including several people who had never presented before, across all job levels and locations.

“To a certain extent, we were very deliberate about making sure that we’re having a conversation with our sales folks or others in the field who don’t get represented very often at a town hall setting,” Hunt said. “So we said, ‘Well, let’s think of a topic where we can do a panel discussion that we’re talking to those folks.”

For Sun Life’s Client Appreciation Week, this meant talking to operational leaders in conversation about what they were doing to make things easier for clients using digital solutions. The town hall featured a representative from each area of the business in conversation.

Hunt stressed that the mix must be intentional for this to work—it shouldn’t be all senior-level leaders, or all people from one office—but it also needs to be someone who will be comfortable having a conversation.

Refining the structure

While 30 minutes isn’t a ton of time, Sun Life maximizes every second – and includes live Q&A every time. Headlines come at the beginning of each session, a quick five minutes to highlight recent wins, upcoming events or calls to action.

“For people who ask us to talk about something at the town hall, not everything is going to be a full-blown presentation,” Hunt says. “But if somebody says that they need to cut through the clutter, it always hits to have it at a town hall. A quick mention lets us work those things in as well.”

Following up

Hunt follows up with a Workplace post after every town hall that links to the slides and recording, along with related resources.

“For example, if someone from our philanthropy team is talking about an upcoming volunteer opportunity and there’s a post about it, we’ll link to it,” she explained. “If somebody is highlighting a recent product introduction and there’s a news release, we’ll link to that. It’s really a collection—if you want to learn more or reference some of the things we talked about, here’s how.”

Sun Life’s employee engagement during the pandemic was – and continues to be – among the highest ever. Communications has frequently been noted in employee surveys as one of the reasons, coming out on top of the company’s generous employee programs and inclusive culture. A dozen top-employer awards in 2023 alone underscore the success.

Editor’s note: Workplace will be sunsetted by parent company Meta in August 2025, and available as a read-only tool until May 2026, when it will be shut down altogether.  We’ll continue to cover how this impacts members of the Ragan community. 

Sun Life is a member of Ragan’s Communications Leadership Council. Learn more about becoming a member here. 

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