- Creating meaningful opportunities for online connections is crucial for engagement, productivity, and retention.
- Managers should treat virtual meetings like real in-person events and map out the flow of the session in advance to make sure it runs smoothly.
- Feedback is essential for improving future virtual sessions, and surveys should be kept simple and to the point.
- Suggestions from senior design leaders for virtual social events include escape rooms, cooking classes, wine tastings, talent shows and more.
Listen: Start hosting better virtual social events.
As the debate over the best way to work continues, there's one point everyone seems to agree on: Humans need to connect with one another. The “how” part is messy, but with so many studies out there to support the fact that connection improves engagement, productivity, and retention, creating meaningful opportunities to build relationships is undoubtedly worthwhile.
Some say, “Hybrid makes that possible!” Well, sort of. But the very format of hybrid means that a portion of the staff are offsite and must connect virtually. One of the biggest complaints from employees in a hybrid arrangement (among many complaints) is commuting into an office only to end up on video calls anyway. Not a great experience. And let's face it: Most people have had their fill of being on video, so it's hard to get them excited about yet another virtual call of any kind.
So no matter what, leaders must get better at creating online connections that feel worth it. Having hosted hundreds of virtual sessions for our InsideOut Design Leader Community, I'm no expert, but I have certainly learned a lot about how to make virtual connections better. In fact, in one session, I conducted an impromptu poll to find out from our members some of their favorite virtual events. Below are my top three tips, followed by the list of ideas from our leadership community.
Solicit ideas from your audience
While no one can please everyone, before building a virtual social event for a group, take the time to get their input. Even if they don't have specific suggestions on activities, tools, or companies to hire, ask what they like about online events they've attended and what they hate.
Maybe they find most events boring, slow, impersonal, or embarrassing. Maybe they love hearing about other people's hobbies, interests, or even just learning something new. Maybe they will only show up for booze, or maybe they find alcohol offensive. Just ask.
Whatever they share should guide your efforts, and often the simplest ideas yield the best results. For example, several creative leaders in our InsideOut community mentioned trivia as a top choice for their staff. How simple is that? There are many ways to pull off a trivia session that is out-of-the-box ready, like Jackbox Games (no box joke intended). Or by using more personalized tools like QuizBreaker, which gathers data from your employees and presents it back in a quiz format to guess who said what.
Easier still, Typeform has a trivia template where you enter your own questions and answers, and the tool tallies results in realtime. Or rock it old-school and use a presentation to display your questions and have a team member handle tracking the winners.
If trivia is not right for your group, there are limitless other options, from cheap and simple to expensive and complex. Check out our list below for ideas that cater to a wide variety of preferences. No matter what you choose, when you engage your audience in ideation, they are far more likely to be invested in joining, participating, and making virtual connections.
Treat the Zoom like a room
Consider every moment in the experience through the lens of a real, in-person event and ask yourself: “What would this look like if it were in a room with actual people?” For instance, when we enter a room with other humans, it's rarely silent unless we've joined a meditation or yoga class, which is why it instantly feels awkward to join a video call with silent attendees and just stare at the people boxes on the screen—especially our own. Think back to the first moments in any conference room before a meeting begins and remember the cacophony of voices as attendees check in, make side comments, and acknowledge one another.
Make sure that moment comes alive in a virtual setting as well, and if you're not comfortable being the one to greet and connect, find someone on your staff who loves it (every team has at least one) and delegate. To ensure a seamless adventure, map out the flow of the entire session in advance. This exercise is not meant to control every second, but when the host is clear on what should happen, they can slow down the pace or quickly move the group along and ensure they feel part of an experience, not just another meeting.
Every manager would benefit from virtual facilitation training, which teaches tips on reading the room, structuring captivating interactions, and knowing how to resolve conflict and manage distractions to keep the group on the same page. All of these skills are infinitely more challenging on a video call, but the fundamentals will improve social events and every other meeting that must happen online.
Just as we'd do when closing out an in-person party, be sure to end the session with gratitude for their time and participation and always make time for the crucial last step—getting feedback.
Ask for feedback
Start by asking live attendees if the event met their expectations before they even leave the call. Sure, they may be less candid in a group, but while the feelings are fresh, they often have improvements and preferences in mind that are lost by the time a survey hits their inbox.
Requesting feedback publicly also reinforces your commitment to creating virtual interactions that are worth their time. Using a poll can help capture candid, anonymous opinions faster, but it doesn't replace the value of sending a survey.
So, of course, you're also going to send out a survey and let them know to expect it. But more importantly, point out that with their feedback, you can make future sessions even better, and without their input, you're hiking in the wilderness without a path or a compass. That might sound scarier to me than it does to you, but I think they'll get the point.
When crafting the survey, the simpler, the better. No one has time to muddle through a lengthy survey with repetitive questions, so before writing the first one, get clear on what you hope to get out of it and put your most important questions first.
Here are some best practices from SurveyMonkey on how to create a survey that works. Above all, put yourself in the busy shoes of your audience and only ask what you really need to know to evolve your virtual events.
Below are suggestions from senior design leaders based on their own involvement in virtual social events, including (I'm proud to say) some they attended with our InsideOut community:
- Escape Room: Crack The Mystery Escape Room Game.
- Magic (InsideOut event: Gary Ferrar).
- BINGO (with custom answers using BingoBaker).
- Trivia Event (with or without a DJ).
- Cooking (InsideOut event: Airis the Chef or a favorite recommendation: Pasta with the Grandmas).
- Baba Brinkman (custom rap songs based on event interactions).
- Cards Against Humanity (online).
- Scavenger Hunt.
- Cheese and Charcuterie Plate Assembly or Sandwich-Making Event (provide vouchers for attendees to buy their favorite ingredients, compile, and eat together).
- Musical Happy Hour (InsideOut event: SongDivision).
- Succulent Planting (InsideOut event: KraftyLab).
- Pottery Making (no kiln required!).
- Talent Show (let the staff show off their “other” skills).
- Wine Tasting (InsideOut events: ONEHOPE wine and Vinebox)
- Milestones and Celebrations (like baby showers, anniversaries, and birthdays—sharing life events creates real human connections).
The reality is that virtual gatherings are a necessary component of our new ways of working and living. Whether your team is fully remote or wrestling with how to make hybrid work, bringing staff together to build relationships will contribute to their success in delivering high-quality work as a team.
Don't avoid hosting social events because everyone has video fatigue; take the time to figure out what your employees value, craft experiences they will remember, and keep learning together. Oh, and speaking of reality, don't discount the impact of simply testing out emerging technologies and platforms like immersive metaverse spaces to amplify those virtual connections. Trying new tools together brings vulnerability, play, and exploration front and center.
Why do I care? My mission is to connect leaders to find solutions. If you're a senior design, experience, or operations leader of an in-house team and want to connect with others who share your unique challenges, let's talk. Our InsideOut community hosts roundtables to support the learning and growth of our members, and I'm honored to facilitate those discussions.
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