Designing online meetings to support relationship building

So much of how we get to know each other at in-person gatherings takes place specifically in incidental, unplanned spaces like waiting in line for a coffee or the few minutes before a speaker starts. How can virtual spaces, which are often more structured and less semi-private, replicate these interactions that are core to getting to know each other?

In a recent discussion with other meeting planners and facilitators, we grappled with this question.

Here's what we came up with:

  • Don't try to reproduce all in-person social event structures in an online environment. For every person who had a good experience at some "virtual happy hour," there are at least 10 people who shudder at the thought of learning yet another platform that promises to make it "easy to mingle."
  • Reflect on what makes social events feel good. Trust immediately came up in our conversation as a critical component of a positive social interaction, and trust filled interactions led to feelings of calm, peace, warmth, solidarity. This points us to design to support these good feelings rather than replicating the logistics of a meal or a mixer event.
  • Essential structure goes a long way. Whether it be a regular 5 minute checkin at the beginning of each meeting (a real checkin about how you're actually doing), repurposing an existing meeting, or a standalone meeting on a topic of personal interest (think pickling and parenting, not project management) — a brief agenda with a clear facilitator can open up space to connect about topics beyond the workday, and those conversations can be entry points to actually getting to know each other as people, not only colleagues.
  • Recognize the power of individual relationships. One on one conversations can be tremendously valuable for building empathy and understanding. If conversations veer in a gossipy direction, consider how they can also be a tool for breaking down knowledge hierarchies and sharing information across a team or organization.
  • Be aware of varying levels of trust, and power. Meeting online doesn't create mistrust, but it can exacerbate existing issues of miscommunication, lack of transparency, or prior issues from breaches of trust. It can be harder to repair trust issues when all meetings are really outcomes focused, but the lack of relational understanding can itself impede those more task driven meetings. Understanding how trust and relationships underpin our abilities to work together as a team, organization, or movement can help prioritize this virtual relationship building work.
  • Have fun with it! We all know online events can be awkward, and that's ok! No one is expecting a perfectly polished virtual social event. Being open about your concerns and hopes for the event can model the kind of vulnerability that helps other people open up too.

These are just some of the highlights of our wide ranging conversation where we also came away with a bunch more questions like asynchronous trust building, frequency/format/audience, tension between trust and inclusion, and way more. If these are questions you're curious about too, check out the burgeoning capacity builders community or feel free to reach out, I always love chatting about this stuff. Thanks to Beatrice Martini for co-facilitating and all of the participants for this discussion: participants in the discussion including Dirk, Mariel, Lucy, Gunner, Kristin, and Evelyn.

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