Create a “Virtual Networking Cafe” to Facilitate Connection

Posted by Kristin Arnold on June 2, 2020

Yes, meetings are about informing, sharing, persuading, collaborating, planning…and connecting with each other!

It’s not only about the work that needs to be done, but “the who” is doing the work together.  Learning together.  Getting to know each other.

Depending on the size of your team, meeting, conference, or convention, you need to provide the time and space for the participants to connect – even in the virtual environment.  Last week, we focused on the importance of icebreakers to get your meeting started and the elements of a great icebreaker for F2F and virtual meetings.  Our focus this week is about having a “virtual networking cafe” to replicate the random meetups you would experience at long meetings and conferences.

The Virtual Networking Café

At the onset of the meeting, I like to mention the fact that we are going to have a “networking cafe” that occurs in three places:

  1.  The Main Meeting Room.  Use the chatbox where you can chat with all, or privately with one person (depending on your platform functionality).
  2.  Breakout rooms where we will split people up (either randomly or by pre-selected topics) to discuss a topic in smaller groups
  3.  One-on-one text messaging.  A digital roster of attendees and the best (and most immediate way to connect with them during this conference) has been provided to all of you to reach out to someone you don’t know…yet, who said something interesting in the chatbox, or just looks interesting to connect with!

Virtual Networking Café Ground Rules

  • We’ll be opening the “doors” to the Main Session Meeting Room early so you can come in and get comfortable. We’ll have an icebreaker question, so start chatting in the chatbox!
  • Please share your “lightbulb moments” where you exclaim, “Oh!” or sigh with a deep “Ahhhh,” or want to make a comment.  It’s okay and encouraged to use the chatbox to create connection.  Find it distracting?  That’s okay, you don’t have to play.
  • See something interesting in the chatbox? Go ahead and comment back to “everyone” or chat privately with that person.  Or use your roster to reach out and connect real-time with that person via email or text.
  • After each speaker, you’ll be sent to a breakout room to discuss what you heard – Or we’ll keep the room/chatbox open for as long as there are people chatting.
  • If you don’t like your breakout room or no one shows up, come back to the main room and you can stay there and chat or be assigned to another breakout room.

Here are some other ideas to facilitate connections with your participants:

  • The Virtual Snack Box.  Before the meeting, send each attendee a package with welcome info, snacks, and a drink.  The participants will open it at the first networking event!
  • Be Networthy.  Create a Facebook Live Private Group or Google Doc spreadsheet where each participant is encouraged to share how they can be a resource to others.  Encourage the participants to identify/reach out to each other to set up a 1 minute to a 1:30 discussion MAX (you don’t want to abuse the relationship!)
  • Buddy Up. Match each new participant with a veteran.  Give each others’ names and contact information.  Encourage them to connect BEFORE the event starts to answer three questions for each other:
    1. What do you hope to learn/gain as a result of attending this event?
    2. What would you be doing if you weren’t attending this event?
    3. How can we help each other be successful during this event?
  • The Virtual Great Graze.  Networking often involves food, grazing from one food station to another.  Why not “graze” getting to know each other?  Everyone meets in the Main Meeting Room.  The host gives them a question to answer (fun or topical) and then sends everyone to random breakout rooms (5-6 to a room) to chat/graze for 5-6 minutes.  The host then brings them back to the Main Meeting Room (debrief is optional).  I like to keep it moving so I give the main group another question, assign them randomly to a room, bring ‘em back…..Do this for 30 minutes.
  • Chat with the Speaker.  Everyone meets in the Main Meeting Room to hear the main speaker/segment.  Once the speaker/Q&A/segment is done, keep the chatbox open to allow the participants to continue to discuss the topic.  OR send the participants to random breakout rooms to discuss for 30 minutes.
  • Virtual Lunch Tables.  A senior member of the community is placed in a breakout room and participants are randomly assigned to chat/ask questions of the venerable veteran.
  • Birds of a Feather.  There is a saying: “Birds of a feather flock together.”  People do too!  Facilitate the ability of like-minded people to get together to chat.  Identify some similar attributes (industry/sector, functional titles, size of company, number of employees, etc. – but beware of any conflicts of interest between the participants).  Have them meet in the Main Meeting Room and then send them to pre-assigned designated breakout rooms for 30 minutes.  These small groups of people will quickly become colleagues!  Debrief is optional.
  • Topic Meet Up.  Similar to “Birds of a Feather,” create topics that the participants would be interested to discuss.  Send to random breakout rooms (easiest) OR have them self-select ahead of time and then pre-assign them to designated breakout rooms.  (I like to use a “portal page” with a visual online gallery of the topics with hyperlinks to each room.)
  • Modified Open Space.  Similar to the Topic Meet Up, everyone meets in the Main Meeting Room where there are a specific number of potential topics that have been identified (6 is a good number!).  Participants identify which topic/room they want to go to and the host moves them into that breakout room.  When the room hits 8 people, the host opens up a new room for that designated topic.
  • Chat Roulette.  All participants in the Main Meeting Room are randomly assigned a breakout room of only 2-4 people for 2-4 minutes.
  • Awards.  Always fun to have some awards….same holds true in the virtual world.  Electronic gift card for the person with the best Zoom virtual background?  Cutest pet?  Best looking shoes?

The possibilities are endless!  All it takes is a bit of creativity and intentionality to create connections during your meetings!

For more information about how to lead your team in the virtual environment, use these resources.

KRISTIN ARNOLD, MBA, CPF | Master, CSP is a high-stakes meeting facilitator and professional panel moderator.  She’s been facilitating teams of executives and managers in making better decisions and achieving greater results for over 20 years.  She is the author of the award-winning book, Boring to Bravo: Proven Presentation Techniques to Engage, Involve and Inspire Audiences to Action.

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