Thirty of us have just finished playing an interactive ice-breaker at an in-person experience design training I am leading. Inevitably, someone says, “That was great, but how do you do that virtually?” In all honesty, until recently, I haven’t had a good answer to that question because I have been a self-proclaimed “in-person person” when it comes to events for the past 20 years.
Now, with the rise of a global pandemic and the proliferation of remote work, I can no longer excuse myself from this critical leadership skill of translating in-person programs into online experiences. The world has changed. At least for now and for the foreseeable future, virtual events have become the new normal.
Unfortunately, the virtual world tends to focus on the often-boring delivery of information and quite literally reduces us to two-dimensional beings. Viewed only through a screen, it can be easy to lose sight of our humanity, and to feel isolated and alone. But don’t give up hope just yet! You can absolutely optimize these platforms for meaningful connection as long as you are willing to make it a priority. I can tell you from having taken all my programs online, you can build a real community through these mediums that makes time in front of a screen totally worth it.
At most in-person events, attendees connect at a lunch break, while waiting in line for the restroom, or at a casual happy hour. We assume these moments of serendipity will be enough to check off the boxes for “networking” and “building community.” However, in a virtual context, there is no opportunity for connection by accident — we must design for connection on purpose.
Priya Parker, the author of the seminal book on experience design called The Art of Gathering, refers to this as “Don’t be a chill host.” It means that as the convener, you can’t just sit back and let things happen. You have a responsibility to intentionally guide attendees through the process of building trust and rapport, so they get the full benefit of attending your event.
To help our attendees achieve the goal of building authentic relationships, we have to include these opportunities in the main part of our program. We have to make connection a priority, and at times be willing to prioritize connection over content. Connection reminds us of our humanity. It invokes our empathy, understanding, and compassion, all of which are needed during these turbulent times. We need to create structured, facilitated opportunities for people to connect in meaningful ways, otherwise we risk that it may not happen at all.
Here are three ways you can make sure every one of your attendees has intentional opportunities to connect and leaves feeling like they are part of a community.