With huge sections of the globe under social distancing restrictions, business networking may be the last activity in the minds of people. However just because you cannot connect to person doesn’t mean business relationships should suffer.
Some businesses have resorted to virtual networking events to maintain relationships. Here are some best practices that have proven to work in keeping connections active, even at a distance.
Before the Event
Invite the right people — and the right number of people.
In the virtual world, we recommend limiting yourself to eight guests (including you), to ensure participants have enough time to speak and interact. Feel free to mix close friends and contacts you’d like to cultivate, but remember to make sure there is a sufficient mix of people who don’t know each other, so that no one feels like the “odd man out” who has been randomly added to a reunion of old pals. In addition, one of the benefits of the virtual format is that you can include people from all over the world, which of course isn’t possible with physical gatherings.
When it comes to timing, we usually schedule 90-minute sessions. For a virtual business meeting that may feel long. But —because we’re trying to facilitate meaningful conversations — it’s a comfortable amount of time to allow everyone to speak without feeling rushed. Attendees share personal stories, ranging from childhood anecdotes to their challenges in business, so participants typically are very engaged throughout the gathering.
We hold these from 6-7:30 pm ET, but many different times are possible. You have to be sensitive to time zones, but we’ve had success including people from around the world, and even shared breakfast drinks with someone in Australia. We’ve discovered that it’s often challenging and messy for people to eat while on video calls, so we bill our events as “virtual cocktail parties.”
Make logistics as easy as possible for your attendees.
Once someone has agreed to attend, send them a calendar invite with a link to the video app you’re using. Any number of video services — such as Zoom, Google Hangouts, or Microsoft Teams — can work. The key is that it has to be easy for people to attend even if they don’t regularly use that service. Make sure to alert them if they need to download software in advance or if the event requires a password.
A few days before your call, send out an email introducing your guests to each other.
You should include the names of the participants, a one-sentence description, and a link to their LinkedIn profile. It’s helpful for attendees, especially introverts, to know who will be there, and it humanizes the participants. You should also share guidelines for what to expect. Your email can say something like, “We look forward to seeing you at our virtual cocktail gathering. We’ll start right at 6 pm, so please join on time. We’ll spend around 60-90 minutes together, with a mix of introductions and structured conversation. We’ll be joined by the great people below. Bring your own beverage!”
During the Event
Make people feel comfortable
Greet them when they enter and provide guidance about what to expect — just like you would at an in-person cocktail party. To ensure smooth entry for participants, make sure you join the video and “start” the session about two minutes early so you can let everyone into the session as soon as they arrive. About five minutes after your start time (to allow people time to join), get started with introductions. Check upfront if anyone needs to leave early so they can introduce themselves first, and so it won’t be awkward when they sign off before the end of the gathering.
Ask each person to spend two minutes introducing themselves with a mix of professional and personal information, such as a favorite hobby or passion. Model this for people, so they get a sense of the appropriate length and tone. Then, as the host, you can choose a person and ask them to go next, rather than waiting for a volunteer. This gets the ball rolling and provides an immediate sense of comfort to attendees who may be wondering how things will unfold.
After initial introductions, ask each participant to answer a specific question
As the host, it’s your job to structure the conversation so it doesn’t become dominated by a loquacious guest, or go down a rabbit hole of talking about politics or current events.
Some great questions include:
- What is an interesting or fruitful way you’re using your time now?
- Tell us about a time you’ve been resilient.
- How have you adapted to working and living while social distancing?
- What are you enjoying most about your job right now, and why?
- What’s something unexpected you’ve learned or done in the past month/year?
Any open-ended question that helps attendees share a little bit about themselves will work. People may have some back and forth comments around the questions, which helps build the rapport of an in-person cocktail party — but make sure to interrupt the conversation as needed to bring it back to the main question until everyone has answered. You want to give everyone their turn to share.
If there’s remaining time, there may be a natural flow of conversation, or you can pose an additional question (or ask if anyone has a question they want to pose to the group). Unlike an in-person cocktail party, this isn’t typically a conducive environment for one-on-one interactions, but we keep our gatherings small to ensure everyone can participate in a lively group conversation.
No matter how well the gathering is going, it’s a good idea to consider ending it after 90 minutes. People generally tire more easily from video meetings than in-person gatherings. If everyone is having a great time, you can leave on a high note — and you or someone else can always gather the group again.
After the gathering, send a quick follow-up email with everyone CC’d, thanking them for coming and encouraging them to connect with each other one-on-one, if they’d like.
Even when you can’t meet in person, that doesn’t mean business — or the need to build relationships — stops. In fact, without the natural interactions that go along with in-person work and events, it’s even more important to be proactive in your networking efforts. By hosting your own virtual networking events, you’ll be able to enhance your own network, as well as your reputation as a connector, despite being physically separated.
Source: Harvard Business Review