With the notion of working/studying-from-home becoming a constant in our lives, it has been important to think about how to continue to build community and teams without having met or meeting in real life.
Here are some methods I have experimented with in the events I have hosted since the start of the pandemic. In my cases, I have dealt with groups of people with similar backgrounds but most were unknown to each other. Since the communities are professional in nature, it was important to make the meetups more casual. The main aim was to have more structured and forced interaction so they can get out of their bubbles and get to know each other.
- Host: needs paid account
- Group size: maximum on your paid plan of Zoom
- Effort: easy
Using breakout rooms in Zoom has proved to be very effective (you can use just about any video-conferencing application that allows breakout rooms). I have the most experience with Zoom and it is great because it allows you to premake or do random breakouts with time limits and the ability to make overall text announcements such as “5 min left”. Sometimes people find it harder to speak up in larger groups and doing some random rounds of breakouts of 15-20 min each helped them connect with each other in smaller groups of 3-4. We also provided them with icebreaker type questions that they can use as conversation topics after doing a general round of intros.
- Host: needs account (free)
- Group size: Free: max 40 people, contact them for more invitees
- Effort: medium (setting up the right questions)
I have attended and hosted events on this website. It allows you to host events directly in it and has a variety of question packs you can choose from ranging from Happy Hours to School to Culture. It also allows you to add your own questions. During the event, it pairs the attendees in separate rooms and gives them a deck of icebreaker questions they can go through with a time limit that you can set. This 1:1 interaction with other people forces attendees to speak up (which might be harder in groups of more people) and the questions help facilitate the conversation.
- Host: needs account (free)
- Group size: Free space: max 50 people, Premium (paid) spaces: max 2000 people
- Effort: low
From what I can see this is a very basic and new website. I stumbled upon it recently and used it once with a group of 10-15 while also on a Zoom call in case people needed to come back to the host. It works well for the purpose (although there used to be some browser restrictions). During the event, it allows people to move their avatar around in a space (a pre-set map of a room or outdoors) and when they come near another person, the videos turn on and they can talk to each other. It naturally mimics happy hour type events in a virtual setting where you can approach people, have conversations, and move around and speak to others. There is a universal chat that is helpful in communicating with everyone and also allows you to customize your avatar which is always fun!
- Host: needs account (free 14-day trial)
- Group size: Free: max 50 people, Paid versions comparison link
- Effort: low
This is a website I have tested but not hosted on yet. It is similar to gather.town but instead of free open space, there are set tables you can choose to join. You can name the tables after conversation topics for example AI/ML or Founders, etc. and people can choose where to sit and can move at any time as well to a new table to join a different conversation topic. Once at a table, the videos pop up and you can speak to others “seated” there.
Incorporate an activity during a video call
The last is having some sort of activity to do that gets people talking and loosen up more. We have introduced basic games that can be done with pen and paper or even just by talking to each other. The following section discusses one of these activities in detail.
Game night is a great way to have people work on smaller teams and start communicating with each other with a win/lose strategy. This will take a lot more planning but can be a really fun experience for new people joining the group. Universal games like Codenames, Pictionary, Trivia, can help keep small groups engaged. To pull this off successfully you will need to plan ahead and break everyone up into small groups beforehand, assign them a room (differs based on the platform used), and clearly explain how to use third party communication devices. If you can pull this off — it’s gonna be a great night!
If you are hosting trivia make sure to have everyone on a respective team on the same phone call in addition to being on the Zoom invite. This will allow teams to speak to each other in private, while being able to hear the host, and see the main presentation. Some places use Zoom + Slack, Zoom + phone conference, Zoom + hangouts. Whatever your combination is, make sure you communicate this clearly and that everyone is wearing headphones to prevent unwanted echos and feedback.
These are just some of the new tactics I have tried for virtual community building. I am sure there are so many other options out there that differ based on your demographic and goals. Would love to see your ideas and go-to platforms through the comments section!