One of the distinct downsides of remote work is isolation. Working from home may cause you to feel like you’re losing touch with colleagues; you may feel an increased craving for camaraderie. And for many parents who are caring for children, their time with adults can feel like a precious lifeline.
Virtual happy hours, on Zoom or other platforms, offer connection, but these events often feel uncomfortable and less than fulfilling. While they are certainly better than nothing, they leave much to be desired.
You may not think social science or neuroscience would apply to something as simple as an informal gathering, but knowledge on how humans prefer to interact can turn a remote happy hour from merely mediocre to a surprising success. Here are a few examples.
ADD STRUCTURE AND CLARITY
Science about the brain tells us humans crave certainty and steer away from ambiguity or uncertainty. One of the challenges of virtual gatherings is that social norms are often unclear. While most working people know the unwritten rules of an in-person cocktail party, it’s much less clear how to interact effectively in an online gathering. Add in the challenges of delays in technology (who hasn’t cringed hearing coworkers talk over each other?) and the lack of nonverbal cues, and it’s easy to feel unsure and uncomfortable.
The unlikely solution is to provide structure. At a wine and cheese event, you would never plan for the topics of discussion, but in an online gathering, planning for how people will interact will make for a better experience for everyone. Establish an activity, like bingo or a word game, or a discussion topic. Assign a discussion leader and notify people beforehand there will be colleagues placed in charge. Find ways to give people a framework for how they’ll spend time together. Far from feeling stilted, it will provide for a much smoother event.
TEMPER PARTICIPATION REQUIREMENTS
A critical element for well-being is a feeling of control. During the pandemic this feels especially fleeting, considering our normal activities and engagements are so different. But in all circumstances, humans need autonomy, or the freedom to make their own choices.
Apply this need to virtual gatherings. You’ll want to have as much participation as possible so people aren’t left out and so you’re not inadvertently creating “in” groups and “out” groups, which can impede camaraderie at work. The best solution is to make your events so engaging that people wouldn’t miss them for the world.
However, balance the voluntary with the mandatory. Perhaps everyone is encouraged to attend the first 30 minutes of all gatherings in order to connect and spend time with one another. Otherwise, be clear that people don’t have to stay the whole time. You could also consider making some of your gatherings more highly encouraged than others. Perhaps the first gathering of each quarter is an attendance priority, while later meetings offer more flexibility.
Further, consider doing happy hours at times other than Fridays at 4:30 p.m. With the exhaustion of the pandemic, many people are eager to be done by the end of the week. Try a Wednesday afternoon happy hour as a midweek pick-me-up or even a Friday morning coffee as an alternative. Also set end times for gatherings so that people don’t feel captive to the event and like they can’t leave for fear of offending the host.
Pre-pandemic, my company had dinners together when the team traveled for customer projects. One coworker, Maggie, would always come to dinner, but then she would invariably excuse herself the moment she was finished eating her main course. Sometimes people would get offended about her early departures, but eventually the team came to appreciate her extreme introversion. By showing up at all, Maggie demonstrated her commitment to the group. By leaving early, she protected her own well-being. In virtual settings, people need this same freedom and flexibility to set their own boundaries.
GIVE THOUGHT TO WHO’S ON THE INVITE LIST
Another fundamental need of humans is to belong and feel included. In fact, when people are excluded, they experience pain in the same part of their brain as when they experience physical pain. In addition, people crave relationships with others in the same neurological way they crave food. Recent research finds that when people are reunited with their community, their cravings for food are diminished. In sum, humans have a physiological and neurological need for each other.
Therefore, when you plan your virtual connections, be inclusive and err on the side of inviting more people than fewer people. Also consider being especially intentional about who is invited. Follow logical boundaries of teams, project groups, or reporting lines. While this may seem too limiting, in the end it will protect egos and esteem. People will understand why they were or were not included. Finally, be mindful of group size. Consider breaking a giant meet into two, smaller-group gatherings. People will feel more comfortable knowing who’s on the same call.
And if you have a larger session, consider using breakout features so people can connect in smaller, less unwieldly groups, and increase their ability to connect.
MAKE IT AN EXPERIENCE
People are most motivated to get involved when things are immersive and when they are more thoroughly engaged. We are bored easily, and we increasingly demand more rich and interactive experiences.
Based on this need, consider how you can bring the experience into people’s homes. Beyond sharing fancy food and toasting champagne, consider sending along interactive props. In one story from my professional circle, a company provided each of its employees with a ping-pong paddle prior to its happy hour. Each paddle was green on one side and red on the other. During the event, the host asked “yes/no” questions and participants held up their paddles to indicate their answer. Quickly, the goofy questions and the visual experience of voting had everyone engaged and laughing.
If your budget doesn’t include deliveries, you can ask people to show up wearing similar colors or to introduce their pets (those without pets can show a meaningful memento). Or if your group likes to keep things minimal, you can just ask each person to show up with their own drink of choice (alcoholic or not) so you can toast together. The point is to expand the virtual to the physical—and include people’s experience at home in the experience you create online.
KEEP EXPECTATIONS LOW
People also have a desire to succeed, and there is a critical relationship between experience and expectations. If people’s expectations are too high and the experience doesn’t measure up, they’ll feel like they’ve lost out on something. On the other hand, if their experience exceeds their expectations, they will feel delight.
Apply this thinking by keeping expectations low. Your goal for Zoom happy hours isn’t necessarily to develop deep, meaningful relationships or to create a life-changing memory. Chances are you just want to keep people connected and maintain relationships during the pandemic. Importantly, you should express gratitude for the team and for the opportunity to stay connected. Eventually, circumstances will change and you will feel grateful for the strong bonds you were able to maintain.