Back in the Before Times, I used to love to go to conferences at every opportunity.

(I often quip that I’d happily do professional development full-time… if only someone would pay me to be a student.😉)

When I think back about the most memorable moments from my favorite conferences, they tend not to be dazzling keynotes or exciting workshops. Though those have their place, for sure.

Rather, my most memorable moments are the “hallway moments.”  

Those spontaneous interactions that start off as a brief comment while walking down the hall to the next session, waiting in line for lunch—or even while sitting in awe of the lecture that just happened, and turning to the person next to me to share our reactions—and blossom into a mind-expanding interchange, and maybe even a lifelong friendship.

In-person events are wonderful for these types of spontaneous connections.

When you’re meeting on a virtual platform like Zoom, however, you don’t have the luxury of being able to bump into people in hallways, or waiting in line. You can’t simply turn to your neighbor after a particularly inspiring talk.

No wonder people who plan and host meetings and events struggled in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic shut-down!

Even after two years, I still see people struggling, because they’re trying to cram in-person session plans into virtual platforms.

When you’re used to a lot of the connection happening spontaneously, without your having to put any thought or effort into it, this strange world of meeting virtually feels impossibly hard.

It’s easy to blame the technology for the problem:

“Virtual meetings suck!”

“You can’t build connection on Zoom!”

“Meeting virtually is inherently inferior to meeting in-person.”

But let’s back up for a second. Those statements may feel true, but are they?

I’ve certainly attended virtual meetings that were painfully boring and not conducive to connection… but I’ve also attended in-person meetings that were equally bad.

And just because some virtual meetings suck doesn’t mean all virtual meetings suck.

My clients and students, for example, would beg to differ.

Here’s what Nilce Alves dos Santos said after last month’s Non-Boring Virtual Meetings Learning Lab:

“This great and fun event was an order
of magnitude more effective than a regular
meeting. The structure, the organization,
the use of time, the interactions with other
participants, the exercises, the fun
we had while participating. I am still amazed by it!
It was fun, it was enjoyable and most of all,
it was far more effective than any regular meeting.
Even the best regular meetings become
boring when compared to this
workshop. It should be called
Amazing Effective Meetings!”

And here are some one-word takeaways from the September Lab — responses that are pretty typical:

Oasis

Invigorated

Joy

Fun

Exquisite vulnerability

Energized (not zoom fatigued even though this is my 8th hour on Zoom today)

One of the managers I worked with at Facebook confided in me that her team members told her my workshops were “the most fun meetings we’ve attended all year!”

So virtual meetings clearly do not have to suck.

As for the idea that you can’t build connection on Zoom (or virtual platforms generally), tell that to the folks who share at the end of every workshop I lead that their biggest takeaway is (wait for it)…

CONNECTION!

“Well,” you say, “virtual meetings are still inferior to in-person meetings.”

I would argue that it depends on the context.

There are, indeed, circumstances and situations where in-person is definitely superior.

A yoga retreat, a beach vacation, a campfire, vocal harmonizing in a choir. These really do cry out for in-person meetings!

But an offsite or a conference? This is where it starts to get squishy.

Training New Skills & Behaviors

You might think an offsite would be better done in-person, but if a significant part of your goal is to train new skills and behaviors, science says coming together for a long day (or two, or three) is not actually the best way to learn.

In fact, when learning new skills — as opposed to simply acquiring knowledge — traditional training simply doesn’t work.

Getting people to communicate more effectively, for example, requires more than just an understanding of what’s involved in communicating for influence. People also need to practice the skills they’re learning!

It turns out that for today’s global companies, gathering a team in a virtual room for a couple of hours once a week over three weeks or more is a lot more feasible than gathering the same team in a physical room.

The same offsite, done in-person, would simply be out of the question. Companies would insist on the six hours all being presented on the same day, for obvious logistical reasons.

And I would refuse, because the practice time in-between sessions is an essential part of the value of the program.

Spontaneous Magic On Zoom?

We’ve already established that connection is absolutely possible in virtual settings.

But what about those “hallway moments”? Can we create some of the magic that we love so much about conferences?

While it’s true that you’ll never get the same kind of “hallway moments” on Zoom or other virtual platforms as you do in-person, you can intentionally design and plan space into your sessions for spontaneous interactions to happen.

For example, instead of kicking people out of the room in order to start the next session, build in some “afterparty”/discussion time to allow people to chit chat and mingle.

I’m part of the leadership team for a weekly 2-hour Open Space event, and an optional “afterparty” is literally built into the agenda. Although I don’t always attend, when I do, I often find this is where the richest conversations — and deepest connections — happen.

Similarly, I attended a week-long virtual conference not long ago, and I was impressed by how much it felt, emotionally and energetically, like a “real” conference experience.

Why? Because of the time and space intentionally planned by the organizers for these kinds of “hallway moments.”

No, we weren’t walking to lunch together, or strolling to the next session down the hall, but we could still debrief, catch up, and chit chat in the same Zoom room where the session had just taken place.

Bonding and connection were through the roof!

Plus there was the added advantage that many folks from around the world were able to attend, who had been unable to attend the in-person conferences, for logistical or financial reasons.

Of course, there are activities that simply don’t work on virtual platforms like Zoom. But there are other activities that actually work better — or only work virtually and don’t work in-person!

Intention Is Key!

Most importantly, we have to be intentional when designing for virtual. We must design intentionally for virtual.

When done well, virtual meetings, offsites, conferences, and other events can been truly satisfying experiences that foster connection and leave people energized and looking forward to the next time.

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If you’d like to experience some brain-friendly exercises that activate learning while building connection, come to my next Non-Boring Virtual Meetings Learning Lab.

Interested to learn more? Message me to chat about how I can use my signature system to help your employees infuse connection, joy and delight into virtual meetings, trainings and events at your workplace.

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