If your job has gone remote during the pandemic, you’re likely already spending a LOT of time on Zoom or other virtual meeting platforms. “Zoom fatigue” (grab our smart facilitator’s guide!) is very real, and the thought of adding anything else to your daily dosage of screen time (and even hearing me mention it here — sorry!) is probably making your head spin.

But let’s cut to the chase — how are you doing with your social time on Zoom? Do you schedule catch-up talks with best buds, celebrate birthdays and special occasions with family and friends, or even play games together via video?

Maybe you’ve mastered the art of socializing from a distance and this is no problem for you. Or maybe you’re balking at the thought of even trying. I totally get that. Not only has the pandemic been stressful and scary, but at the same time, we’ve also had to learn to rearrange our lives and adapt. That means learning new things and being willing to deal with some initial awkwardness.

Yup, I said it: socializing on Zoom is extremely awkward –– at least during your first go-round. There’s no way of getting around the fact that because you can’t read a room, feel people’s energies, and easily and instantly pick up on their nonverbal reactions, you’re going to have moments where everyone talks over each other at once, then abruptly all silence themselves…at once. You’ll have people talking who are unknowingly muted. There will be technical issues.

And guess what? That’s okay. Which leads me to my first tip on how to make Zoom social gatherings, in general, work:

    1. Forgive yourself and others, and go in knowing that it’s going to be awkward. If you go into any type of new Zoom meeting or gathering for the first time with high expectations (or even reasonable ones), you’re probably going to leave disappointed. Expect anything and everything to go wrong. A short list of the possibilities include dogs barking, kids crying, connectivity and other tech issues, muting and unmuting faux pas, and people getting bored and tired. There are great ways to mitigate all those things , but no one is 100% in control of these meetings, so expect something to go wrong.
      In fact, you can set the stage and be upfront by making a joke about these inevitable issues at the beginning of your meeting. We’re all in this boat together and the more you can do to make people laugh and lighten up, the better.
    2. Have a plan. Much like virtual work, which requires some extra effort and rethinking the way we plan ahead for meetings, your social gatherings on Zoom will be much more successful if they are thoughtfully planned. Unlike playing yahtzee, it’s not a good idea to just roll the dice. Not to say there isn’t any room for going with the flow, like we typically do at in-person parties, but as Zapier’s blog post on remote team activities points out, “Having something to do other than talking removes that awkwardness because there’s something else to think about during the down moments. It also gives you something to talk about if you do want to talk.” Planning ahead with engaging activities (think polls, emoji votes, and answering questions in chats) keeps positive energy flowing, keeps the gathering moving at a good pace, and keeps people from spacing out. Plan to intersperse these into your gathering — one engagement activity every 5-10 minutes is doable and gives people a chance to chat freely in between. You don’t have to use them all, but you’ll have a plan in your back pocket in the case of a long, awkward silence. The key point here is to give your participants something to do so they stay present with you.
    3. Don’t go it alone. This is especially true for more formal social gatherings, like club meetings. Just as you would for a work meeting, team up with a buddy and have one of you facilitating the fun and the other tackling any technical issues. To be on the hook for everything in any kind of Zoom meeting is overwhelming. Even for more casual gatherings, involve your participants in the planning. Ask them for feedback on your plans and if they have any ideas to make the gathering more fun. Not only does this help you plan for a fun event, but it also gives the participants buy-in and makes it more likely they’ll attend at all.
    4. Adjust for the virtual environment. For the most part, you can continue with the activities that you used to do when you all got into a room together. But think about these activities in the new context of meeting online and the fact that you have to deal with things such as typing versus speaking (if you’re using chats and polls, for instance). Give your participants a little extra time to complete these activities rather than expecting a response right away. Keep the awkwardness factor in mind and expect there to be a lot of talking over each other. That’s the nature of in-person meetups sometimes, too — especially when everyone is excited to see each other. For casual gatherings, just go with the flow here. If you have any type of meeting that follows a sort of round-table discussion, however (like a wine tasting club), you can use a speaking order to help combat some of the interrupting. In the wine example, you would use the same order for every wine your participants try and simply call on people by name to respond.

Yup, I said it: socializing on Zoom is extremely awkward -- at least during your first go-round. Click To Tweet

Ideas for social gatherings

I’ll stop short of saying the possibilities for virtual gatherings are endless, but they are definitely extensive. Here are a few ideas…

Games and trivia

Games are awesome for virtual gatherings because they keep your participants busy. People are less likely to check out when they’re engaging in friendly competition.

I know someone who plays Yahtzee with her family over Zoom. She explained that everyone has their own dice, rolls at the same time, and announces what they got. (This actually got me pretty excited about trying a board game on Zoom myself. I happen to be the proud owner of a Golden Girls trivia board game and look forward to writing about my virtual experience with that soon.)

We’ve talked about physical board games so far, but you can also play virtual board games online in your browser (check out Board Game Arena) and hop on a Zoom with your friends while you play together to commentate.

Trivia night is relatively easy to take online. It does require more planning than a board game or browser game would because you’ll need to plan out the questions and answers. You can use the chat feature in Zoom to paste in your questions and have everyone privately submit their comments to you. (Since people’s answers will need to be kept a secret from others, you’ll have to train them on how to submit their answers to you only instead of to everyone.) Or, ask everyone to have paper and a pen ready so they can write their answers and hold them up to the camera. (But let everyone know in advance to turn off their mirroring setting in Zoom so that the words don’t read backwards!)

Movie-watching party

If you love watching movies with your friends while providing witty or interesting commentary, try watching one together online. You can use a service like Netflix Party to do this. Choose your Netflix flick, then have everyone install the Chrome browser extension for it in advance.

When you’re all ready to watch, keep your audio and video in mind. A movie playing on top of people talking adds a layer of complexity and makes things tough to hear, so give everyone a heads-up to wear headphones while they watch to avoid any echo. Once everyone is ready to start, have them turn their video off to help out with the bandwidth. It’s not necessary anyway, once everyone is focused on their browsers.

Cooking together

In the spirit of keeping virtual gatherings short, choose a recipe that everyone can make in less than 45 minutes. For inclusivity’s sake, I recommend sticking to those that don’t require too many fancy gadgets or cookware to make and that require inexpensive ingredients that are easy to find and order for delivery or curbside pickup. Encourage participants to do any prep work (chopping, etc.) ahead of time when possible.

Here’s what a friend of mine had to say about cooking via Zoom:

“I did a virtual Chopped group. It was fun to see what others made with the same ingredients. Then, we happy houred! The cons are the occasional WiFi blips and talking over each other. It’s doable, though.”

Celebrations

Absolutely continue to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, retirements, and holidays. You can do this virtually if you take care with, again, making sure people have things to do to stay engaged and by keeping them short.

Case in point: I tried hosting my first virtual birthday party a few months ago, about two months into the pandemic. I’d done plenty of work meetings on Zoom, but never a party, so I was in new territory. While many things went right with the party, I learned a few things, too.

As far as what went right, everyone successfully followed the link I included in the Facebook event invite I sent. I did make sure to keep the party short (about 20 minutes). We all sang “Happy Birthday” and made a toast, but in hindsight, I would have started this earlier so that people who felt awkward about meeting online or who needed to bail could drop out sooner.

Zoom made celebrating possible at a time when all restaurants and events were effectively shut down. We were all able to gather in a safe way. It was also something really novel at the time, which made it different and fun. We had people from out of town and out of state attending, which may not have been possible with an in-person party. We also had some people wear party hats and silly glasses, and others who put their virtual backgrounds to use to add a level of zaniness.

What went wrong? Nothing earth-shattering, but there were some things that could use finessing. I should have provided my friend (who was not all that versed on Zoom) a little more training and direction before the virtual party because it ended up taking him some time to join, so some of us were awkwardly waiting during that time. If you’re trying to keep the party somewhat of a surprise (at least until the day of), it’s going to take the mystery and spontaneity out of it if you have to train the celebrant on the technology, so keep that in mind.