How to host a virtual happy hour on Zoom or other teleconferencing services

Mixing work and fun while social distancing: Here are expert tips on etiquette and establishing basic ground rules.

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"Join us for a drink?" It's a question that makes you feel either welcome or wary. 

And whatever your reaction, it's a common query for office mates. Today, the coronavirus pandemic has sent most office workers to work from home. Many offices are now holding virtual happy hours via conferencing platforms, in which similar casual and social discussions can evolve while physically isolating. 

Consider, too, that while it's going to be a more casual call than an official or formal meeting, you still do not want to behave badly. After all, it's still work.

SEE: Coronavirus: Critical IT policies and tools every business needs (TechRepublic Premium)

Stephanie Chavez, CMO of Zen Media, believes in going all-in when it comes to virtual happy hours: "I want to make sure everyone's upbeat and reassured as much as possible during this uncertainty.  Having a positive outlook is important to our mental, as well as physical beings, and laughter truly is the best medicine."

Amie Devero, managing director of Beyond Better, reminds that "basic etiquette and psychological safety rules do apply," which can mean, if you drink alcohol, don't become visibly intoxicated, and "no sexual innuendo, sexist, racist or ethnic humor, and no abuse." Hold fast, Devero said, "the limits of decorum and professionalism."

It's also a good idea to vet the platform you're using because there have been some breaches

Establish ground rules for a virtual happy hour

"Nothing formal and no specific agenda," said Ed Valdez, partner and CMO at Chief Outsiders, which began "regional online happy hours" last week. 

Some groups ban pandemic discussions unless there's a particularly good story. 

Several experts suggested rules include that everyone is required to use the video feature, and participate; no lurkers at virtual happy hour!

Rather than a free-for-all with colleagues vying for talk-time or not talking at all, Calloway Cook, president of Illuminate Labs, recommended "one designated organizer/leader running the happy hour, and leading the discussion." That person can give a short introduction. The organizer should "ask questions to be answered one-by-one."

To really emphasize the social, questions shouldn't be work related. Devero suggests questions about first jobs or childhood aspirations.

Pick the right time for a virtual happy hour

Consider where the attendees live, reminded Ellen Thorne, vice president of resources for CloudBees. "Time zones can be an issue when scheduling."

Some companies use platform channels for outside work discussions at varying times a day. It doesn't have to be confined to after work. Consider integrating social talks  into daily company culture, said Mark Runyon, principal consultant at Improving, who added: "This is a great way for remote only employees to have the water cooler experience without physically being at work. Clear your head, discuss non-work things."

Still others prefer the traditional after-work hours (especially if they're going to imbibe), but don't forget time zones.

Invites to the virtual happy hour

"Virtual happy hours are meant to be fun and shouldn't feel exclusive, so include more people rather than less," said Raechel Timme, head of HR at Coda. 

But for those who want to take it literally, Evite celebration expert Zaria Zinn said the company has invitations for virtual get togethers. Emphasizing virality of virtual video happy hours, Zinn added, "Evite virtual invitations have grown 1,130% year-over-year."

Alcohol—to drink or not

Experts say invitations should be alcohol optional, for those who don't drink, are on the wagon, have medical issues, or just don't want to be any kind of intoxicated among work friends.

JD Miller, chief revenue officer at Motus, strongly suggests inclusivity, meaning, consider calling it something less-alcohol related. Miller suggested, "unwind, but don't unplug." 

Ideal number of guests for a virtual happy hour

The right number of people is critical, Miller said. "It's difficult to have a great conversation with more than eight participants on a video call. Consider setting up multiple eight-person rooms for the same event, and provide your guests with a rotation every 15 minutes. This way, every 15 minutes attendees will switch to different rooms to meet other people, as opposed to having one longer, less-impactful conversation in a crowded chatroom."

Best topics for a virtual happy hour 

"When it comes to a virtual happy hour, use the tools you've already got to get social," Runyon said. "Talk about the latest developments in 'Better Call Saul,' discuss the weird neighbor who can't social distance, or maybe the challenges of combating cabin fever." In other words, opt for the unusual.

Zinn added, "Another popular idea is a 'meet my family/pets' theme. This is a great way for coworkers to connect on more personal levels and get a glimpse into each other's WFH set-up and home life."

Virtual happy hour guests: employees only or include externals for networking 

Do you limit the gathering to your colleagues or do you include clients for networking? This depends on whether your company relies on clients or networking, if so, why not? Just don't divulge any secrets. And if it's likely to be more than eight people, refer to the above suggestion.

"We collectively work with more than 100 clients, and we've found this to be a great way to learn from each other, keep our camaraderie high, and model what we can do to help our clients," Cohen said.

Platforms to use for virtual happy hour

Here are some platforms you can use to setup and conduct your virtual happy hour:

virtual happy hour

Image: OLIVIER DOULIERY