Hello location-free friends:

As I answered some questions of other readers recently, I was reminded of a very simple technique to help you build a friendly environment online.

Remember what it was like when you entered a physical meeting a few minutes early? Let's say it was an event where you didn't expect to know anyone. As you first enter, you would typically bump into just a few other people. It might be around the food and beverages, just inside the doorway, or near a table you chose to be seated.

in-person meeting participants casually talking while standing with drinks
Mingle photo at Wikimania 2019 Welcome Reception (CC BY-SA 4.0)

If you lean more toward the extrovert side of the spectrum (like my wife), you have no problem striking up a conversation. But if you are not great at small talk (like me), you still have a topic in common: The event.

So you can immediately come up with questions like:

  • What brought you here?
  • What do you hope to get from the event?
  • What burning questions do you have for this course?

For me, I tend to be more of an introvert. I get my energy from ideas and thinking deeply about those ideas. So if I can turn a conversation into a discourse on ideas, I don’t have to worry about small talk. I can dive in where I hear interesting topics.

So how do you provide this online? It's called a "soft start."

Either let people know you will arrive early or build in a few minutes of extra time at the beginning. When you get more than three people show up, find a way to move them off into a separate group (maybe a breakout if you are thinking in terms of Zoom of Microsoft Teams). Usually 2-3 people in a separate breakout work best.

You might give them one of the questions above as a prompt. It doesn't really matter if they answer the question. The point is they get to know a couple of people before the event starts.

They build connections.

This also works in repeated events. In remote teams I worked with, I would let them know I would be on a few minutes early. Those that felt like socializing were welcome to join early. We would catch up on various topics of interest and when it was time to start the meeting, we got to business.

My favorite example was a weekly executive team meeting I used to facilitate. Usually, the executives would spend just a few minutes talking sports or news or something outside of their business. One day, they had a deep discussion about the news. It lasted about 15 minutes. They suddenly realized they had not started their "official meeting." The transition to business went something like this:

CEO: Mark, our apologies. We didn't mean to banter back and forth so long and have you wait on us.

Me: Not a problem. Every group needs a little warm-up time. You folks just needed a little extra time today.

CEO: hmmm (as he acknowledged the teachable moment)

Remember that remote amplifies. Make sure you provide some soft starts in your meeting times so the remote work can amplify some of the social connections.

Hope that helps,


P.S. I learned the term "soft start" from Judy Rees and her Exceptional Remote Facilitation Training workshop. While I had been doing something similar with teams and organizations I coached, it hadn't occurred to me to use this with complete strangers in training. I use it all the time now.