Virtual Happy Hours Help Co-Workers, Industry Peers Stay Connected

Roy Maurer By Roy Maurer April 6, 2020
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​The COVID-19 outbreak is reshaping all aspects of work, including the time-honored tradition of the after-work happy hour.

Employees working remotely—and sometimes their employers and professional resource groups—have gotten creative in adapting to the restrictions on gathering in bars and restaurants by moving happy hour meetups to a virtual format, using video-communication technology like Zoom and Google Hangouts.

"When you work remotely, especially during a stressful time like this, it can be easy to put your head down and focus completely on work," said Brie Weiler Reynolds, career development manager and coach at FlexJobs, a leading job site for flexible work.

"Having virtual happy hours, coffee breaks or lunches with remote teams can foster a sense of togetherness, camaraderie and understanding. That kind of interaction makes remote working relationships much stronger in the long run."


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Coronavirus and COVID-19

Cultivating Team Spirit

Building a positive team-family spirit is a core value at popular online retailer Zappos in Las Vegas, said Krissee Chasseur, brand aura research and development lead at the company.

"We are an immensely social company … it's written in our cultural DNA," she said. "To be honest, we also love a good cocktail and we're never at a loss for a reason to get together and celebrate a milestone or get some work done over a gin and tonic."

Chasseur began inviting her team of 100 to weekly virtual happy hours to keep their day-to-day feeling as normal as possible. "I just started asking them to grab a drink and sign onto Amazon Chime," she said. "I didn't know if people would like it or even pay attention, but it's really taken off."

Up to 60 people have participated in the weekly hour-long happy hours Zappos has held and she plans to continue them on a weekly basis through at least the end of May.

"I also make it clear that anyone is welcome to forward the invite to other employees at Zappos who are missing a face-to-face connection with our co-workers or just want a place to virtually hang out," Chasseur said.

Virtual happy hours have also been an antidote to self-isolation for the Washington, D.C., regional teams at OneDigital, an employee health and benefits provider. "Not only do we have a regular virtual happy hour, we also have fun, virtual lunches scheduled," said Spencer Whalen, senior business development executive at OneDigital.

About 30 to 40 people attended the company's first virtual happy hour last week, and more are being scheduled each week. "It's not required, but people avoid talking about work during this time," Whalen said. "We're going to start adding themed events to make it a bit more interesting as well."

The response to virtual happy hours at Zappos has been "absolutely amazing," Chasseur said. "We've had a majority of our team attending and received a lot of positive feedback about the support and engagement that it provides on a consistent basis. We didn't want to get stuck in a loop of only having meetings and calls for business-related tasks."

Chasseur found that the best way to conduct the gathering was with an agenda so that everyone is included. "This is definitely a work in progress and so our format is changing each time," she said.

For the first happy hour, a set of conversation prompts were provided to groups of six to eight people at a time, who were able to activate their cameras and mics to answer the question, chat with one another, and give a virtual toast. Those not currently on camera could also communicate with the group via the chat feature.

At the most recent happy hour, the company's artist in residence put together an art project for interested participants. "We sent out a materials list ahead of time—just a few simple things that anyone could find around their home—and during happy hour he taught us a really cool technique for making shadow puppets with paper and string," Chasseur said. "We asked everyone who was crafting along with us to activate their cameras and mics so people could follow along with their work."

Virtual happy hours aren't just about having fun. Chasseur said that Zappos employees have responded that the opportunity to connect about things in their personal and professional lives has meant a lot to them, both mentally and spiritually.

Recruiters Helping Recruiters

Carla Brown and her teammates at Fynd Talent, a recruiting firm in Los Angeles, had been hosting bimonthly in-person meetups as the Anti Recruiting Recruiting Club (ARRC)—a community of talent acquisition professionals engaging under the motto "recruiters helping recruiters."

"We started the ARRC to foster a connection with recruiters," Brown said. "The recruitment industry can be disjointed and competitive, with people working against each other rather than with each other."

When meeting in person became impossible, the ARRC put together a virtual mingle to "see each other's faces and to talk about the challenges we're facing," she said. Brown had received an influx of messages from fellow recruiters reaching out for help or guidance during this unprecedented time. Over 90 people RSVPed for the first mingle and about 30 showed up, with most of them staying on for the whole hour.

"We discussed both business and personal challenges, hiring freezes, technology issues, handling candidates virtually, working remotely, and how to sell jobs during such a weird time," she said.

"There was a lot of great feedback and interaction." 

ARRC virtual happy hours are being planned monthly, with the next one scheduled for April 23 at 1:00 pm Pacific Standard Time.

Staying In Touch

Chris Russell, managing director of RecTech Media, a recruiting technology consulting and research firm in Trumbull, Conn., built his presence in the HR and talent acquisition (TA) space through hard work and hustle, with one of the payoffs being all the friends he's made in the industry. 

Enforced self-isolation and canceled events means he's no longer able to meet peers and colleagues, so he decided to host a virtual happy hour each Friday afternoon to make up for it.

"Having that face-to-face interaction, even though it's virtual, is more important than ever now," he said. "It's a replacement for all the conferences and in-person meetups that've been canceled."

Russell said there's no agenda at his happy hour and it's technically open to all but geared to those in HR and recruiting. There have been three so far and they've lasted as long as four hours.  

"It's very active," he said. Russell and a group of HR and TA practitioners and vendors talk shop—the news of sizable layoffs at job site ZipRecruiter broke during one of his happy hours, for example—but also about dealing with the changes brought on by the virus and life in general.

"We get to virtually meet each other's families, kids and partners, which is fun," he said.

Russell plans to keep the meetups going "for as long as I can't get out and go anywhere."

Supporting Professional Engagement

Prior to COVID-19, the DC SHRM chapter held monthly in-person networking events where members could take part in educational programming and certification study groups, among other things.

"Once we made the decision to pause all in-person meetings, we knew we needed to keep our membership engaged," said Whalen, who is the membership director for DC SHRM. After the idea of holding a virtual happy hour worked so well at OneDigital, Whalen decided it would be a great idea to introduce to chapter members.

Fifty people registered for the first one, and about 30 people attended. "The feedback was incredibly positive, so we're looking to host another one," said DC SHRM Executive Director Jennifer Thornton. "We don't have a schedule set yet, but I'm thinking we'll aim for one happy hour per month until in-person events begin to resume."

The first event was members-only, but Whalen said they'd like to try at least one event open to any local HR practitioners who may be interested.

"People welcomed the opportunity to talk to other HR professionals going through the same issues they're facing right now," he said. "Attendees also expressed to me how impressed they were by how many new connections they made during our first happy hour."

Whalen said the group will probably start adding other virtual events, including breakfast or lunch roundtable discussions.

Making the Most of Virtual Happy Hours

Tips include:

  • Keep it relatively small or appoint a moderator so it doesn't get unwieldy. Agendas also help for larger groups.
  • Stress comfort but keep in mind that participants should be illuminated effectively and keep ambient noise down to a minimum.
  • Use the grid view on video-conferencing platforms so you can see everyone simultaneously in equal-size boxes while people are speaking.
  • Enable the visual cues on video-conferencing software which minimizes people talking over one another.
  • Be a good listener.

Provide input as the DOL develops further guidance on the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. Participate online at https://ffcra.ideascale.com through April 10—an extended deadline.


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