CSCCE Community Tools Trial 2.0 Recap: Virtual networking events

In late February, we relaunched our Community Tools Trials. This time around we’ve adjusted the format to provide the time and space to solve a specific challenge related to hosting online events each month, by pooling the diverse experiences and knowledge of the members of our community of practice. 

Our earlier tools trials, “Tools Trials 1.0,” took a methodical approach to testing a variety of events platforms, with a primary focus on how the tool worked and what kinds of events it would be suited to (you can read our recap blog posts here). This series, however, “Tools Trials 2.0,” is putting the specific use case first, and then figuring out a solution (or choice of solutions!) that is engaging, inclusive, and accessible. 

The first of the 2.0 series took place on 25 February 2021, and focused on virtual networking events. Community member Rachael Ainsworth of the Software Sustainability Institute wanted to test out an icebreaker idea with a sizable group, as well as have a larger discussion about what icebreakers work online, what platforms are out there, and how different users might experience the event. 

This month’s use case:

What kind of event are you planning? E.g., group meeting, networking event, brainstorming session.A 30-45 minute networking and social programme activity as part of a larger conference to facilitate opportunities for participants to connect outside of Zoom. We would like to attempt a virtual activity analogous to the in-person activity where participants line up along an axis and take one step forward if the prompt applies to them. The host will ask a question/state a prompt to reveal participant backgrounds. This will segment the group on different axes to see what they have in common and different in order to connect with each other.
How many people are you expecting to host? Up to 50, but this is not set in stone.
Do your meeting attendees know each other already? Some do, some don’t. We want to provide opportunities for those that don’t already know each other to connect.
Are you scheduling across time zones? If so, which ones? Targeting [evening] BST, but registered participants from any timezones are welcome to join.
Are you looking for a standalone platform, or something that will integrate with something you are already using? We will be using for transcription during the main event, ideally it will integrate with that for use during social activities. Otherwise, standalone.
What features do you need the platform to have? E.g., video, audio, and chatVideo, audio, chat, and virtual space(s) to move around.
What features would be nice, but not necessary?Ideally, participants will be able to click a link to join and edit any personal settings without having to create an account. Customisable/configurable spaces.
What are your accessibility needs?Ability to communicate instructions to those with hearing impairments either through integration with or through chat functionality. Simple interface/ease of use for those who are visually impaired.
The February 2021 Tools Trial use case, as provided by Rachael Ainsworth of the Software Sustainability Institute.

What does a “Tools Trial 2.0” look like? 

We started our 90 minute Zoom meeting, which involved about 20 participants, with Rachael sharing an overview of the use case and all participants were invited to ask clarifying questions. Then, and only then, did we start exploring solutions. Since we’d had advanced warning of the use case (we shared it on the blog and in the CSCCE Slack a couple of weeks ahead of time), we were prepared with Gather and Wonder spaces to use, and community member Arne Bakker also had a Spatial Chat room ready to go. After talking through the idea for the activity (a “race to get to know you,” see below), Rachael asked to try out Spatial Chat, and so we headed over to Arne’s prepared space to try out the activity. 20-30 minutes later, we headed back over to Zoom to continue the discussion, gradually refining Rachael’s idea and troubleshooting some of the things that weren’t working. 

Key takeaways:

  • Be goal oriented. The goal of your event will likely drive your platform choice. For example, if you are trying to give people a break from Zoom, then exploring alternative platforms is a good idea. However, if you primarily want to give participants time to connect and talk, using Zoom’s breakout functionality might be sufficient. 
  • Consider how to make the activity relevant and enjoyable for your members. Ice breakers work best when they feel relevant to the members taking part, and don’t put people into unnecessarily uncomfortable situations, e.g., by asking them to behave in a way that feels more extroverted than they would prefer. Consider carefully who is likely to be participating, whether they already know one another, and how much technical support they might need to enjoy the activity. Is the activity themed in a way that is relevant to the wider event that they are participating in?
  • Consider accessibility from the start. Some networking apps place increased demands on your computer (you know that sound of your laptop fan frantically whirring away?), and may also require specific internet browsers and a high speed connection. Consider how this may affect different participants and their ability to participate in the community. 
  • Have a plan B. With conflicting aims, such as trying something new vs. wanting to ensure everyone can participate, it may make sense to plan two concurrent events. One event might utilize a networking platform like Spatial Chat or Wonder, whereas the other might involve an activity in Zoom (or whatever platform your community members are familiar with  using). Whatever you do, be prepared to provide quick technical support.
  • Get creative. Networking events and icebreaker activities CAN be fun online! You will have to think through how the various aspects of your platform support things like small group video chat, text-based chat, and the ability of participants to move around or choose who they talk to. You will also have to be prepared to actively facilitate the event, which is why we suggest that you…
  • Test out your event ahead of time. Assemble a group of friendly critics who will help you refine not only the technical aspects of your event, but also the activity itself and how best to facilitate. For example, in this month’s trial, we played with the “race to get to know you” format (see below), and discovered that having open ended questions that participants could answer in text “bubbles” made for a more inclusive experience. However, this test also highlighted that not everyone in our group could get into Spatial chat due to browser, bandwidth, or server proximity problems. 

Some virtual icebreaker ideas for your next event

ActivitySuggested platformOverview
Scavenger huntGatherCreate a list of activities or interests that participants have to find represented within the community. For example, everyone has to find one person with a dog, one person who likes coffee, and one person who enjoys winter. Participants then have 20 minutes to introduce themselves, ask each other about the prompts, and then continue around the group until they have completed the task. 
Top tip: Make the scavenger prompts relevant to your community or the event they’re attending. This will help set the scene for a larger event, or help you craft interesting and inclusive prompts. 
Zoom stamps
[See this blog post by Julie Lowndes for more on this activity]
ZoomCreate a custom graphic that will mean something to your attendees (e.g., a diagram of the internal structure of the Earth or a map of the world). Share in Zoom, and then ask participants to use the annotate feature to stamp or draw on the graphic (in our previous examples, participants might indicate where their research interests lie or where in the world they are from). 
Top tip: There are only a limited number of stamp shapes in Zoom, so for larger groups you may want to structure this as a breakout activity.
Race to get to know youSpatial ChatDevelop a list of easy-to-answer questions and then ask all the participants to line up horizontally across the screen. Use broadcast/spotlight mode to ask the questions, and be prepared with open-ended follow up questions for participants to answer in the chat (e.g., step forward if your favorite color is blue! Follow up: if not blue, then what is your favorite color?). 
Top tip: Create a custom background for your room with 4 quadrants, and modify the activity so that participants  gradually end up in small groups that they can then socialize in. 
Community barometer
[See this blog post by Stefanie Butland for more on this activity]
WonderSet up your space so that folks can easily see where they are moving along a line or into color-coded areas. Then, as you ask your question (e.g., how long have you been part of this community, 1 year, 5 years, as long as you can remember) you ask participants to distribute themselves along the line or into the corresponding areas. This results in folks clustering into small groups in order to chat with other members with similar experiences. 
Top tip: This activity requires knowing your community and careful facilitation. Take time to plan your questions and how exactly you will ask people to move. This might involve setting aside a little extra time to explain at the beginning or doing a “test” round with a light-hearted example. 
Speed-networkingZoomPerhaps the simplest icebreaker on the list, and the easiest to pull off technically. Either randomly (best for large groups) or selectively (best if you know a smaller group well) set people up one-on-one in Zoom breakout rooms. Give them 3-5 minutes to introduce themselves, and perhaps offer a prompt for them to answer. When the time is up, move them on to another breakout to meet someone else. Continue until you are out of time. 
Top tip: This activity routinely results in participants saying “I didn’t have enough time!” (regardless of how much time you give them) or “I didn’t get to meet so-and-so.” After the activity concludes, leave some time for unstructured networking, with breakout rooms available for folks to reconvene conversations, reach out to the people they haven’t met yet, or have a small group chat. 
Some virtual icebreaker and networking event ideas, and platforms that support them, as suggested by participants in our February 2021 Community Tools Trial.

Next month’s Tools Trial

Join us on 25 March 2021, when we’ll host a trial devoted to “Zoom bombing,” that awful situation when an outsider breaks into your space, disrupts your meeting, and causes distress to your participants. We’ll walk through a checklist to help you prepare in advance for such an eventuality, and then run a “fire drill” exercise to practice acting swiftly and decisively to protect your participants. 

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