Meagan Roloff, CAE
Meagan Roloff, MA, CCLS, CAE is director of member engagement and partnerships at the Association of Child Life Professionals in Arlington, Virginia.
While virtual conferences may have their downsides, one organization found that they created a better opportunity for early-career and young professionals to better connect with board members and other more experienced members.
The COVID-19 pandemic, while disruptive, also yielded some unexpected silver linings. For the Association of Child Life Professionals (ACLP), it gave us the opportunity to rethink networking events within our now virtual conference.
To give students and young professionals the chance to connect with experienced members more easily, we decided to use randomly assigned virtual breakout rooms during conference networking sessions. This meant that a breakout group could have a mix of students or young professionals, mid-career folks, managers, board members, and retired members. Younger members reported the format removed the intimidation they would have felt approaching board members, committee leaders, and other respected thought leaders at an in-person event.
However, it took extra planning to make these virtual networking sessions effective. When ACLP hosted in-person conferences, the networking time often took place in the exhibit hall or coincided with a meal, so we could rely on the environment to stimulate conversation. In absence of those environmental factors, our membership team determined themes for each session and planned prompts for the breakout groups to discuss.
We also gave participants directions on how to assign the dreaded group reporter role (e.g., who lives closest to ACLP headquarters, who drank the most coffee so far today, who is most recently certified). The reporters were tasked with sharing the themes of their small group conversation with all participants when we returned from breakouts. Depending on the session length, we had three to five prompts planned and made sure to reshuffle the breakout groups for each discussion.
If your organization is considering something similar at an upcoming event, we recommend the following tips to make this virtual networking format effective:
Have at least two session leaders. For us, this meant having one person focused on hosting and facilitating, while one or two others managed the videoconferencing software and helped participants troubleshoot.
Choose your facilitator wisely. Over the last year, we’ve all learned how much extra energy it takes to engage and excite participants through video. Whether the facilitator is a staff member or volunteer, make sure they are comfortable with the virtual format, comfortable with the content, and can bring the right energy to get your members talking.
Have a plan for timing—but be flexible. Our virtual networking sessions ranged from one to two hours long. Our session leaders made a point of hopping into breakout rooms to see how conversation was flowing and communicating if more or less time would be helpful to participants.
Make sure your discussion prompts are universal. There is a time and place for niche conversations, but for effective intergenerational networking, prompts need to be broad so everyone—from your students to your board leaders—feels comfortable participating.
Make a slide deck with instructions. For every discussion, we had a slide that included the prompt, instructions about introductions and selecting the group reporter, and how much time they could expect to be in the smaller group. We also encouraged participants to either take a picture of the slide or jot down notes from it before moving to breakouts.
Use broadcast messages for time checks. This helps groups wind their conversations down naturally before being pulled back to the main room.
And remember, don’t overthink it or try to control every moment. Give participants permission to go off topic. The prompts are important to give participants a starting place. After all, nothing is worse than a quiet room of people just staring at one another over video. However, we always kept our primary goals in mind: to inspire conversations, build community, and try to recreate those serendipitous hallway moments you experience at in-person events.