Image for Virtual Roundtables Can Inject Insight, Variety in Remote Workplaces

Meetings are out, at least for now, and virtual events are in, maybe forever. So, are all virtual events alike? Not really.

We are familiar with webinars, where there are speakers and unseen viewers. We have become accustomed to video conference calls where most participants appear on screen and raise their hand virtually to speak. Then there are virtual roundtables.

The virtual roundtable is meant to replicate an actual roundtable, engaging a small number of select attendees in a group conversation. Virtual roundtables might involve peer-to-peer exchanges, an online focus group conversation, a team brainstorming session or a book club get-together.

The technology for all virtual events is pretty much the same, but the structure, agenda and expectations of each event are different. The emphasis for virtual roundtables is on participating rather than attending, on sharing rather than listening, on gaining insight rather than taking notes.

An attribute of virtual roundtables not to overlook – they represent a chance to do something that otherwise would be physically improbable.

Think of virtual roundtables as a way to replicate valuable in-person get-togethers in the remote work experience era. Virtual roundtables can be:

  • An intimate, all-weather, mask-less gathering at a virtual Hole 19 for contemporaries to discuss issues of mutual interest.
  • Molded to feel like an actual focus group where participants can see each other as they trade their views in response to questions, branding images or video.
  • Organized so team members experience a common setting conducive to brainstorming a refined strategy, new product or creative idea.
  • Planned to allow energetic give-and-take and free-for-all ideation. 

In-person roundtables require more than a basic invitation delivered by email, and so should virtual roundtables. In fact, the more virtual roundtables can resemble in-person environments, the virtual dimension of the roundtable will be less distracting and more like the color of a carpet in a room.

The challenge to spark engagement at a virtual roundtable isn’t all that different from how to spark engagement at an in-person roundtable. The organizer must set the stage with a stimulating topic, provide an engaging online host and create an inviting atmosphere. Thought must be given to a tangible takeaway, much like a PowerPoint after a webinar. Who you invite should be strategic to generate group anticipation and electricity. A team online brainstorming session might get a beneficial boost by adding a non-team participant.

The virtual conference call typically involves the usual suspects. Virtual roundtables flourish when the online group has a special attraction, such as convening people who rarely take the time to compare or share experiences.

The persistent pandemic, which may still grow worse before it gets better, has nixed many in-person meetings and gatherings for public health safety reasons. Virtual events are filling that void, but also causing virtual fatigue because many of the online sessions follow a similar pattern of dialing in, watching others speak and occasionally chiming in. The virtual roundtable can be the refreshing exception, where participants are specifically invited to engage on a topic, where there is less of a chance that participants will be checking their phone and being otherwise distracted.

An attribute of virtual roundtables not to overlook – they represent a chance to do something that otherwise would be physically improbable. A good example: Convening a group of customers or clients to talk about their experiences dealing with the pandemic and share tips on how to cope. Minus physical boundaries and busy travel schedules, more opportunities exist for creative uses of virtual roundtables.

Virtual roundtables won’t paint rainbows out of your home office window. But they can inject some variety and insight into an isolated environment and a mind-numbing routine of back-to-back-to-back Zoom calls. They can allow you to engage instead of just look and listen. Virtual roundtables offer the potential of making you feel as if you are back in the office conference room meeting face-to-face with people.

Virtual roundtables can open the door to new thoughts while projecting your own thought leadership in the virtual world. Think of hosting virtual roundtables in the same opportunistic way as a business open house. It is a moment to shine with an idea rather than serve wine in a plastic cup. In fact, a successful virtual roundtable might cheer up more than a glass of wine.