Virtual Coffee Chats are the Future: What I’ve Learned, What You Need To Know

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Photo by Sincerely Media via Unsplash

I have had a difficult first few months in my new role. I used to be a web application developer. It was a simple life. An introverted life. I was focused on pushing out code, reviewing code, and solutioning technology problems. I communicated with my team via Slack daily but limited my number of conference calls. Very little of my day was spent interacting with others, and needing to learn more about different areas of the business wasn’t my first priority. However, at the beginning of 2020, I wanted a new challenge and started as a senior manager where it would be my job to connect with people. I would be learning about strangers' roles, forging connections, and would need to carve out my place within this scary new business-oriented role.

I knew coffee chats would be an integral part of this role since it’s the cornerstone of networking in business. The subtle dancing around on this context of information trading is tricky. Trying to think of insightful questions on the spot, answering complicated questions and at the same time trying to maintain a casual atmosphere to the conversation. These conversations can move a career forward, give advice on how to advance or talk to, how to solve a problem, getting contacts to get things done, and learning more about a new area of business.

But adapting these coffee chats to the virtual world is challenging. How do you build a relationship over the internet and have an interesting, productive and most importantly not awkward virtual coffee chat?

Virtual coffee chats are replacing in-person meetings and I’ve made them a part of my daily routine. I have found they’re easy to book even on relatively short notice. But these virtual coffee chats won’t just fall into your lap, you need to seek these connections out. Here are some things I’ve learned throughout my daily virtual coffee chats.

Now more than ever. With less commute time, more focused work time, and a desire to connect with people due to quarantine. Don’t be afraid to reach out to someone and ask for a virtual coffee chat. Most people now have more time and motivation to have virtual coffee chats. Given they’re half an hour in length and take no commute time, it’s a winning proposal. Don’t be afraid to ask for someone’s time. People will appreciate you reaching out to them.

This shouldn’t feel like a job interview or an intense business deal. You are making a connection, not a contract. While it’s important to stay formal to a certain degree, it’s okay to dip your foot into the casual waters.

Let's face it, a lot of us have gone to a conference call in pyjamas or a bathrobe. People are not used to video chat yet. Ask the person if they would be comfortable with video chat at least a day ahead of time so they can mentally and physically prepare for it. I like to wear a step below business-casual and I find most others are doing the same. Jeans and a clean t-shirt or button-up is perfect. Meeting face-to-face allows you to forge a stronger connection and you can convey emotion better. It’s the best way of virtual networking, but sometimes people will ask for a phone only. That’s okay too.

30 minutes is the perfect amount of time for first contact. It’s not long enough to get awkward, and not short enough that you’ll be scraping for time. If it goes well and you run out of time that’s a perfect opportunity to have a longer virtual coffee chat next time with them.

Awkward silence happens. It’s the conversation killer. Don’t come into a conversation with an interview mindset. Come in with questions in your back pocket just in case the conversation starts to dry up. By bringing some great questions to the table you are showing your interest and it puts you in a great light.

Some people are less likely to share, and some will overshare. Either way, you need to forge some common ground. Just like a traditional friendship, finding common interests can help with this process. Find those topics everyone seems to have an interest in cooking, gardening, sports, movies and TV. Ask them how their weekend was, what their plans for the next weekend are.

I have found it really beneficial to take notes. In real life, this can be intimidating for those you’re having a coffee chat with. But virtually they won’t know you’re writing. My memory isn’t perfect, so I like to review these notes later and reflect on the advice and conversations I’ve had.

It can be difficult to find connections and build a network without going to networking events. You no longer get to have happenstance conversations and meet new people. Given this new situation, asking for people open to having coffee chats is a great way to build your network. I’ve been connected with some really interesting people by making this request.

Nothing starts a conversation positively like a good, clean background. I’ve had some of my best coffee chats under an umbrella in my backyard. It’s not cluttered and provides a fantastic conversation starter.

Equally conversational, but not the one you want, is a messy background with bad lighting. Several conference applications are also adding virtual backgrounds that provide a nice clean home office behind you to solve these problems, but it’s often obvious what lies below. Convey a professional image by ensuring you have plenty of light hitting your face and a nice clean background — even something as simple as just a white wall — can speak volumes about you.

Make sure you’ve triple-checked your technology. We’re going to be in this situation for a while. Be sure to invest in a quality microphone, webcam and office setup that works every time. No one wants their time wasted when you’re fiddling with the application or the proper lighting in your office.

When you’re wrapping up your coffee chat, speak about the future of your relationship. Would they be interested in meeting quarterly to catch up? Thank them for their time, and make sure you keep to your time. Start and end on time.

Web software developer, leader, speaker and writer. Lover of horror games, craft beer, and rock climbing.

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