ACBJ: The Art of the Virtual Coffee: Building relationships from a safe distance


As more of us shift to working from home and generally practicing social distancing, it’s important that we still find creative ways to build our personal and professional relationships.

A surprisingly effective way to do this is what a business partner of mine affectionately dubbed the “virtual coffee.” We can’t very well meet in a public place these days, but we can fire up a Zoom video conference and carry on as if we were face to face.

In fact, video can be more intimate than face-to-face meetings

If you think about it, video meetings can be one of the most intense and intimate forms of communication.

There are no waiters popping by every few minutes, no noisy tables next to you, and no distracting stimuli beyond what happens to be in your home office. It’s just a close-up view of two faces where you’ll catch every subtle expression, and be too engrossed in focused back-and-forth to dare reaching for your phone.

After being part of several virtual coffees and lunches over the past few weeks, I’ve found that I’m actually having more substantive conversations in a shorter amount of time than I ever would in a restaurant or café.

Quick tips to host a top-notch virtual coffee (or lunch, or dinner!)

The most effective virtual meetings will have:

  • A “professional” video setup. I’m not talking studio-level lighting, but do be dressed professionally, angle the camera so it captures your face and upper body, and consider a green screen if there’s a lot of clutter or distraction behind you. To best mimic eye contact, move the other person’s video as close to your camera as possible.
  • Banter. Most of us start off a lunch or coffee meeting with casual conversation to settle in and build rapport. Don’t leave this part out just because you’re on video; it’s critical to building personal relationships, and is an especially vital step toward breaking through the anxieties that many of us are feeling right now.
  • Actual food or drink! Humans have bonded over breaking bread with each other for centuries. Share a full lunch, or have a cup of coffee, tea, or water to nurse during your meeting. Just like casual conversation, this helps relax the environment and open both parties up for more meaningful connection.
  • A clear start and end time. We need to be just as respectful of our time and our guest’s time as we would be in a normal meeting scenario; creating a relaxed environment does not mean throwing standard etiquette to the wind. Many of us are juggling more than usual (like kids who are home from school), and appreciate whatever reliable boundaries we can muster. I’m personally finding that a virtual meeting takes about 30 minutes versus an hour or so for an in-person lunch.

As we all work to adapt to this unfamiliar and uncertain landscape, we must not allow ourselves to become isolated or allow our relationships to hit a brick wall.

So give the virtual coffee a shot, and stay safe!

As originally published in the American City Business Journals.


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