Along with everything else, the move to virtual and hybrid events has seen networking sessions translated to an online setting. This change has beggared the question… are they as effective as in-person ones? In micenet’s inaugural great debate, Simon Baggs from Lateral Event Management and Thomas Gray from EventsAir make arguments for and against the assertion that “virtual networking sessions do not work.”

Affirmative

Simon Baggs

CEO

Lateral Event Management

Virtual networking sessions do not work

The winds of change are blowing stronger every year, but there was a cyclone in 2020 and ‘virtual’ was in the eye of the storm. Virtual is serving us well through Covid, but virtual networking is the weak link. It just does not work.

And here is why.

As Homo sapiens, we are designed to work in a certain way, an animalistic way, which is not necessarily compatible with the level of manmade technology available today.

Writing a live show with Dr Michael Mosley has taught me that human social interactions are very much associated with our reward circuits, as oxytocin (the hormone involved in social bonding) modulates those same dopaminergic pathways involved in reward processing.

Moreover, how that social interaction happens seems to matter. For instance, functional MRI data reveals that live, face-to-face interactions are associated with greater activation in the same brain regions involved in reward (i.e., ACC, ventral striatum, amygdala), compared to virtual networking.

Active, in-person social connection is associated with more perceived reward, which in turn affects the very neurological pathways modulating alertness.

There is an aversion, for some people, for virtual networking. Audio is one culprit. It turns out that millisecond delays in virtual verbal responses negatively affect our interpersonal perceptions, even without any internet or technical issues.

Then there is the mutual gaze. Eye contact improves connection, generates faster responses, more memorisation of faces, and increased likeability and attractiveness. The tools that make interactions organically rewarding are compromised over video, where it is impossible to distinguish more than one mutual gaze at a time.

That’s my sciency rationale. But to quote Ian Whitworth:

“I have faith in the human need to get together and physically run with their herd. To gather, drink, talk shit, do deals and make new friends”.

Negative

Thomas Gray

Business development manager

EventsAir

Virtual networking sessions can work

When discussing whether virtual networking sessions do work, let us first set the context.

If asked whether virtual networking can replace traditional face-to-face networking events, my answer would be a resounding ‘no’.

Virtual networking will always be the poor cousin to meeting in person. Even the most interactive virtual networking function simply can’t hold a flame to the intimacy and connection of real, genuine, face-to-face events where we can shake hands, share a drink, have a laugh and break the ice.

If asked whether a virtual networking session can enhance and improve the experience at a virtual event, however, I’d have a different answer altogether. The feedback from the hundreds of thousands of attendees that have attended our virtual OnAIR events in the past nine months has been that virtual networking events do work, in that they allow delegates to connect one-to-one no matter where they are in the world. Virtual networking sessions transcend the boundaries of space.

Virtual networking also creates a sense of community, and to no longer be ‘ships passing in the night’, but be bumping into each other, having fun, and building connections. Breakout rooms and conversation groups can be set up to foster a dedicated session for focused discussions.

What’s more, virtual networking sessions are a great way to break up the monotony of content-based sessions (which are a one-way stream of information), allowing attendees to have their voice heard on certain topics in a more democratised format, like roundtables and discussion groups.

Virtual networking sessions being online allows for the exchange to be recorded. Notes can also be typed alongside conversations, and then exported to email – making record-keeping much more efficient.

So, while virtual networking sessions will never replace in-person ones, they do work to make virtual events more dynamic, interactive and enjoyable.