Creating inclusive avenues for socializing in remote-first organizations

Kara J
7 min readJul 4, 2022


When we think about socializing remotely, we know that it will undoubtedly involve setting up some kind of virtual conference call. Sometimes, the organization/manager/leader sets up a meeting link and that’s where the effort stops. Dozens of employees are invited to join a large meeting with no structure, which often turns out to be a superficial conversation about sports/celebrity/pop culture, led by the same few people while everyone else tries to figure out how to say something or what to contribute. Most people have joined because they want to look like a team player, but leave the awkward event feeling more alienated and alone than they did before. They won’t be trying that again, and the truth is, they are far from alone in that feeling. One study claims that only 25% of employees prefer virtual happy hours over more structured events.

It makes sense that only a minority of individuals prefer these events when we think about the extremely awkward social and technological dynamics of a large Zoom call.

Because of the nature of Zoom, only one person can speak and be heard at a time. If multiple individuals are talking, most listeners will hear a jumble of different audio and not be able to follow a single speaker’s line of thought. Your experience on Zoom also depends largely on the quality of your internet connection, which can become exclusionary. Those with the strongest or fastest internet connections may hear more of the conversation faster, and may in turn be heard more clearly and quickly by others as well. Those with poor connections may not be able to get a word in even if they are trying, or may miss large swaths of the conversation. This can be frustrating and awkward for everyone involved!

Because of this awkwardness and frustration in virtual meetings, it is extremely hard to imitate the fulfilling and fun conversations that can happen effortlessly in an in-person meet up. People either don’t speak because no one can hear them, or they can’t properly hear what anyone else is saying and therefore cannot respond to what is being said. Additionally, these large calls where dozens of people will hear everything you say may not be appealing to most people, let alone the more reserved, shy, or introverted people within the organization.

Imagine what the last company happy hour or social event you attended was like. I must search back over two years to retrieve this memory, but what I remember is that in person, large groups of coworkers typically break into smaller social groups and have different conversations. If you don’t hear something or don’t understand something that was said, you can ask for it to be repeated without feeling like a burden on every other person there.

Individuals who like to talk to many different people can flit from one group to another and join different ongoing conversations, while those who prefer to stick with the same small group can do that. Conversations are non-hierarchical as well, while on Zoom the conversation can often end up being led by the most senior person there.

With the major shift in the way we work that has been occurring over the past two years, we have the opportunity to reconstruct the way we socialize in an intentional, inclusive, and evidence-based way that may work even better than the highly extrovert-friendly ways of the past.

I have worked remotely for over 5 years, and in this time I’ve been able to experience and learn about many great and not-so-great strategies for enabling remote socialization. Below I share 7 suggestions that I have learned by research and experience which help to create a more inclusive social atmosphere in your remote organization.

  1. Use Zoom’s breakout rooms for virtual socialization in large groups. Because trying to have any kind of conversation of consequence is almost impossible on Zoom in large groups, facilitators of Zoom social hours should use Zoom’s breakout rooms to break people into smaller groups of 10 or less to allow more meaningful interaction. To satisfy the more extroverted crowd, consider randomizing group assignments and/or allowing individuals to move from one group to another during the hour. (If you don’t use Zoom, see if your vendor provides a similar function.)
  2. Provide structured, cooperative virtual activities. In addition to unstructured social time like happy hours, your organization should make sure to provide structured social time — events like playing trivia, online games, or taking a class together. These kinds of activities provide a more relaxed atmosphere for socialization as people are not there with the sole purpose of having to be good socialites, but can provide value to the social atmosphere as a contributor to a game or activity. Plus, in my opinion, these kinds of events are just more fun. These days there are tons of vendors providing facilitated trivia, games, and classes at reasonable prices — just Google it and you’ll find many great options. Organizing these events can be as simple as signing up, and the pressure won’t be on HR or the team lead to ensure the success of the event — leave it to the professional facilitator!
  3. Be on the lookout for those who are having trouble participating, and intentionally bring them into the conversation. Even in smaller groups, there may still be quiet individuals who end up being overlooked, or those with poor internet connections who can’t get a word in edgewise. Try to bring quiet individuals into the conversation by saying hi and asking them a question relevant to the topic at hand. If you’re talking about weather, for instance, ask them about the weather where they live. Be cognizant of those who may be trying to speak and are being spoken over, and make space for them.
  4. Be aware and self-aware. In addition to the quiet ones, there also may be those who monopolize conversations about themselves or their own interests or use jargon or metaphors instead of plain language. These people may be doing it out of nervousness, anxiety, wanting to be liked/known, or simply excitement to be there. (Most people do not aspire to act like a tool, even if that is how they are perceived.) Whatever the reason, if you are a talker, try to be aware of this and use your enthusiasm, extroversion, or insecurity (whichever it is) to ask questions of others instead of simply monopolizing conversation with your own personal anecdotes or interests. If you see this happening in a conversation, try to redirect or let the topic fizzle in favor of one that more can participate in.
  5. Do not make social interaction or events mandatory. Mandating social interactions formally or building a culture in which it is not okay to decline invites to social events makes them less effective. Understandably, employees and humans in general do not want to be forced into relationships. If the organization provides methods of socializing that meet the needs of everyone, people will not need to be forced into participation. To do this, make sure your organization is providing both synchronous and asynchronous methods that are inclusive (i.e. varied to fit different dispositions, technologies, and styles). My current organization, Oyster®, has a public page with what I think are creative ideas around fostering a healthy remote culture.
  6. Keep it as equal as possible for everyone. When I started working remotely, I was the only person on my team who was remote and often felt left out. Team members who were all in the office together would join calls with me from a conference room and would be chatting and laughing with one another in a way I could not participate in. Proximity bias is a real thing, and in order to counteract it, events should be planned to ensure that each attendee is given the same experience. One way of doing this is having each attendee join from their own computer so each has an equal presence.
  7. ASK employees what they want. I cannot stress this point enough. Far too often, HR departments and leaders make baseless assumptions or unthinkingly follow trends when implementing employee programs. This kind of pro-forma behavior indicates at best a lack of awareness and at worst a disinterest in the reality of employee experience. I have experienced well-meaning HR representatives in complete exasperation when their painstakingly-planned social event flopped because it was too out-of-touch with their workforce. I have also seen many organizations implement poorly-attended yoga sessions or virtual meditations because “that’s what everyone else is doing.” These situations are easily remedied by collecting employee feedback via survey or poll about what kinds of events and activities they would prefer, and then implementing those. Doing what employees prefer will reduce money wasted on trends that fall flat with your workforce, and may end up being less expensive than hiring a weekly facilitator for yoga or meditation. And, it has the added benefit of making employees feel heard because they are heard.

On top of these suggestions (which are not an exhaustive list), it’s important for the organization to empower individual teams to create their own social atmospheres by having their own meetings/programs and budget. The most important and valuable relationships to develop are with the people you work with the most, so letting a team be a team by encouraging their own internal development is essential.

I have found that when I am comfortable and feel accepted as part of my own team, it increases my confidence and ability to contribute outside my team as well, and I’ve been fortunate to work with some amazing individuals who excel at making others feel welcome.

At the end of the day, successful remote work requires a shift in thinking in a multitude areas, including but not limited to how to socialize at work. To that end, the Society for Industrial/Organizational Psychology has conveniently put together a page of evidence-based practices to optimize the remote workplace. Slightly more effort and creativity today can set the organization and the people within it on a more effective path that will increase everyone’s ability to form foundational relationships, and even friendships, which are essential to job satisfaction, trust, and engagement long-term.



Kara J

Writing evidence-based, thought-provoking content to spread knowledge and ideas that help people. I hold an MS I/O Psychology and BA Philosophy.