Virtual watch parties

A group of people watching a video together while sitting on a Zoom call.

Does this sound like a terrible idea? A few months ago, I would have said yes.

But I’ve done this a number of times now with my current team at work, and here are some reasons why I’ve actually really liked it.

Why watching videos as a team is a good idea in general

It’s a good way to do professional development as a group

Even if you explicitly tell your team it’s ok to spend time on personal/professional development, in practice it can be challenging for people to actually take the time to do so. Perhaps they feel bad if they don’t see others spending time on PD, or there’s always a steady stream of work to do and they struggle to make themselves switch contexts, or maybe once they finally sit down to do it they are frequently interrupted by team members who happen to need their input on something at that exact moment. If you put team video-watching sessions into their calendars, many of these issues tend to go away.

I’ve also found that group watching sessions are beneficial because then most of the team has engaged with the same learning resources. It makes the content more “sticky” if there is a common frame of reference across the team (e.g. “if we use this approach, we’re deviating from the design pattern we learned in the XYZ video from last week”). It also gives greater flexibility in terms of work assignments; if only one person has done a deep dive on a particular topic, then it’s tough to find people on the team who even feel qualified to review their work in that area, much less actually contribute to the work itself.

Finally, it’s just more engaging to learn with a group of people that you know. I know from personal experience that if I’m watching a video on my own, I’m far more likely to multi-task or get distracted than if I’m watching that same video in a group (and potentially discussing the content in real time… more on that below).

It’s a good way to have fun as a group

Watching a movie is a pretty standard group social activity, usually among friends or family. In my experience, group movie watching (either in-person or virtual) is actually pretty good as a team building activity, too. I’ve used the virtual version as a pandemic-friendly replacement for “going out for lunch” when we want to celebrate something as a team.

Instead of sitting in a restaurant, we watch a movie while we eat lunch, and having that to focus on is a great way to remove the awkwardness of watching each other eat over video conference. In this case, we choose something that’s just for fun - just a regular movie that we can access via a streaming service.

Why virtual watch parties can be more effective than doing them in person

Virtual side discussions are less disruptive

While watching the video at their own desks, people can discuss the content via text-based chat. Typing in a chat is a lot less disruptive to the group as a whole than having a side discussion while watching a video in person. Participants can check in on the chat periodically at their convenience, or even ignore it altogether if that’s their preference. It’s usually much harder to ignore or defer side chats that are happening in a shared physical space.

Encouraging a text-based side chat means you can react and share insights in real time, rather than waiting until the end of the video and trying to remember the details of things that were said earlier on.

You don’t need to find a large physical space to watch the video

Everyone joins from the comfort of their own space. No need to spend time finding and booking a large meeting room. No need to spend time fighting with AV equipment in the room that may or may not be working properly.

Virtual watching can be more inclusive

Depending on the make-up of your team, hosting a virtual watch party might mean that more of your team members can participate, more fully. The watch-from-your-own desk format means that team members who are not geographically located near the rest of the group, or those who may want to use assistive technologies to help them understand and process the video, have an equal opportunity to participate.

So what should we watch?

If you think that a virtual watch party is something you’d like to try, but you’re not sure what kind of video to choose, here are some categories of things my team has watched that worked well for us.

  • Talks/presentations that we hope will help us develop strategies to address challenges we’re having in our team (technical, process, etc.)
  • Overviews of new technologies that we are considering trying out, or want to get better at using
  • Classic movies that some team members know and love, and others will be seeing for the first time

Are there any drawbacks?

I haven’t discovered any significant disadvantages to virtual team video watching. Obviously, you’ll need at least one person who has a good internet connection (to play and share the video). And for the participants who are not sharing the content, there is usually a small bit of choppiness in the video playback (in my experience, not very noticeable after the first few minutes, though).

Overall, the virtual watch party is definitely a technique that I’ll be continuing to use even after it’s possible for my team to gather in person.

Written on July 9, 2021