If you're missing your friends and co-workers during these days of social distancing, consider hosting a virtual cocktail hour. It's fun, it's free (or very cheap), and it will lift your spirits more than you might imagine.

At least, that's how it worked for me. I'm in the Seattle area, the first U.S. region to be hit with the coronavirus, so social distancing has been a thing here for a bit longer than elsewhere. Being a solopreneur, I've long known about the isolation that goes with working at home, and I've learned to combat it by seeking out groups and social gatherings -- an option that isn't available now.

But yesterday was different. I attended a virtual meeting of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) Northwest Chapter. These are usually in-person meetings but his time, everyone was social distancing so we met by Zoom from home. Nine of us showed up, and we spent a couple of hours, each with either coffee or an alcoholic beverage (it was late afternoon so you could go either way). We chatted about our work and the disruption of our daily lives. Two participants were friends that I know well, a few more were people that I've only gotten to know over email and video chat, and a few were people I'd never met at all. But we all share the same profession and we traded success stories and frustrations and just generally gabbed for a couple of hours. 

Afterward, I found myself in a better mood than I've been for more than a week. I love hanging out at home with my husband, and I've stayed in touch with close friends and also co-workers throughout this period of social distancing. But I hadn't had that experience of being in a communal group for way too long and though it certainly wasn't the same as meeting a bunch of friends in a bar, that Zoom meeting really helped fill the void.

I highly recommend you try it. Here's how.

1. Pick the video chat platform that's easiest for everyone.

The right chat platform will be different for different groups. I like Zoom because it's user friendly and it's easy to send invitations to anyone. The drawback to Zoom, though, is that the free version will only allow for a 40-minute group meeting. Google Hangouts, Facebook, and Skype are all viable options, and there are many more. Choose whichever platform your co-workers or friends are most familiar with or like best. 

2. Set a specific time and plan for a one-hour event.

I know, I know. When you go out for drinks with your friends in real life, it can last till the wee hours of the morning. Unfortunately, sitting in front of a computer or -- worse -- a smartphone looking at your friends is a different thing, and you'll get tired of it more quickly. Also, you may have co-workers or friends who are unaccustomed to video chatting for fun and feel uncomfortable at the prospect. Limiting your encounter to an hour, at least the first time you do it, will make the whole thing less intimidating. Besides, you don't want to keep going until people are bored and checking their email. It's much better to end when people are eager for more. That way, you can schedule another happy hour next week and everyone will want to come back.

3. Encourage everyone to bring a drink.

There's something nicely communal about drinking together, even if you're only doing it remotely. And having an alcoholic or non-alcoholic beverage in hand will help everyone feel more relaxed.

4. Plan the conversation.

There would be no need to do this at a real happy hour. But since people generally start out a bit uncomfortable and shy at a video chat get-together, you should plan to break the ice by leading the discussion if needed. At the ASJA video chat, the group leader asked participants for "news and needs" -- any news they wanted to share and any issues they needed help or advice about. You can take a similar approach, or a different one that fits your particular group. If some of them are working at home for the first time, ask how that's going and if they're running into any issues -- that will probably start a whole conversation. If there are people in the video chat who don't know each other, make sure to begin the event by going through the list of participants and having people introduce themselves, saying a bit about who they are and what they do.

5. Gently guide the conversation, if needed.

These are tense times, so it's easy for a group conversation to devolve either into deep pessimism or divisive politics. Luckily, you've planned a conversation, so if people are getting into too negative or frustrating a discussion, you can politely interrupt and steer them back to the original topic.

And that's it. Relax, enjoy hanging out with your tribe, and have fun. As an added bonus, there won't be any glasses to pick up or bar tab to pay when you're done.