By Heidi Scott Giusto, PhD
Networking is one of the most important activities professionals can engage in if they want to proactively manage their careers. The COVID-19 pandemic has presented challenges to this activity, and the biggest is also the most obvious: group gatherings have largely been eliminated for the duration of the pandemic, necessitating modified approaches and new (to many of us) technology. Yet, there are still numerous options for networking; in fact, the pandemic has opened doors for some increased opportunities. Here are six ways you can network “pandemic-style.”
Nurture Existing Connections
Networking is fundamentally about building mutually beneficial relationships. To this end, now more than ever is a good time to “check in” with your existing connections to see how they are doing. You can do this by emailing, calling, or even texting. People will appreciate that you’re thinking of them and wanting to see how things are going.
Attend Networking Events via Video Conferencing
Many regular networking events have been moved to video conferencing platforms, such as Zoom, Google Meet, and Microsoft Teams. The wonderful advantage to video conferencing is that you are no longer limited by geography, which means you are able to attend more of these events than if they were in-person. For example, it’s possible to attend one event on Monday from 4-6 p.m. that would have occurred in one city and attend a second one from 6:30-8 p.m. that would have been located in a city an hour away. This is a perfect time to try out and visit new groups to see which one(s) you like and benefit from the most and want to attend regularly.
Build New Connections
You can also build new connections via networking held through video conferencing. I have found this to be particularly true when the networking event uses small group discussions. In Zoom, these are called “Breakout Rooms,” which allow for more intimate discussions and encourage relationship building. The key is to make sure you follow up with the people you meet in your chat rooms and continue to meet and get to know one another through phone calls or additional video conferencing.
As locations open up, you might also be able to consider meeting in-person with another individual. These one-to-one meetings can be outdoors to allow ample room for social distancing. Of course, you would need to be clear about expectations to ensure you’re both comfortable with an in-person meeting. You’ll likely want to forego exchanging business cards and shaking hands, but you can still enjoy the other aspects of meeting in-person that can’t quite be fully conveyed onscreen.
Devote Time to Professional Development
Just like networking events, a multitude of professional development opportunities are now online, and you can easily choose one, or as many as your schedule permits. Personally, I have found more online professional development activities than I know what to do with! Keep an eye out for activities that include other participants, which is a surefire way to build new and meaningful relationships.
Partner with an Accountability Buddy
Whether you take a self-paced course together or have a weekly check-in to review each other’s goals, wins, and misses, pairing up with an accountability buddy offers many advantages. This type of consistent contact with another person fosters support and will likely deepen your relationship.
Be Professional but also Real
Given the need to be professional in personal settings, more conversations have opened up to include family/life topics. As a result, boundaries between work and personal life have been breaking down at lightning speed. I have overheard a president of a company tell people on a video call that she was in her “jammies,” I’ve seen more cats and dogs than I can remember, and men and women alike pause conversations to help children with schoolwork. There is absolutely a time and place to be strictly professional, but the conditions brought about by the pandemic encourage us to bring our whole selves into our work lives.
When I work with my clients and students, I recommend that they strive to create ideal conditions for networking calls and video conferences by choosing a quiet, uncluttered setting, wearing professional attire, and maintaining a businesslike demeanor. However, it’s important to give grace to yourself and to the person you are networking with when life interrupts. And, it’s okay to share some details of your personal life as long as doing so doesn’t distract from the professional objectives your networking conversation is premised on.
Like most activities in life, networking is what you make of it. If you are focused and intentional, networking will be a valuable tool for proactively managing your career—regardless of whether that happy hour meeting occurs in a large room full of people or at your home desk. Even if you’ve never been a huge fan of networking or find it awkward, the unusual time we are living in serves as a great icebreaker! We are all learning together as we navigate the new norms resulting from COVID-19.
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