9 Truths & Myths About Networking in Times Like These

The chaos of no more coffee dates | Photo By Paula Brand

Many people are struggling with networking right now. Specifically, extroverts who thrive on in-person interaction may have a harder time adjusting to online interactions. Introverts may find it easier because they are often adept at holding a one-to-one conversation and listening intently, two key skills that help with virtual networking. Regardless of your personality, you can employ the tips below to grow your networking during COVID and beyond.

The top question people are asking me these days is “How do I network during COVID?” and I’ve heard a lot of discussion around how networking is so different these days. While I do agree there are some stark realities that have positive and negative effects on execution, overall, I would say that the main strategies for effective networking haven’t really changed all that much.  

What has changed 

LESS OPPORTUNITIES:  Of course, the biggest challenge of networking during the COVID pandemic is the limit on in-person interaction. Remote work has decreased the number of people we effortlessly see on a daily basis and the risk of infection has made large gatherings unwise and in some places illegal. Normally, December would offer a plethora of celebrations and in-person gatherings but this year many events will be postponed or held online.  

TIPS: First you will need to see who is having events. If online, you still want to dress the part and engage with attendees. People may be lonely and open to new connections. If you don’t see events, could you create your own online gathering to bring together colleagues or friends?   

MORE PLANNING: It’s harder to be spontaneous about speaking with people. The way our lives are now, it’s better to plan ahead for a conversation because the chances of “running into someone” have decreased exponentially. Also, with COVID having such varied effects on people’s lives (some are busier than ever while others have more free time), it’s best to feel out the situation to find a time that works for everyone. 

TIP: Without knowing someone’s home situation, you should avoid calling outside of usual business hours. E-mailing may be a better way to reach others since it gives them time to reply thoughtfully and respond when it is convenient for them. 

MORE POSSIBILITIES: Since networking during COVID usually means online or by phone, it breaks the boundaries of needing to meet in the same geographic location. This makes the world more accessible to you. Also, it may allow the inclusion of people far away. For example, Leanin.org has made some events accessible worldwide, even though their key concept is about building many local community Circles. As a result, I’ve seen global audiences in the regional meetings that LeanInDC has held during COVID and I have made new connections. 

TIP: Keep other time zones in mind when setting meetings and confirm the understanding of what time it will be for attendees when finalizing plans. Time Buddy is an easy app I use that gives you other time zones in comparison to yours.

The biggest downsides of virtual meetings are twofold. First, it’s generally harder to build rapport without in-person interaction, and second, people are becoming fatigued with so much online activity. In addition, meeting online requires more effort. You need to make sure you are properly dressed, that your background is not messy and that you are free from distractions. This can be challenging when sharing spaces. 

TIP: When appropriate, suggest a good old fashioned phone call instead of a virtual meeting. While it may be harder to build rapport the first time you meet, there’s less pressure for each person to feel “on stage.” Many of the platforms offering virtual meeting capability also offer free long distance calls (i.e., WhatsApp, Skype, Google Meet, and FreeConferenceCall.com). 

I recently had two of my first virtual conference experiences. It was an interesting contrast as one had around 150 attendees and one had 5000+. Both were holding the events virtually for the first time. The smaller event felt warmer because it was smaller, I knew many of the attendees and it was simple to engage because they used Zoom. The other conference used a fancy platform, that failed technically and wasn’t as easy to use, and it was much harder to connect with others. When there are so many people it’s harder to be strategic about who you try to meet because of sheer numbers. 

TIP: When you are joining online group events, remember that you can privately chat with another attendee. While you don’t want to distract the person from the meeting itself, you can briefly chat with an acquaintance privately. You might type “Hello Sarah, It’s good to see you at this meeting. I hope you are well.” If she writes back with enthusiasm, you might say, “I don’t want to distract you right now, but I’d love to catch up soon. I’ll reach out to you later.” That’s the new virtual equivalent of “running into” someone.  

Here are more ways to positively engage with others online:  

  • During meetings, share links to helpful resources in the chat box and turn on your camera so others feel connected with you.
  • Utilize social media to follow speakers and attendees before or after the event. You can share your intention to attend an event with a post such as “I’m looking forward to attending this year’s MACCA conference.”
  • Where appropriate, you can tag specific people and use event hashtags to help spread the word. Share kudos if you enjoyed a speaker. For example, you could post “I loved the personal branding insights shared by @WilliamArruda at #ATD2020.”
  • If it’s too rushed during the event, jot down the person’s name and any contact information shared. Then, reach out after the event. You could write “I really enjoyed the #PennWomen conference and hope you did too. I noticed we both attended the session on empowering women. If you’d ever like to speak more about that topic, please let me know.”

What hasn’t changed 

Even though some things have changed, many of the key strategies of great networking are true whether you are trying to connect with others in person or virtually. Below are tactics and tips to enhance your efforts. 

You will get more out of an interaction if you put in time ahead of the event. You might learn about the keynote speakers, research the hosting organization and its leaders, or review an attendee list so you can plan out who to approach. Know your goal for the event (even if it’s just to see what happens).  

TIPS: Plan what you will say if someone asks you to briefly introduce yourself. You may have slightly different versions depending on the audience. For professional events, if you see someone who is planning to attend the same event, send a LinkedIn invitation to connect beforehand. For example, “I’m looking forward to attending the NCDA conference in Atlanta next year. I hope our paths cross during the event. If not, I’m open to connecting outside of the event too.”  

While some groups have stopped meeting altogether, many groups are holding virtual events. You will need to look into which groups are still meeting and find out how to register.  Most of the professional groups I belong to are still having events during COVID. I am attending those and also stretching myself, attending meetings where I don’t know anyone, and attending virtual conferences for the first time.  

TIP: Find a professional group that focuses on an area of your expertise. You can do this by running a Google search with keywords such as “Global Career Coach Associations.” When I try this, I see results with at least four reputable organizations related to the career industry. Find out if they are meeting, how they are meeting, and how you can join.  

You can also ask colleagues which organizations they have joined and recommend. There are so many associations tied to industries that it’s hard not to find one if you are really looking. In fact, there may be multiple organizations for your industry. You might have to attend a few as a guest to see which one you want to join (there’s not enough money or time to join them all). If you find a good match, consider getting involved in committees or leadership roles.   

Most people do not follow up so you will stand out if you do. The people who follow up the next day or same day after an event give a perception of being organized and action oriented. Send a LinkedIn invitation afterward such as “It was nice to meet you at the conference last week. I was hoping we might stay in touch through LinkedIn.  Would you like to connect?” 

TIP: Set aside time post-event on your calendar to reach out to people who inspired and intrigued you. This is a powerful new tactic I have started employing. 

Unless you need a break (because you are going through hard times, health issues, burned out on job search, etc.) you should always be networking. By that I mean, always remain open to meeting new people, attend events that widen your network, and seek out people who you want to get to know better. It’s about building relationships over time, not trying to meet as many people as possible in a short time frame.  

TIPS: Inventory your network and prioritize the people with whom you don’t want to lose touch. Create a goal of reaching out to those people on a regular basis. Stick to it!  Think strategically. Who would be a good person to get to know in your industry? Make a list of people you would like to get to know and reach out to them. Try twice and then move on if they don’t seem receptive. If you only try once, you may lose out because they were not able to respond at that time. Don’t assume it’s personal!  Remember that others may be going through a hard time when you choose to reach out. 

In summary

As you can see, my perspective on networking during COVID is similar to my views on the effects of COVID on career management and job search. While circumstances might change the mechanics of networking, the key strategies of preparation, research and follow up remain essential. The wise saying to “Dig your well before you’re thirsty” is still the golden standard when it comes to managing your career. And by the way, that sage phrase is also the title of a great book on networking by Harvey Mackay.