The pandemic has been earth-shatteringly disruptive in uncountable ways, and one casualty in the business world has been in-person networking.
Many of us didn’t really enjoy networking before working from home became the norm. Now, handshakes are unsafe, and conference centers around the nation are barren. With no end in sight for this new reality, you might be rethinking your previous attitude toward organized happy hours and meet-ups. Engaging with other humans—even in an awkward networking setting—now sounds extremely appealing.
Fortunately, business is still being done, and connections are still being forged. LinkedIn hasn’t been shut down. Networking is still going on, although it mostly exists in the cybersphere for the foreseeable future.
“Travel is so 2019,” proclaimed Aakash Patel, president of consulting firm Elevate, in the Tampa Bay Business Journal. “Before COVID-19, conferences were a great way to learn the latest best practices while expanding your businesses network. Meetings across the country solidified relationships and helped to close deals. But business travel no longer means flying to another city. Now it means walking from the living room to the home office and flipping open a laptop for a Zoom meeting.”
Beyond satisfying a hunger for human interaction, though, networking also provides an essential means for growing your small business or leveling up your career. Even if you’re meeting new partners, clients, or customers online, you still need to engage with them so you can continue your operation.
Adjusting to the new networking normal is difficult for many, however—so don’t feel bad if you feel COVID-19 has stalled your career or business. The professional network platform Blind conducted a survey in September and found that 53% of surveyed workers believe their career progression has been negatively impacted since working from home began.
But with an understanding of this new business landscape and a positive outlook, online networking might be even more fruitful than pre-pandemic networking—although without the open bars.
“The pandemic has leveled the playing field in some ways, people aren’t bound by location, personal obligations or financial circumstance that has prevented them from being able to attend conferences or join after-work events,” Blind’s researchers said in their findings.
To make online connections feel more solid than just an email correspondence, you should think about what you can offer others. This might mean connecting with a friend who could help mentor or refer another person in your network.
“You might connect 2 friends with a shared interest or scan your company’s job openings for positions you can recommend to people you know might be a good fit,” the New York Times suggests.
If someone provides you with advice or books to read, circle back with how the advice worked out or what you learned from the reading. These simple additions show you care about their input and can be much more impactful than a simple “thank you” email.
The ideal approach: open ongoing channels of conversation with your network instead of limiting your interactions with terse notes or completely transactional relationships. Don’t be afraid to reach out to others, but don’t ask questions that you can easily Google. And just like with in-person networking, it’s better to engage someone you don’t know with topics of conversation, such as a question about a blog post, instead of a request.
Videoconferencing has become a newly popular avenue for online networking during the pandemic, and compared to email or social media, it probably comes closest to what networking events used to feel like. Because of this, you should spend some time and effort preparing for virtual meetings.
“Remember that you are on show,” consultant Chris Perfect told the Greater Houston Partnership. “Take online networking as seriously as you would in-person. Be mindful of your camera angle, background, and the quality of your picture. Also be ready to share something about yourself, otherwise you’re unlikely to make a connection. Use moments of inactivity to connect via LinkedIn and then follow up!”
As with networking before 2020, always consider how your network could expand. People you meet in settings unrelated to business might actually be very helpful. Maybe your next client is in a Facebook Group related to one of your hobbies. Maybe a friend-of-a-friend in a Zoom birthday party is your next sale.
“In the new workplace reality, individual professionals almost have to take a detective-like approach, investigating and vetting opportunities,” strategy consultant Dorie Clark believes. “That may not be hard in smaller companies, but in large global enterprises, information becomes key.”
Most important of all, try to cultivate an attitude of openness—don’t put off networking just because you’re stuck at home. Even by starting small, a little bit of time spent networking online can pay off exponentially.