Social Distanced Networking
With social distancing being the standard, making a new connection at a meetup event or running into someone interesting at an airport is somewhat a thing of the past. That random new friend you would have met in January at WeWork is now at home, in front of their computer in wall to wall Zoom meetings. While we can’t meet new people at dinner parties or conferences, we don’t need to give up on the idea of networking. We can meet new people with a bit more thoughtfulness and strategic effort. Throughout the pandemic, I have deliberately made an effort to rekindle relationships and form new friendships from the comfort of my home while wearing my favorite sweatpants. I’m a great networker, and I’ve learned a lot of new things about networking on lockdown, without conferences, coworking spaces, and airports, and while maintaining a social distance.
The Purpose of Networking
The purpose of networking–whether virtually or in-person–is to understand that networking is not sales. You are not selling anything, and you should not be blatantly asking for work or a job (you can be more covert than that!). If your singular focus comes from a place of WIFM (what’s in it for me), the other person will notice and likely not want to connect. The overall goal of networking is to increase your network–the people that you know and interact with and can give referrals and support to. However, networking works best when you have a targeted approach. Don’t go into networking with the idea that you’re going to network for a while to get ahead and then stop. You should always be building, engaging with, and caring for your network.
Your Networking Strategy
A significant part of your networking strategy is thinking about the things you can offer people in your network. Ask yourself some questions:
- Why would others want to connect with me?
- What do I have to offer?
- How can I help others?
- Who do I have access to that I can connect people with?
- What strengths do I bring to networking?
- What specialized knowledge do I offer?
Don’t network only during the times you need something. If you are the type to reach out only when you need help (perhaps you have been laid off due to COVID and are looking for work), you will develop a reputation as a taker. If you lost your job due to budget cuts, you should absolutely (and immediately) reach out to your network for help. Now is the time to shake the trees and see what is out there. But don’t stop networking when you land your dream job or have found the answer to your questions. You can shift your strategy and limit your networking efforts to one hour a month, but don’t shut the process down completely. You will feel better and be positioned for support in any rocky times ahead if you continue to develop and invest in your network.
Decide how much networking you would like to do. Set a goal of how many hours a week you want to dedicate to it. One mistake I made early on was that I wasn’t clear the actual time I wanted to dedicate a week to networking. I was doing too much right out of the gate. I was getting Zoom fatigue from meeting new people about seven hours a week, and I was burning out. I have about seven hours of calls a day for my non-networking work. Since I wasn’t clear what I wanted to accomplish, I got lost in the activity versus having a strategy for productivity.
I’m an extrovert and thrive on making connections. But, networking is for introverts, too. Virtual networking is ideal for introverts. You can figure out what feels right, how many people you want to talk with at a time, what you have the energy for, and not face a bunch of random people at a meetup. You can be deliberate about who you meet and how long you speak with them.
Be clear who you want to meet and why. Don’t just talk to everyone, and don’t just talk to the people you already know and like. I usually am looking for new business opportunities. But it’s easy to connect with the wrong people. I often find myself saying yes to people outside the scope of who I want to meet. Don’t say yes to everyone. With networking, you have this constant tension. You want to get something out of the exercise and bring value to others. It is hard to hold both purposes at the same time. It takes some practice. Error on the side of generosity and give more than you recieve.
Building Your Network From Home
Once you have that all figured out, it’s time to start networking. Here are some tips on building and interacting with your network from home.
Connect with People You Already Know (or Know of)
Your contacts and LinkedIn are two great sources of connection. Start with people you know and reach further as you go. I sometimes reach out to second connections on LinkedIn and send a private message. I might add something like, “I see you know my friend [insert person’s name], thanks for adding me back on LinkedIn. In times like these, when we don’t necessarily have the opportunity to meet organically, it is nice to meet here.” Generally speaking, people respond and might set up a call. Also, reach out to people you have lost touch with. It is nice to say hi and check-in on them. Check out your old contacts’ new jobs. They may have taken on more responsibilities, and you may have more to share now. It is worth a shot. I have only had good luck reaching back out to people who I used to know. People seem genuinely happy to hear from a friendly face from back in the day.
Rethink Where You Network
Before the pandemic, I lived in Los Angeles. I have relocated to Portland for the summer and have spent most of my time in the Pacific Northwest. Before that, I lived in San Francisco. I went to grad school in Chicago. And I grew up in Philadelphia. You no longer have to go to all those places to connect with the people you know there. Networking on Zoom is the new normal. Many companies are extending work from home policy indefinitely. There have been massive shifts in my personal and professional network of people leaving their homes in a major city and moving to more affordable and desirable locations. Set up some time with your friends all over for networking purposes. I repurposed one of my graduate school weekly Zoom cocktail gatherings and gave everyone a plus one. We brought together therapists and coaches from Canada, Florida, South Carolina, and Austin. It was fun to connect with people in so many geographical locations and share ideas, clients, and referrals.
Ask Friends to Introduce You to People
I have been deliberately asking people in my network to introduce me to targeted people in their sphere of influence. And I offer to add them to the people in my network that they would benefit from meeting. An accessible introduction might be something like, “The thought crossed my mind today to introduce my two favorite people. Both of you are amazing partners to [insert company], and I appreciate you so much for your patience and support during these strange times. We all need to extend each others’ networks where we can organically.” This ask of others might be tough for you if you hate asking favors for people. People in your life want to help you as much as you want to help them. The more specific you are, the easier it will be.
Use a Service Like Shapr, Bumble Bizz, or LunchClub
I have been trying out networking apps for a while now. My review of Shapr and Bumble Bizz is similar to the dating apps out there–I have mixed feelings. This way of networking has an added swipe-right feature. It attempts to connect people who work in the same industry and might share interests and objectives. The main problem with this is that you can only connect with people the app has matched you with directly. They have algorithms to look for common ground between accounts. That is fine if you are solely looking for collaborative projects. But, it’s sometimes hard to meet prospects and new clients. These apps don’t seem to understand that opposites attract. I have also been using LunchClub, and I generally like it. The site finds out who you are and what you care about and what your networking objectives are. It is useful for you if it only helps you clarify these things for yourself. It then handpicks and matches you with people who are in your similar industry. I’ve had pretty good conversations. Check it out.
Join a Facebook or Slack Group
I don’t know how I feel about Facebook these days. However, Facebook groups are not a new concept, and they’re pretty great for networking. There are many industry-based Facebook groups you can join to connect you to people you don’t know. Join a group, join their call, and see what happens. Although Slack might not seem like an obvious option, it is an excellent networking tool. Find out if there any Slack channels that you should use from your network. For instance, I’m part of a Progressive People Operations channel in Los Angeles with 25 or 30 folks in HR that I regularly chat with.
You Can Do It!
The main thing, no matter how you connect, is to lead with kindness, sincerity, and authenticity. I might say, ‘I’m reaching out hoping that you’re happy and healthy, and sending good vibes your way.” I might also say, “How are you? How are you really?” and share something about my status during the crisis. The real takeaway here is if you want to be successful at networking, you have to do it. You have to start somewhere. Remember that networking and relationships are not one-way streets. Be generous. Give more than you receive. Help more than you ask for help. It takes time, effort, and focus to accomplish your networking goals. Set a plan, carry out the plan, and revise as needed. You can do it!